Director’s Blog 9/04/19

Director’s Blog September 4, 2019

By Ian Billick, PhD

Our community has changed over 20 years, in number and in kind.

Since 2001 the number of scientists with approved research plans has grown from approximately 45 to 105.  Stays seem shorter, with more scientists living offsite.  Back then the scientific community was focused on ecology and the primary funding agency was the National Science Foundation.  Now we have geneticists with funding from the National Institutes of Health and biogeochemists funded through the Department of Energy.

The variety and importance of different stakeholder groups is growing.  Non-scientists have a large role in governance (key leadership positions), funding (the Marmot Club), and programs (20,000 people passing annually through the Visitor’s Center).  The Youth Science Programs has grown almost tenfold, from 190 to 1700 contact days, with some long-term community members beginning as youth scientists.  We have a core group of dedicated, experienced, and permanent staff that greatly expand the services that billy, a clerical support person, and myself, provided in 2001.

A diversifying community pose challenges.  Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine: How Creativity Works (yanked from the shelves for fabricated Bob Dylan quotes) describes<> a study of Broadway musical box office proceeds.  Adding some diversity to the creative team increased financial returns.  Adding too much caused the musical to tank.

I wonder if the Organization of Tropical Studies (OTS) highlights the danger of not harnessing the power of diverse stakeholders.  Last year they ran a deficit larger than RMBL’s operating budget. Depending upon revenue from public programs, tour buses show up early in the morning for birding tours, changing what it feels like to be a scientist there.  In 2010 OTS and RMBL each had about 12-13,000 research days.  Now RMBL has about 15,000 and OTS has about 3,000.  The triggering financial blow was the loss of Duke as a school of record because of liability concerns stemming from a student death.  But the undergraduate program was already in decline as they struggled with increased competition.  The need to diversify philanthropy and governance lost ground over arguments over who OTS should serve and voting right struggles.

Given how dynamic RMBL has been in recent years, OTS reminds us that there is nothing guaranteed about our future.  Moving forward we must be guided by our mission and responsibility to society, rather than in terms of our own personal journey.  We must embrace new partners rather than define them as “others” that “threaten” the institution.  We must actively engage diverse stakeholders and avoid narrow battles over control.  Harnessing the power of diversity is neither easy nor comfortable.  But it will enable RMBL to thrive.