Archive | March 2018

War on Science: USGS edition

It seems like there has been a cascade of information building up to the second March for Science. One of the latest entries comes as part of a Politico article on how federal workers are responding to the new administration:

For Larry Meinert, who spent six years as a senior official at the United States Geological Survey, the last straw came late last year when he was asked to supply a report on updated oil reserve forecasts to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke before the tightly held and market-sensitive information was made public — a request he considered a bridge too far, ethically.

But even before his resignation late last year, there were plenty of other things that got under Meinert’s skin. Administration officials asked his department to supply the topics of each scientific paper it planned to put up for publication up to five years in the future.

War on Science: EPA update

It is impressive within a few hours to see different facets of the current administration’s desire to sideline science within what we should now call the Environment Plundering Agency. On one front, there is effectively an implementation of the gruesomely misleading HONEST act that Lamar Smith pushed awhile back under the guise of “sound science.” Basically this will throw away a huge amount of peer-reviewed science on the environmental and health impacts of various pollutants. That the EPA really wanted to bury this news is that their own press release was just a pointer to a Daily Caller interview with administrator Pruitt, a result that led the National Association of Science Writers to write a letter complaining about the failure to respond to questions and the use of partisan publication for the sole source for policy information. All this as the agency claims it is pursuing “transparency” (which, it would seem, they take to mean something you don’t ever see).

While this is the most pernicious move, at the same time the EPA is engaging in false equivalence in their latest talking points guidelines, which try to say that we don’t really know how much human activity contributes to global warming.

It bears repeating that pursuing ignorance as government policy is profoundly stupid, and amplifying it is inappropriate.

Academic Faceplant

GG has pretty adamantly argued that you shouldn’t be measuring a scientist’s worth from where she publishes and thus rewards based on journal metrics are misguided and ethically wrong. So it was gratifying in one sense to see Sylvia McLain’s post on publishing in lower impact journals. But then GG read the comments, which included these:

I value what you say here and I thank you for expressing this important perspective. I, too, made similar choices early in my faculty career. I had several very high impact publications from my PhD and postdoc years, but during my time as an assistant professor I focused on just putting out good solid science…The tenure committee called this a “downward career trajectory” and sent me packing.

Sure, people in your specific subfield can appreciate high quality j Chem Phys, but everyone else only has brand name to go on. If you are expecting to look [for?] a job some day, high profile journal articles are pretty much the only ones that count.

Low IF journals are not going to get you tenure, so I sure hope assistant professors don’t take this advice to heart.

Indeed there might be gems in low impact journals and those profs might be excellent scientists, but why not settle for excellent work published at high impact journals?

Is it true there are places where “everyone else only has brand name to go on” and so decides on tenure based on the journal’s impact factor? Really? People are sent packing solely because of where they publish? GG is beyond appalled and only hopes this misrepresents what some schools are doing.

Look, ideally tenure should reflect the impact a faculty member has had on their community. That should be measured by what the leaders in the field say along with an evaluation by the faculty of what the main contributions are and what influence they have had. This requires departments to read the candidate’s work and to solicit useful reference letters (i.e., ignoring ones that simply count publications or citation indices). While citation numbers and publication history can provide some information, it should be tiny and used more to better understand where the candidate’s work resides. GG feels that this is what we look at in our department at CU Boulder, so this isn’t pie-in-the-sky.

That said, it appears that some places are blinded by the editorial whims of the tabloid journals (the greatest barrier to publication in Science or Nature is not peer review or the quality of the work, it is having enough of a hook so that the discipline editor can sell the paper to the main editorial group–and this might depend on what the journal has recently published or just how many news stories some other work got). Read More…

Whither Water?

Although in some ways overexploitation of water resources has faded out a bit as climate change has caught the focus of those worried about the sustainability of civilization, it hasn’t gone away. Water managers in the western U.S. have probably paid closer attention to the possible changes in climate than…well, nearly everybody. And unlike many others, they are looking to act. But how?

The California drought that ended in early 2017 was a preview of all the problems climate change is apt to generate.  While the snowpack and rainfall amounts were not as low as in the late 1970s drought, the heat was noticeably greater, and research found that the intensity of the drought on vegetation was greater than the older, drier drought because of the higher amounts of evaporation and transpiration. And then the drought ended in dramatic fashion, with big snowpacks and rainfalls leading to the erosion of the spillway of the Oroville Dam in late winter of 2017. Basically feast or famine.

So what is the rational response to this? Frankly, it is to have more water storage, ideally with less evaporation. And, somewhat oddly, increasingly variable precipitation puts pressure on the usual alternative of improved water conservation.

Read More…

Science: Passion or Profession?

A number of the posts the Grumpy Geophysicist has written have hidden in their depths a fundamental tension between science as an ideal goal and science as a profession.  Consider part of Hubbert’s GSA Presidential Address screed from 1963:

Instead of remaining primarily educational institutions and centers of fundamental inquiry and scholarship, the universities have become large centers of applied research. In fact, it is the boast of many that their highest-paid professors have no teaching duties at all! Instead of providing an atmosphere of quiet, with a modicum of economic security afforded by the system of academic tenure, where competent scholars may have time to think, the universities have become overstaffed with both first- and second-class employees. Those of the first class, who bear the title of “professor” and enjoy academic tenure, have largely become Directors of Research; those of the second class, whose competence often equals or exceeds that of the first class, are the research-project employees whose tenures extend from one contract to the next.

Complementing activities of this sort [of large research lab] is the prevailing academic system of preferment based upon the fetish of “research.” Faculty members are promoted or discharged on the basis of the quantity of their supposed research, rarely on the basis of their competence as teachers. And the criterion of research is publication. The output per man expected in some institu- tions, I am informed, is three or four published papers per year. In almost any university one hears the cynical unwritten motto: “Publish or perish.” In addition, there is the almost universal practice of paying the traveling expenses to attend scientific meetings of those faculty members who are presenting papers at the meeting; the “nonproductive” members can pay their own way or stay home. The effect of this on the number and quality of papers with which the program of every scientific meeting is burdened requires no elaboration.

Although Hubbert spent most of his career outside of universities, he clearly deplored what he viewed as the corruption of the intellectual pursuits of the universities by the development of the post-WW II government-funded research establishment, a development most modern scientists view with great regard. And Hubbert did miss that this development did in fact increase the ability of the universities to train graduate students, so the negative he expressed was overstated.  Even so, it is a question worth contemplating: is a successful scientist a successful professor, and vice versa?

Read More…

Reblog: Bt GMOs reduce pesticides, increase yields, and benefit farmers (including organic farmers) — The Logic of Science

Logic of Science does a nice job of explaining in detail why and how one particular flavor of GMO crop is almost certainly a good thing–which underscores both that willingness to overlook science can be from the left and right.

Few technologies have been demonized to the same extent as genetic engineering. According to countless websites, GMOs are an evil scourge on the earth that destroy biodiversity, use exorbitant levels of pesticides, and hybridize rampantly with wild crops, and all of that is before we even get to the (largely false) claims about Monsanto. Reality, […]

Full post is at: Bt GMOs reduce pesticides, increase yields, and benefit farmers (including organic farmers) — The Logic of Science

Death By Insta-science

Well, it had to happen.  The “pre-print” archive movement is finally creeping into earth science, and with it, undoubtably, will come all the poisons that it represents.

The noble case being made for such services is that they can allow for broader peer-review, they can avoid embargoing good science by evil journal gatekeepers, and they can accelerate the pace of science.  All three are misguided, at least in earth science. Many if not most earth science articles are unlikely to attract much attention (most earth science papers are unread, let alone “reviewed”). Delays in publication are as much the difficulty in getting reviewers as anything else; outright obstruction can be avoided by going to another journal (there are quite a few) or complaining to a society president. And arguably the pace of science is a bit too fast, judging by the sloppy citations of the literature and piecemeal publications from some corners of the field.

If not for noble reasons, what is pushing this? It appears part of this is a desire by some to get something “citable” as soon as possible–for instance, Nature Geoscience editorializedIn an academic world structured around short grant cycles and temporary research positions whose procurement depends on a scholarly track record, there is room for a parallel route for disseminating the latest science findings that is more agile, but in turn less rigorously quality controlled.” [This is hilarious coming from a publisher whose lead journal actively quashes public or even professional discussion of papers prior to publication].

Let’s be clear: this is a crappy excuse that opens the door to “fake science.”

Read More…