Director’s Blog 1/29/20

Directors Blog January 29, 2020

By Ian Billick, PhD

I have a scientist (not a scientific)  mystery.  Why did scientific activity at RMBL take off in 2014?  After decades of stability, use started climbing rapidly.  From 2013 through 2019 the number of scientists doubled, while the number of research projects and scientists (including postdocs and grad students) has increased 50%.  As a data hog, I find the graph below quite striking.

Approximately half of the increase in the numbers of scientists is associated with the Watershed Function Science Focus Area set up by Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.  Those scientists tend to have very short stays, so they probably account for about one-third of the increase in research days.

A major element of RMBL’s strategic plan is to facilitate unique scientific insights by making RMBL a data rich environment.  We do this by attracting and retaining scientists, increasing the accumulation of knowledge concerning the local ecosystems, and promoting synthesis and collaboration.

A big part of attracting and retaining scientists is doing a good job of meeting their logistical needs.  It could be that part of the jump that started in 2014 was in response to RMBL investments.  2012 was a big year for RMBL scientists.  We opened the Gothic Research Center and Dr. Jennie Reithel started working full-time as RMBL’s first Science Director.  Maybe new scientists were more excited about the potential of working at RMBL, and also/or found it easier to get started?

Another driver of the increase may be that as the urgency around climate change grows, RMBL offers novel research opportunities.  Not only do we have one of the largest collections of long-term studies, but we have an elevational gradient that allows scientists to substitute space for time.  Or maybe we are attracting climate refugees– scientists who want to do great science in a relatively cool (and beautiful) summer environment?

The jump in scientific activity is exciting.  We are a nonprofit formed to support science and education after all.  But it comes with challenges.  We have increased our housing, lab space, and staff capacity to serve more scientists, but not always at a rate to keep up with the pressures.  And while diversity can make organizations stronger, it takes work to harness the power of that diversity.  The community feels different because it is different.  We have more earth scientists running around, staying offsite, and living in Gothic for shorter stays.  The diversity can be unsettling, disrupting historic patterns of communication and decision-making.

RMBL has been doing our best to keep up with these changes, increasing housing capacity, squeezing out more lab space, prioritizing communication and engagement with the community including more board engagement with individual scientists, and even starting these blog posts.  But it is a lot to keep up with.  We appreciate people’s patience because we don’t always get it right.

The importance of what we are doing makes up for the heartburn.  From emerging disease, to food security, to climate change, to maintaining biodiversity, society has never needed more from field scientists.  The past is what got us to this point.  To be serious about these challenges means getting out of our comfort zone to be more than we have been.  We have to hold ourselves accountable, striving to accelerate discovery and translating those discoveries to improving the world.  So we will keep pushing forward to make RMBL a great place for science, with increasing emphasis on data management science communication, community engagement, and facilitating collaboration.  While we won’t be the solution, we can be part of it.

Thanks to Dr. Ian Breckheimer for suggesting the topic.  As always, I encourage suggestions for blog posts.  And don’t hesitate to contact me directly with questions or suggestions.  If you have time next summer, let me treat you to a coffee so I can learn what brought you to Gothic, and/or why you returned!