Director’s Blog 7/05/19

Director’s Blog July 5, 2019
By Ian Billick, PhD

RMBL aims to transform field science. What does that mean and how will we track success? Ideas from the Ecology of Place (EoP), developed with Mary Price and Nick Waser, are central. But the failure of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), the most recent “big idea” in field science, is useful context.

When confronted by environmental complexity, NSF ignored it. NSF’sapproach, largely developed in the absence of scientists, emphasizes a continent of standardized measurements. NSF decided to get more money,
ecologists “needed to need” shiny objects.

Bad ideas can be very expensive when the government is involved. NEON has spent $600+ million (and $60+ million more each year). The cost overruns and management screw-ups might seem separate from NEON’s low scientific productivity. But a lack of scientific value combined with growing incompetence has created a vicious cycle driving away good people. Thanks to Chris Still for pointing out Will Neon Kill Ecology

RMBL’s vision is rooted in the power of place. Because it is impossible to measure everything everywhere, we need efficient ways to frame environmental challenges. The intense study of the local valleys can serve as a cost effective starting point for understanding all ecosystems. This idea of a “model ecosystem” (see the EoP chapter by Paul Aigner and Cathy Koehler) builds on the successes biologists have had using fruit flies, mustard plants, and yeast. If you want to know more (shameless plug) check out my recent book Explore/Discover in the Visitor’s Center.

RMBL will be a fox to NEON’s hedgehog (see Isiah Berlin <> ‘s essay). Rather than have one idea that we bribe everybody to follow, we will support scientists’ creative needs, combining strong logistical support (e.g., housing, internet, permitting) with a growing body of knowledge. Building on our unique long-term research and elevational gradients, we will create collaborative opportunities, improve access to natural history knowledge, and archive valuable datasets to enable unique, fundamental scientific discoveries.

Doesn’t NEON make a potential $20+ million RMBL campaign a screaming deal? But how will we know that investments in RMBL as a model ecosystem are driving discovery? RMBL scientists and board members Aimee Classen and Dan Blumstein are thinking about this. Healthy increases in scientific use and productivity could just reflect strong support. Maybe a network analysis of how authorship is changing across time benchmarked against similar institutions? Let us know your thoughts!

As always, please send me your questions, thoughts, and suggested reading material!