2020 by the numbers

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Read previous years’ By the Numbers: 2019, 201820172016201520142013

Top posts by views

Amusing bird names explained: Fluffy-backed Tit-babbler (2016)
Personal academic websites for faculty & grad students: the why, what, and how (2013)
Free project ideas in ecology & conservation (2020)
What’s in an affiliation? (2016)
Overseas field courses and equity, diversity & inclusion (2020)
How did we learn that birds migrate (and not to the moon)? A stab in the dark (2013)
The advantages of Google Scholar for early-career academics (2013)
Some thoughts on The University (2020)
On finding an error in my own published paper (2016)
Listing grants on one’s CV (2017)

I’m consistently surprised that 2013 opinions on how to build a website has been in the top 10 nearly (if not every) year.

 

18,250(ish)

The number of visitors. About the same as last year. I know that L&F has never been driven by traffic, but it feels increasingly like shouting into the void.

 

158

The number of countries those visitors came from (or at least their IP addresses mapped to). Shout out to the one person who visited from Togo, Mozambique, Guernsey, Turks & Caicos Islands, Barbados, Macau SAR China, Antigua & Barbuda, Cayman Islands, Solomon Islands, Maldives, Seychelles, Liechtenstein, Nicaragua, Bahamas, Gambia, Isle of Man, Liberia, St. Martin, Cameroon, Swaziland, Brunei, Bolivia, Rwanda, Jersey, Monaco, Kyrgyzstan, Eritrea, and St. Lucia!

 

0

The number of field trips this year. Thank you, pandemic.

 

Many

Papers coauthored this year. Most not as a result of my massive efforts but the perseverance of others. With the pandemic and museum shutdown, I think I did about 1 day of research between April and October. I definitely dropped the ball on a few as well.

 

505

The number of kms I ran this year. Given that I only started running a year ago, and had a major break in the summer, I’m pretty pleased. Highlights were a 4:47/km pace in April, and a half-marathon in November.

 

7246

The number of emails sent this year. Not counting Teams, Slack, WhatsApp, Signal, Messenger, Instagram DM, Twitter messages, and letters.

 

1

The number of people who found L&F by searching “what came first booby the bird or breasts”

 

1

Mental breakdowns this year. End of July. It was not fun. I’m on the way back up, though.

 

and lastly,

8

The number of years L&F has been around. From the heady days of 2013 science blogging to the metaphorical desert in which we now find things. There’s less of an appetite for longer science blogging by random people, and L&F has really shifted from a blog about science to a blog about HOW science happens, which is even more niche. Not that it’s all about the clicks, but with so little engagement it’s hard to see the relevance anymore. The Lab and Field will stay up, but don’t expect any more posts, or at least not with any regularity. Subscribe to the RSS feed (if that’s even still a thing), or get updates by email if you’re super keen. Thanks for joining me on the rollercoaster of the last 8 years.

-Alex

Science, people, and surviving in the time of a global pandemic

Well, it’s certainly been a year. Looking back at the last 12 months, it seems unfathomable that anything close to normality could persist, and yet despite lockdowns, a global pandemic, massive curtailing of international travel, and a massive shift in how we work, we try to carry on. Which may not have been the best solution, to be honest. It’s a bit of square peg/round hole. And that is likely to be the source of many of the challenges.

In the early days of lockdown in the UK in March, the message was “be patient, be kind”. But as the months went on, the restless wheels of capitalism started straining and the messaging quickly returned to “Business as Usual”. Even through the summer, there was an expectation from some quarters of pre-pandemic levels of engagement and not a lot of flexibility. Rather than pressing pause on things to let folks get to grips with the global paradigm shift (in the true Kuhnian sense) of how we work as scientists, the emphasis became “get back to normal” when everything about it was far from normal.

For me, had three primary effects. First, I had a mental breakdown in July. Like, properly. Thankfully I have a supportive husband who recognized the signs, and a responsive GP who was able to start me on a treatment regimen. I’ve also benefited from cognitive behavioural therapy. Five months in, and though I wouldn’t say “I’m better”, I certainly feel a bit more resilient. I recently asked on twitter (https://twitter.com/TheLabAndField/status/1333142805640859648)  when the last time was when folks felt “well”, and more than 7/10 responded that it had been sometime before 2020 (with ¼ before 2015). We often talk about cumulative pressures on ecosystems and how one additional threat (be it climate change, an invasive species, or pollution for example) can push species over the edge. Many of us know how they feel, and the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed just how precariously some of us were hanging on.

Add on top of this the summer where “Black Lives Matter” gained more prominence (rightly so), and a year where transphobia reared its ugly head with abandon in the UK (and organizations’ responses to these), and it’s been a particularly tough time for many. We’re all very tired.

Second, science took a MAJOR hiatus. Between May and September, I think I managed about 1 or 2 days of research, which was dedicated to supporting students or collaborators. I’ve had a manuscript come back in January 2020 with “major revisions” that I haven’t even found time to dig into. And that should be OK. But what I think will be particularly challenging is how this year will be evaluated (which is a broader problem in science). Thanks to a network of collaborators and students, and a large backlog of work that happened in December 2019, I’ll probably come out of the year in not too bad a shape in terms of publications. But I’m very lucky. What about the early career postdoc, or the PhD student, or the researcher with caring responsibilities? Just like our desire to “be patient, be kind” fizzled out over the summer, the legacy of remembering that anyone for whom 2020 (and likely 2021) will be used to evaluate for a job, a scholarship, a grant, or a promotion will, I fear, be a fading memory, especially by those who were able to buffer the year more than others.

Which brings me to the third point: compassion for people should be (but isn’t always) paramount. I’ve always sad that good science happens because of good people, but lately I’ve found that it (and many other thing) happens in spite of those for whom compassion and understanding is not in the fore of their mind. Increasingly, process and finance dominate. As an example, I was discussing with a colleague about a potential future event which involved groups of people indoors, which they were adamant happen “before the end of the fiscal year” in March. I was utterly flabbergasted, but equally not surprised in the least. In a year when so many of us have felt so besieged, so beaten down, so mentally drained, and unable to embrace, compassion and inclusion should be driving our conversations. I’ve tried my best to filter out and counter some of these pressures for the folks I work with, and I know my manager has done the same. But this isn’t universal, or I hazard to guess even all that common. And the pandemic of 2020 has pulled back the curtain on the utter absurdity of these artificial constraints, but not for all (and most importantly, seemingly not for those in power).

Overall, 2020 has revealed just how unprepared we were for any disruption to our status quo, as individuals and organizations. What we need isn’t more wellbeing seminars or working groups, but to catch up with the paradigm shift and the new state in which we all find ourselves. One where people come first, processes are in place to serve us (not the other way around), and where we can hopefully thrive again in our infinite wonder.

Queer in STEM ask me anything – another LGBTQ&A

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About 2 years ago, I opened up my inbox for you to ask quite literally anything about being LGBTQ+ in science. Since then, some things have changed in the world, and I’ve had a chance to engage with lots of new folks around equity, diversity, inclusion & access both in science, in the museum, and more broadly.

Pride Month this past June was also exhausting, and I know from speaking with a few people that some of these issues were new to them. That’s fine – we make our own journeys when trying to make our fields, professions and workplaces better. And I know it can be intimidating if this is a new area for you, and you don’t want to “mess up” or get things mixed up.

So what better time than to open up the ol’ inbox again.

So if you’ve got a question about being LGBTQ+ (in STEM or more broadly), you can ask it anonymously using this Google form. I’ll leave it up for the next week, and then compile the answers.

Don’t be shy – I have, almost literally, been asked everything under the sun in the 15 years that I’ve been doing LGBTQ+ education & diversity training in some form. If you want, you can also read a bit about my own journey here.

And now, over to you.

Overseas field courses and equity, diversity & inclusion.

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For many fields in science, field work and field courses can be an important (some would argue necessary) component. Geology, geography, ecology, conservation, anthropology, archaeology, taxonomy, and more involve, to some extent, the study of parts of the natural world. And it’s an attraction to some part of the natural world, be it a species, a place, a feature, or an experience, that draws many of us into these fields. Speaking personally, you may be surprised to find that birds weren’t my first love, but rather coasts and islands. The birds just happened to be there.

Many universities’ taught programmes include field components, most of them local day trips, or occasionally an overnight. Some, though, include multi-day overseas field courses which are marketed as giving students a broader international perspective on <discipline name>. But they can be deeply problematic.

There are still about 70 countries where being gay, in particular, is illegal. Many of these inherited such laws from (British) colonial occupation, and there are varying degrees of enforcement (both for local residents and foreigners). But the fact remains that the law is still on the books. Holding field courses in such countries puts students and staff at risk unnecessarily.

I was interviewing for a faculty job at a UK university that will remain unnamed (at least for now) in 2016. During the campus interview panel, the expected teaching requirements were laid out, and it included a field course in Ghana, where being gay is illegal. This wasn’t mentioned in the advert. I knew right there that I wouldn’t take the job because it would mean I would either have to fight (again) with folks I didn’t know and therefore had an unknown chance of losing, or turn down the job if I was offered it. My heart sank. It was all I could think about for the rest of the interview and campus tour. I returned to my hotel by the train station at the end of the day and wept. That university has, for the last several years, changed their social media avatars each June to be wonderfully rainbowed. What a pile of meaningless corporate performative allyship.

 

This was part of a thread from Prof Christopher Jackson following his announcement that Imperial College London would no longer have a geology field course in Oman. If you want an example of the kind of feedback those fighting for equity, diversity, access, and inclusion in science face, scroll through the replies.

I have often been asked about such field courses, and what folks (from students to instructors to departments) can do to make them better, so rather than write everything out for the umpteenth time, I thought I would put them all in one place.

The first thing to know is that it’s not about being arrested for having sex. It can be anything that, in one’s own home country, would rarely be seen as “same-sex” anything. For example, a British tourist arrested in Dubai after touching another man’s hip as he moved through a bar in 2017. Or a British tourist arrested in Morocco after authorities searched his phone and found images used to prosecute him. Or where even waving a rainbow flag in Egypt resulted in Sarah Hegazi’s arrest, torture, exile, and eventual suicide.

It’s simply not safe for queer folks.

The first question you need to ask if your institution runs an overseas field course, is whether it’s in a place that’s safe for your queer students & staff. The Wikipedia page is very up to date, and the annual map from the ILGA is also a useful (and multilingual) resource. Move. Your. Field. Course. Location.

But if that isn’t enough to convince you, let’s look from an institutional perspective. Field courses are run with varying degrees of oversight (and if we’re honest, many are pretty low on that oversight spectrum). Besides generic “consult travel advice from the Foreign Office” platitudes, does it say anything about the additional threat to queer students and staff? If you run a field course, ask yourself how you could get a student out in less than 24 hours. Do you know who to call? Who will pay for the flight? Who will meet them when they get home? What support they need? What support YOU need? What’s covered by your insurance? Universities are not known for being the most compassionate corporations organizations, so don’t assume you can pop it on your MasterCard and expect thousands of pounds to be reimbursed.

If you can’t answer these questions before you depart, Move. Your. Field. Course. Location.

A “solution” I’ve seen suggested is that folks just “tone it down” while away. To be clear, anyone suggesting that needs a swift thwack up the side of the head. To suggest queer folks return to the closet for the sake of a field course is harmful, insulting, and immediately suggests you don’t have the student’s (or staff’s) best interests in mind. Move. Your. Field. Course. Location.

And lastly, just because you may not perceive a threat doesn’t mean it’s safe for everyone. Will your trans students be arrested for using the bathroom that matches their gender? Will your gay students be taken aside because their binoculars have a rainbow pin? The number of cases of this, which is ENTIRELY AVOIDABLE is >1, which is more than should exist. Move. Your. Field. Course. Location.

There are other justifications for moving field course locations, too. Their a financial burden (another barrier to under-represented groups in science). One UK university has a Masters course (£9000 tuition) that has an Antarctic field course (another £9000). That’s not equal opportunity. There’s the environmental/carbon cost of flying a pile of students & instructors around the world for marginal, if any, benefit. And at least in the UK, the colonial look of it all (let’s all go to <country> to study <megafauna> because it’s so wild!); getting a bunch of students to meaningfully engage with the colonial history of science in such a short time is difficult, if not impossible, and certainly not prioritized in the curricula of such courses.

And lest there be any doubt, many of the arguments above apply to universities’ overseas campuses, which is a whole other kettle of fish, and an argument for another day.

 

tl;dr – overseas field courses reward & amplify privilege, are unsafe for queer students & staff, and have marginal, if any, justification compared to field courses run closer to home. MOVE. YOUR. FIELD. COURSE. LOCATION.

What a long year the last month has been

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I know I’m not alone in feeling like there’s far too much wibbily-wobbly timey-wimey lately. We just passed 100 days of working from home because of Covid-19, the bubbling undercurrent of anti-Black racism and police brutality has (finally?) has broader recognition (though not without tragedy), and Pride Month has largely been replaced by Wrath Month (traditionally celebrated in July, but brought forward by unanimous consent after a Big Queer Meeting in which it was the first item on our agenda). For lots of folks, it’s like the hits just keep coming, as so wonderfully illustrated by this calendar my friend Izzy Jayasinghe put together for a talk:

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And even since Izzy’s calendar, we’ve had the release of a report from the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Diversity in STEM highlighting yet more disparity, and UKRI, the main research funding mechanism in the UK, releasing data on applicant diversity showing just how, well, awful it is.

Throw in some internal institutional battles and frustrations, profound disagreements with the UK government’s Covid-19 response, and our first heat-wave of the year, and it’s been tough. It seems like every week for the last 2 months I’ve felt utterly drained, and each week I seem to find more scope for further draining with even less respite. And no sign of respite in the immediate future (in the UK we still shouldn’t be travelling great distances for overnight stays, hotels etc are still closed, and work demands mean a week of leave isn’t really an option). Pride Month is also often quite tiring, as requests for guest blogs, seminars, and media ramp up in a way that suggests many of us don’t exist the other 11 months of the year.

As a friend and I discussed, it’s soul-level tired, to-the-core-of-my-being tired. All  I want to do is cocoon myself in a crofter’s hut in the Highlands for a week with good books, tea, and food and a couple of good friends that I haven’t seen in months. But that will have to wait.

I started to write this post early this morning, and promptly abandoned it until I read Ben Britton’s piece that touched on so many of the same thoughts and added some much needed fuel. In particular the utter frustration so many of us have when trying to address systemic inequities in science resonated quite deeply:

If you present at the hospital with a severed arm, your Doctor does not immediately start drafting legislation about the safe use of chainsaws, or even how best to trim a hedge. They fix you up, address your needs, and move on from there.

 

It’s an analogy I’ve used when talking about how we can address plastic pollution, another global systemic issue – it presenting at A&E with a bleeding head wound, one doesn’t start by thinking about how to clean up the floor.

And doing this – “causing trouble” as Ben puts it – is necessary. Progress will always be slower than we want, and I genuinely don’t know if “true” equity will exist in my career, or my lifetime (I suspect not seeing as we’ve made it this far and, well…). I’m a cis white man, and if *I* find it this exhausting, think about how my trans BIPOC friends & colleagues must be feeling (hint: it’s probably more tired, and for longer). But we keep pushing because it’s the one thing we must do.

That pushing, though, takes effort. You can’t expect Sisyphus to run a marathon between each ascent of the mountain up which he pushes his boulder. When research/academia already feels like a Sisyphean task, fighting to make it a more inclusive, equitable, diverse and accessible part of society can feel like running the marathon. And then another, and then another. This is where other folks can help.

I have a fraught relationship with the term “ally”, especially when self-applied. It’s a transitive state that’s defined by one’s actions, not one’s desire to be so labelled. Allegiances can change, diverge, or be revealed to be something else. Ben Britton (can you tell I’m a fan?) has adopted the term “co-conspirator” or “accomplice” because this means the person has some skin in the game (i.e., if you get cornered & need to fight out, they’re also there), and it’s rooted in action, the doing of things rather than just cheerleading from the sidelines that leads to so many empty statements (hello organizations with rainbow social media avatars in June), promises of further study and working groups and committees that will have no genuine power, influence, or resources to achieve anything.

We don’t need allies. We need accomplices.

In The Guardian this morning is coverage of a EU Fundamental Rights Agency report on LGBTQ+ experiences across Europe. It paints a pretty bleak picture. It contains many sobering statistics, but the one I find most straight folks find the most confronting is whether someone would avoid holding hands with a same-sex partner in public for fear of being assaulted, threatened or harassed. Looking at at my own demographic (gay/queer man in the UK) tends to bring this home. 37% say “always”.

And when we toss in those who answered “always” or “often”, it’s 70%.

70%.

Including me.

It’s not about abstractions, or fighting for the sake of fighting or equality “league tables”, or causing “trouble”, but real tangible impacts on people’s lives that many just can’t even fathom.

And that’s in science, in academia, in research, and in our broader society. It’s not easy, it’s bloody exhausting, but when it matters this much, we have no choice but to keep fighting. I often say that “science is people” – and people will always come before “science” in my books. That’s part of the unseen and/or unrecognized community mentorship and support that many marginalized groups do, and will continue to do.

I can’t say it’s been a “happy Pride Month” (not that last year’s was much better). But (he said, wanting to end on a marginally positive note), the fight goes on.

The gap in queer activism and the stories untold

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It’s coming up to Pride Month in June, and this summer also marks 15 years of marriage equality in Canada, so I find myself in a particularly pensive and reflective mood. This is especially true with the lockdown in the UK at the moment which affords my brain ample time to run amok. This is also not much of a sciencey post.

Last weekend was the 30th International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT), and in some reflections on Twitter, Shaun O’Boyle flagged this 45-minute documentary he co-produced on the 2 years since the equal marriage referendum in Ireland for Newstalk Radio (and it’s now been five years today, as it happens). In it, they interview folks that they spoke to during the campaign in 2015, and see how the experience had affected them. It’s brilliant and you should go listen to it.

And I found myself thinking about my experience in Canada. The situation was different; we had several years of provincial governments passing legislation until the 2004 Supreme Court Reference Re Same Sex Marriage (wiki page here) and then things slowly swept across the country, either through legislation or provincial court cases (marriage is a provincial rather than a federal matter). But in the intervening 15 years, there’s been, well, not a lot of public reflection like Shaun’s piece about Ireland. And what defined a cohort of queer activists (and queer bystanders), all those experiences and more than a decade of fighting, might be lost, like so much queer history in Canada. This feels particularly the case outside the big cities, and most acutely on the east coast.

But perhaps this isn’t all that surprising. Unlike the UK did in 2017, we didn’t mark 50 years of decriminalization in 2019. Talking with younger queer folks today, few know the landmark pieces of history: Vriend v Alberta (wiki), Egan v Canada (wiki), M v H (wiki) or Hall v Durham Catholic School Board (wiki). Now, I’m not trying to be the “old man yells at cloud” kind or be all “when I was your age…”, but these cases defined the national equal rights agenda for much of the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. It’s what I read about in the newspaper every morning at breakfast (because I was a nerd, even from a young age). It’s what was on the 10:00 news on CBC. 

And then equal marriage in Ontario in 2003, and nationally two years later. I still remember hearing on CBC radio when the decision for New Brunswick came through from the Court of Queen’s Bench in June 2005 (Harrison v AG of Canada). I wasn’t yet out, struggling greatly with that burden and also the first field season of my masters, and wondering what the h-e-double-hockey-sticks I was doing. I felt relief (though given the wave of other provincial decisions and the reference question at the Supreme Court, the chances that it wouldn’t happen in New Brunswick were slim), and though I couldn’t really celebrate (being closeted and all), it was an indication of where society was going. That decision by Justice Judy Clendenning (and the positive media coverage around it) was part of what ultimately prompted me to come out 4 months later, because I could see something that would make life easier, even a little.

At the national scale, marriage equality was such a unifying issue (though not entirely) for the LGBTQ+ community because it had such a broad relevance, and it was a big win in Canada, Ireland, Australia, the UK, the US… in many places. And now, 15 years on, we often say “the fight doesn’t stop with equal marriage” because there are so many other challenges that LGBTQ+ folks face, in science, in research, in academia, in society more broadly. But in a way, it HAS stopped. Or it seems like it has. What are we collectively fighting for with the same fervour and determination of 15, 20, 25 years ago? We can’t, as a community, point at something and say to someone “This. This is what we need to do because…”. Maybe we’re all tired, maybe we don’t care as much, maybe the problems are too nebulous to use the old tools and tactics, maybe the challenges are perceived as too “niche”. But it feels a bit like we were a light going through a prism – before, we were focused, unified, together, united, and after though we were a beautiful rainbow, we spread out, going everywhere, divided. Or maybe I’m stretching this analogy too far.

When I look at Canada, even though it’s now 6 years since we lived there, there doesn’t appear to be a leading queer advocacy organization with the same power and pull that Egale had in the early 2000s. Yes, Egale still exists, but one rarely hears them in the national press (and certainly not when I dip in and out of Canadian news coverage from the UK). In the UK, there is Stonewall who do amazing work, but we’re not all rallying around them leading the charge on The Next Big Thing For Queer Rights. Perhaps that’s because there’s also been a shift in activism to smaller local, grassroots organizations who do not have a media presence. Their work is no less important, it’s just outwardly less visible. And that lack of public visibility in the way we had in the early 2000s could be interpreted by some as an implicit license for their discriminatory behaviour or hateful acts.

And I come back to Shaun’s documentary about Ireland, and how that very public fight for validation, equality, and basic rights affected people, much as it did in Australia in their 2017 postal survey. And I look at Canada, and the experiences (and aftermath) I and my peers had, which is largely a story untold. It’s a bit of a gap in stories about queer folks – there are more and more films, documentaries, and reportage on the AIDS epidemic and aftermath (I highly recommend How To Survive A Plague, Pride, and 120 BPM for starters), and a recent flurry of contemporary takes on queer life (Love, Simon, God’s Own Country), but that in-between period that means so much to me is absent (the contemporaneous Queer As Folk notwithstanding). I can’t help but wonder if that is also at least a partial function of the aimlessness in the shadow of marriage equality, but also how we can become focused again, fight the fights that need fighting, and tell the stories that need telling.

 

With thanks to Shaun O’Boyle and Landon Getz for their critical feedback and inspiring discussions; opinions and errors remain my own.

Some thoughts on The University

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Apologies in advance if this comes across as overly ranty, and though I try to at least include some pointers or thoughts on where things go, this feels, to me, like trying to turn a supertanker going 120 knots while the crew get flung off so may lack my usual positive outlook.

And it goes without saying that though my comments may be broad & sweeping, but they are not meant to be universally applicable. There will be exceptions, of course. But they reflect the last 20 years attending & working with universities across 6 (English-speaking) countries.

I did my undergrad at a Canadian “liberal arts” undergrad institution, and thought of The University as this fantastic place where people pursued their interests, developed & grew as people, were mentored, and made discoveries (both personal and professional). It was very much the ethos of the school, and reflected what many of us think of as the ideal, as articulated by Liz Coleman in this TED Talk from 2010 that I still find inspirational on some level. It was a time where the journey was more important than the destination, and everyone worked, or seemed to, with the same purpose. But near the end of my biology degree, I found myself wondering “what DOES one do with a degree in Classics anyway?” – the first cracks had appeared.

As a graduate student (2 degrees, 2 universities, 6 years) the hard truths about universities as institutions came rapidly. The need for funding, the amount of (often contradictory) paperwork, and the notion of “competitiveness”. I learned about “overheads” or “on-costs”. I saw better evaluation rubrics in the theatre tournament I ran than for some graduate evaluations, and I saw first-hand how poor management can impact people and projects. The harsh realities of the “job market” and bizarre hiring practices (and let’s face it, they ARE bizarre compared to nearly every other employer) were first uncovered.

Shifting to a postdoc, and I had all these experiences validated when, in a workshop for “how to land an academic job”, I found out that universities are not for teaching. I was hung out to dry by my institution for the first time. My own department encouraged me to apply for one job for which I was then ranked “uncompetitive”, and another where I was told I had “insufficient knowledge of ornithology”.

And now as a researcher (either in government, NGO, or museum) I work with university partners and see perverse incentives to publish (incentives aren’t all bad, mind you), an increase in courses and associated required projects, the rampant proliferation of short-term contracts lasting, in many cases, DECADES, and little/no mentoring of new faculty (who mentors the mentors?). At a higher level, there’s chasing rankings (be they the meaningless third-party metrics, or national schemes like REF/REF2: Evaluate with a Vengeance), abysmally low pay and increased workload. Communication and process seems to be optional, shifting, and always on a whim. Unless you don’t follow it, in which case too bad.

I know the above looks like a gripe list, and “it’s not all that bad”. No, it’s not. But certainly my experience (and that of many others who don’t have the privilege of being a white cis male) has been far from positive. I know faculty who’ve been bullied by colleagues, superiors, undergrads and even their own grad students who, when they went through the “proper channels” were branded troublemakers, and asked “what is wrong with YOU?”. I know faculty that in a year made less than the students they supervise because part of their contract wasn’t renewed, but who were still expected to work 40 hours/week. I know faculty who do All The Things (supervise 4-6 students/year, publish often and in “good”/”high impact” journals, have strong teaching evaluations from 2-4 units/courses, bring in grant money, do heaps of well-recognized outreach and media, and otherwise work their butts off) who are on 9-12 month contracts despite looking across the hall at their permanently employed colleague who has 1 honours student, published 1 paper in the last 24 months, submitted no grant applications, and taught 1 course/unit. I know faculty who’ve been thrown under the bus by their institutions in various processes because their attempts to make their department, school, and discipline a more inclusive, welcoming place ruffled some feathers either from above, or from within.

And raising any of these concerns within The University is like asking for a thicker blanket and being given a moth-eaten linen sheet.

We have built research systems that rely on graduate students for research capacity (which itself is Not Good), universities that have had massive funding cuts from government in the last 30 years (in Australia, and the UK, for example) which means that nearly every discussion comes down to money (either from grants, or tuition) and anything that might threaten that is beaten back with a huge stick.

Universities have the management & communications skills of a soggy turnip, and are filled with survivorship bias. This has effectively turned many into business-model-driven factories where top-down comms may be frequent & positive, but local-level management & mentoring is non-existent or flat-out harmful.

In a system where for so many people they are told their best isn’t good enough while others fail upwards, it’s deeply demoralizing, frustrating, and exhausting to try and exist. Trying to push back against these systems from the outside (as I’ve done with several over the last number of years) is doubly so.

Look, I know these are not the universal experience, but they’re at least sufficiently systemic that they should be worrying. But enacting change, especially by faculty themselves (many of whom do AMAZING things in spite of the above) feels like trying to turn around that supertanker, except you’re part of the crew being flung overboard. And yes there are advantages and good things about universities, but for me these are outweighed by the negative and the apprehension of the as-yet-unknown negative I might encounter.

And on a personal level, it’s sad that I now have to start out being highly skeptical, suspicious, and wary of the same institutions I idolized less than 20 years ago. But I’ve had to because they’ve so consistently let me, my friends, and my collaborators down.

The challenges of being a non-university researcher: recruiting students

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I’ve written before about how the UK’s system of funding research puts too much emphasis on students (and also doesn’t work particularly well). And as someone who’s never worked directly in a university (hooray for government, NGO, and museum science!) student recruitment has been a particular frustration of late.

As an undergrad, I was fortunate enough to have someone take a chance on an unproven wannabe scientist, and grateful that someone did again when I started my PhD (for the record, I looked at my CV this morning when I sent it in to my PhD program: no research experience before my 2-year masters, no publications, 1 conference presentation, no grants/awards. Goodness me those were the days). I recognized early on that the traditional metrics by which we often assess and recruit graduate students are biased. And I see this now, nearly 2 decades (!) later now that I am what might be called a “Principle Investigator”.

Early on, I told myself I would do my best to pay things forward, as they had been done for me as a grad student, and one of the areas this includes is in student recruitment. The problem, though, is that being not based at a university, the opportunities for ANY student recruitment are limited and hampered, let alone when one is trying to subvert the very system one relies on.

The Natural History Museum is a research institution (so we can hold grants from bodies like UKRI and ERC, for example), but does not have degree-awarding powers, so we have to rely on finding a university co-supervisor who either a) aligns with the project, and has capacity/interest to take on another student, or b) is happy to be totally uninvolved save for the university admin and box ticking that a graduate degree requires. Neither is terribly abundant or preferable, in my experience.

And this is before we hit on funding. Many universities have their own funding (through teaching assistantships, a central graduate studies pot of money) which can take some of the financial burden off the supervisor for funding the whole cost (a PhD student in the UK has total costs of ca. £25,000/year, including salary and some basic research costs). I’m purposefully ignoring DTP-esque funding here because a) it’s an awful system, b) it rewards the same biases I first noticed decades ago, and c) it still relies on finding that university-based (co)supervisor, who will be limited in the number of DTP applications they can be involved in.

I find this particularly frustrating because I know several amazing people who’ve approached me to join my “lab” (an entity that doesn’t really exist) and who I would take on in a heart-beat. I can’t chat about grad school meaningfully with prospective students at conferences because so much of the process is out of my hands and seemingly uninfluenceable. I can’t pay forward the chances folks gave me, and that’s gut-wrenching.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s lots about being a non-academic scientist that I adore, and I wouldn’t change my current job (much) for the world. But when we think about how the next generation of scientists is being recruited, trained, and funded, and by whom, I wonder if we should be thinking a little bit differently.

Free project ideas in ecology & conservation

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I have a long list of projects I’d love to get to at some point (on top of the ones that I’ve already started…). Some are just neat ideas I’ve had, others are part of a long-term research agenda. And then there are the fleeting thoughts or reactions to other work that make me think: hey, it would be cool if someone did that (the important bit is that the someone doesn’t necessarily have to be me).

For a while, I’ve dispensed these on twitter with a non-sequential list of “free project ideas” so I thought I would collect them all here, and add a few others from my list that I genuinely don’t think I’ll have time for. Feel free to take these and run with them. Some are possibly dead ends. Some could be nice analyses in “Big Journals™”. But I will leave these outcomes as an exercise for the reader.

If you want, I could potentially help out (depending on what other projects I have on), but either way, I’d appreciate letting me know and hopefully being acknowledged. So without further ado…

 

Alex’s Non-sequential List of Free Project Ideas (last updated 07 March 2020)

free project idea #85: a survey of the 2019 issues of n journals in <field of study>. What proportion of figures were in colour, and what proportion of those are colour-blind and/or B&W printing friendly? How many journals have those suggestions in their authors instructions?

free project idea #18: geographic diversity of authors of the last 11 iterations of the annual conservation horizon scan that appears in TREE, with matching exercise from authors of unrepresented countries/regions

free project idea #43: frequency and causes of runt eggs in bird clutches.

free project idea #31: survival analysis of government ministers (within & among jurisdictions) in relation to progress in environmental & social policies. Does high ministerial turn-over correlate to stagnation of legislation?

free project idea #72: apply this paper to the entire British Isles seabird colony database, and overlay hydrocarbon development, shipping routes, offshore wind farms, and protected areas. See where the gaps & important areas are (or at least where to focus yet more tracking work).

free project idea #58: reanalyse seabird stable isotope data for a year (between 2006-2016) without ignoring model/data assumptions and see how the interpretation changes. We’ve learned a lot, but older papers still cited as gospel.

free project idea #29 – review of how we calculate, and then incorporate detection probability in bird population surveys, from the field collection through to the modelling side. Does this change conclusions (aka does it matter) and if so, can we retrospective account for it?

Free project idea #37: sentiment analysis of visual depictions in the media of global heating, as manifested in stories about heatwaves, or very above seasonal temperatures. They’re not happy events: Image

free project idea #6: look at the accuracy & recentness of data used in Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) and Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs). Some are quite old (>30 years!) & in need of updated assessments.

free project idea #61: what drives intraspecific variation in breeding phenology among north Atlantic auks? Why do UK puffins hatch before Canadian puffins have even laid their egg?

free project idea #23: run sustainability models (e.g., potential biological removal) for species that are permitted to be culled/were covered under the former Natural England general license. How does this compare with other sources or mortality?

free project idea #78: how do seabird foraging metrics (max speed, distance, etc) from tracking data relate to incubation shift? A phylogenetically controlled study that makes predictions about untracked species could be useful for designating marine Important Bird Areas.

Rainbow crosswalk vandalism isn’t just an isolated local event, but a national problem

This is a joint blog post by Landon Getz and Alex Bond, appearing today on both their blogs. If you’re interested in reprinting it, get in touch.

From Grand Falls-Windsor, NL to Burnaby, BC, Pride is celebrated in Canada across the summer months. Towns and cities across the country raise the rainbow flag and celebrate with parades, concerts, and parties. Increasingly, many are following the lead of Sydney, Australia, which painted a giant rainbow crosswalk in 2013 to mark Sydney Mardi Gras. Local councils describe these as great ways to signal the welcoming and inclusive nature of the town, and celebrating its diversity.

 

Sadly, not everyone shares that view. Because also from Grand Falls-Windsor to Burnaby, there have been more than 40 incidents of deliberate vandalism of rainbow- or trans-flag-coloured crosswalks since 2015, with new vandalism occuring on an almost weekly basis. The damage ranges from tire burn-out marks, to paint, to actually trying to dig it up from the road. Further, this damage is often covered by local media, including an interview with someone from the LGBTQ2S+ community describing how disappointed they are, and someone from city council expressing surprise that someone in their town could do such a thing and vowing to have it repaired. That’s usually where the story ends.

The reality is that defacing rainbow crosswalks is quite obviously a nation-wide problem. Vandalism has been reported in 7 provinces (none that we could find in PEI, Quebec, or Manitoba), in big cities like Toronto and Vancouver, and small towns like Eastern Passage, NS and Coldstream, BC. In some places, there’s repeated vandalism following repairs, including a record six times in one summer in Miramichi, NB.The effects are more than a bit of soiled pavement.

These events portray a repeated and deliberate attempt to show LGBTQ2S+ people that they are still not welcome, at least not openly, in these communities. Although city councils are aiming to show LGBTQ+ folks that they are welcome and supported, vandalism of these crosswalks shows that members of these communities, nationwide, do not always agree. And although it is a minority, it’s a sizeable one, with 1 in 4 Canadians opposed to same-sex marriage 14 years after it became the law of the land.

This is further reflected in the repeated criticisms of rainbow crosswalks in commentaries from religious groups, so-called “concerned” citizens, and others. This opposition sometimes takes the form of direct frustration with LGBTQ2S+ people and their “sins”, and sometimes takes a shot at the use of taxpayer dollars for “ideological” symbols, even though many rainbow crosswalks are paid for by private organizations.

Vandalism and vocal criticism tell and show LGBTQ2S+ folks that they still need to be careful where and when they embrace and openly share their identities, and that they still need to “code switch”, changing the way they behave or talk based on who else is around. This burden, of constantly being aware and choosing when to express oneself, is a tiresome effort and one that is not always available to the more visible among the LGBTQ2S+ community.

In media stories covering these acts of vandalism, they are portrayed as being one-off, isolated, local incidents. In reality, though, it’s a much bigger, nation-wide problem. However, acknowledging that the surrounding community has Queer-supportive folk, and ensuring visible allyship in many forms (including rainbow crosswalks) can go a long way in pushing back against these acts of vandalism. Collectively, the message vandalism to these symbols sends is that we still have a long way to go,and a lot of work to do, before LGBTQ2S+ folk are not just tolerated, not just accepted, but included in Canadian society.