Director’s Letter July 2020

Cross-Generational Research

Five million wildflowers and counting!  The National Science Foundation will invest almost $750,000 to support the RMBL phenology project another 5 years.  In 1973, Dr. David Inouye (emeritus at the Univ. of Maryland) started tracking when plants flower.  His daughter-in-law Dr. Nora Underwood (Florida State University) now heads the project and is joined by Dr. Rebecca Irwin (North Carolina State Univ.) who has tracked native bees for 12 years as part of the study.  Dr. Aimée Classen (Univ. of Michigan) is adding plant roots, and Dr. Brian Inouye (David’s son, Nora’s husband, Florida State Univ.) is also a member of the team.

RMBL prides itself on hosting the world’s largest collection of long-term field studies.  Many important ecological and evolutionary processes are only revealed across decades and centuries.  Research that extends beyond a quarter century is unusual, so it is especially rare to approach the half century mark.  Those time scales requires multiple generations of scientists, which is rare.  To manage things that matter, like food security and human health, cross-generational studies need to become more common.

Following successful transitions in marmot research (from Dr. Ken Armitage, Univ. of Kansas, to Dr. Dan Blumstein, UCLA) and the phenology project, we are seeing a cross-generational transfer in the ground squirrel project, profiled in the adjoining article.  Dr. Dirk van Vuren (UC-Davis) did his PhD on marmots.  It wasn’t until many years later that Ken was ready to pass on the marmot project, so in 1989 Dirk began the ground squirrel project.  Dirk is interested in how a changing environment, particularly snowmelt, affects when squirrels mate and the food they have for pups.  Understanding ground squirrels can help us think more broadly about all mammals.

RMBL plays a critical role in supporting long-term research.  Long-term for the National Science Foundation means 5-10 years.  RMBL can support research longer, buffering the inevitable ups and downs of federal support.  The $750,000 award to the phenology project is big money.  But David labored away decades without any federal support.

RMBL can also encourage cross-generational transfers by supporting younger scientists, who are at a competitive disadvantage in applying for NSF grants.  And long-term scientists must balance the family needs, which change across a lifetime.  RMBL is family friendly; we recognize childcare can be just as important as research supplies.

You, RMBL’s funders and investors, make a difference.  Donations to RMBL, and endowments dedicated to research, fund fellowships for scientists, as well as the staff that support these projects.  A $5,000 fellowship can keep a project going, leading to decades of research potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars of support later.  It also demonstrates that society honors the commitment, vision, and passion of the incoming generation of scientists.  Whether it is volunteering, making a donation, or being a RMBL cheerleader, you play a vital part in generating the knowledge that will empower our grandchildren to manage the world for human health, and steward the world’s wonderful diversity and beauty.

Ian Billick - Director RMBL

Ian Billick | PhD
Executive Director, RMBL