The value of outreach as a broader impact

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You might wonder what we scientists are spending your tax money on, and how our work makes a difference. Federal grants from the National Science Foundation specifically require that we, the grant-holders, justify the value of the work in this way. We are evaluated not only on the intellectual merit of our work, but also the broader impacts. NSF just redefined what it means as:

The Broader Impacts criterion encompasses the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes.

This mandate exists because of the founding vision for NSF, laid out by Vannevar Bush to Franklin Roosevelt in 1945. In a report called Science: The Endless Frontier, Bush argues that

Science, by itself, provides no panacea for individual, social, and economic ills. It can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team, whether the conditions be peace or war. But without scientific progress no amount of achievement in other directions can insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world.

In the past we have devoted much of our best efforts to the application of such knowledge which has been discovered abroad… New impetus must be given to research in our country. Such impetus can come promptly only from the Government. Expenditures for research in the colleges, universities, and research institutes will otherwise not be able to meet the additional demands of increased public need for research.

The modern justification for basic scientific research is therefore simple: it produces societal benefits including national security, health, and employment. While new discoveries do not each (and should not each) create these opportunities, they make possible the practical advances and applications that then affect society.

The key question is then: what is an individual scientist’s obligation to these broader impacts? Many think that the obligation should be minimal, since any time spent there is time not spent on doing research. Broader impacts are sometimes treated as a necessary but bothersome distraction, an afterthought to a serious research proposal.

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I think that this viewpoint is wrong, but arises from a common focus on broader impacts as scientific outreach: disseminating research results to the general public or to students, or engaging youth in research opportunities. Many university’s grant-writing guidelines (an example) support this viewpoint.

But is outreach effective? I see three major issues. First, most scientists don’t have training or experience with youth or with teaching, challenging the impact of the activity. Second, the scientist may not have deep or serious connections with populations who are interested in or would benefit from such outreach. This can produce a mismatch between supply and demand: too much supply of knowledge from the scientist, and too little demand from the target population. And third, such outreach can be scattered – short bursts of activity directed at a given target, only to disappear as soon as grant funding ceases. This approach may not produce real benefits even if short-term assessment instruments indicate change in attitudes or knowledge.

Therefore I don’t think the average scientist should be in the business of outreach: it can waste both the time of the scientist and the audience, as well as the funding agency’s money. It is doing something that the educational system should be doing better already.

It is true that such outreach does have other benefits – it provides personal connections between an individual scientist and different populations, potentially exposing them to new concepts and experiences that would be impossible to get otherwise. It provides unique opportunities for people to enter into the research world. It forces the scientist to examine the key communicable parts of their work. And it may have other intangible downstream benefits that are harder to predict or measure. Good outreach achieves these unique goals.

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I think there is a better way to use our limited funding for outreach, and maximize the benefit our work creates. Consider the thought experiment: if the goal is to maximize the knowledge and experience of the public (or youth) with regard to scientific careers and progress, would it be more effective to spend this money on the development of programs staffed by trained educators, with consistent funding and relationships with audiences, focused on core concepts, or instead on a scattered matrix of multiple short-term efforts by untrained experts? I think we often do the latter but should prefer the former. This is not to say that every scientist’s individual outreach program is not valuable – simply that anyone proposing one should think very hard about its value and potential impact before moving forward, because good work is hard to accomplish. There are many roads to broader impacts and direct outreach is only one.

I think we should instead built institutions that can pool resources and share in NSF’s societal mandate. We could allow grant-holders to allocate some fraction of each award toward more unified outreach strategies – building larger and longer-term programs that would hire trained educators and build relationships with different populations. I think we could get more for our investment in this way than in the current system where each scientist is left to justify their own work, when in fact we are all working together.

Here is no water but only rock

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So much changes with a little water. On a recent trip to Death Valley, a fragment of Eliot’s The Waste Land came to mind:

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock

The menace in these lines is the same menace I felt in this desert. I have explored other barren landscapes across North and South America. But this place felt different. Drier, barer, and more malevolent. On these sand dunes, the annual precipitation averages some fifty millimeters per year, and summer daytime temperatures often exceed 50 °C. My Sonoran desert home (near Tucson), in contrast, averages a pleasant 280 millimeters of rain per year, with summer temperatures usually no worse than 40 °C. It’s enough to support small trees, columnar cacti, and a wide diversity of animals.

Death Valley, on the other hand, pushes life to its extremes. Consider this remote valley – the landscape is dominated by a dry lakebed interrupted by an intrusive igneous rock formation, and bordered by more distant peaks almost lacking any soil. It doesn’t appear to be a place that might hold any life.

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Yet rain does fall, and snow melts off of distant peaks. It isn’t much, but occasionally the dry lake becomes wet, and small channels form. It’s enough for the occasional shrub to find a tenuous home. An infinitesimal change in elevation, a few extra millimeters of water, and life finds a way.

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Yet it would not always have been so – fifteen thousand years ago, during a period of cooler temperatures and extensive glaciation, much of this landscape was covered by year-round lakes formed by snowmelt runoff from nearby mountain ranges. The desert, geologically speaking, is a very recent phenomenon.

It is easy to have a shorter view of this kind of climate change, and of the tenuous threads on which our lives depend. I can journey through this barren landscape in an air-conditioned car, traversing a hundred miles in a single day, and can drink water pumped from alluvial deposits. I can ignore the facts of climate in a way that the plants cannot.

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I don’t like it. It makes us blind, and weak. It builds us ecologically insensitive cities that paint an artificial and controlled scene over an unforgiving and dynamic landscape. The desert is replaced by asphalt and houses – mechanisms to control and stabilize our experience of the world.

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As an example, our return trip passed through southern Nevada, where the outskirts of Las Vegas continue to expand. Exurban areas of identical homes pave the desert, and are fed by water from the Colorado River. They exist because water is cheap, and is imagined to remain cheap in the future. But the river is a dynamic thing. Reconstructions for the past thousand years of its flow (based on tree rings) have indicated flows averaging much less than what was seen during the 20th century, with a multi-decade drought during the medieval period that dropped flow levels fifteen percent relative to the present. And projections for flow rates for the coming century are projected (based on climate models) to be fifteen to forty-five percent lower than we are accustomed to.

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I think we are building cities that will not survive the coming century. We will have to retreat, and play by the true rules of the desert, just as the plants do. Eliot writes,

Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only

and I read it as a challenge to us in the American west. So much changes with a little water.

Crossing the Atlantic

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Someone once asked me if my research collaborations abroad were a worthwhile use of time and money. I had just explained a project, which was effectively desk work – the statistical analysis of a large dataset. Why use public money to fly all the way to Denmark and upend a life to do a project that could easily be achieved by email and videoconferencing?

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I have been thinking about this question a lot. I just returned to the United States from a long stay in Denmark, for the second time in two years. The experience of having lived and worked in both Aarhus (with Jens-Christian Svenning) and Copenhagen (with Carsten Rahbek) has been very valuable to me, and wholly different from a collaboration built on digital communication.

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There are three reasons why this travel was valuable for me, all of which likely generalize to many other scientists.

First, projects are far easier to complete when all the participants are in the same place. Data are easy to exchange, conversations are easy to have, and ideas are easy to communicate. The bandwidth of any given interaction is far higher, in-person, than by email. New ideas are also easier to develop in a shared environment. The atmosphere of being in a place, interacting with a group of smart and interesting people, provides fertile ground for creativity.

Second, travel to a new institution broadens one’s perspectives and approaches to science. In the United States, my home institution is a broad ecology and evolution department, with only limited focus on macroecology, biogeography, and climate change. Both Danish institutions I visited focus on these areas and recruit a wide range of top people to think about these topics. The result is an informal education in a discipline that fascinates me. Moreover, this education comes from a different perspective than I am used to, because different research traditions and approaches have dominated on both sides of the Atlantic. I have a broader appreciation for the history and breadth of the field than I had before.

Third, investment in a research visit is not just investment in projects – it is also investment in people. These research visits has given me a broader network of collaborators and contacts in the ecology world, people who I know and now know me. Future collaborations and interchanges are now much more likely because of these present-day connections.

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From a personal standpoint, these visits have also been wonderfully world-expanding – exposure to a new culture, a new language, and a wholly different landscape. A life away from my home country seems very possible and maybe likely. These impacts are harder to measure or communicate to a funding agency, but they are very real.

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So at the end of things, on this trip back to Arizona, I think about the money that the US National Science Foundation and the Danish National Research Foundation have invested in my work. Two major projects are nearly finished, and three or four more are well underway thanks to their investment. But the impact of the money is far greater than that, and I hope you can now see why.

The old frontiers of biogeography

Ecology is often criticized for being a weak science, with limited data, few ideas, and little predictive power. As a practicing scientist, I often feel frustrated by our collective inability to make the same dramatic progress as seen in other fields – for example, physics in the earth 20th century, during the quantum mechanical revolution. But a few weeks ago, I held in my hands a manifest declaration of scientific progress.

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The object in question was an atlas of the global distribution of plants, published in the early 1800s in Copenhagen. (Plantegeographisk Atlas, af E.F. Schouw)

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At that time, systematic exploration of the world’s natural history had just begun to occur. Both North and South America remained largely unexplored by Western scientists, to say nothing of Africa or most of the closed East. Alexander von Humboldt had only returned from his pioneering explorations in the Andes a decade earlier. Until this time, the broad-scale distribution of species had been an uninteresting or unexplored topic. Either no one knew enough about where species were to think the patterns were worthy of explanation, or no one thought the question was relevant, since the Biblical flood narrative provided a simple explanation for the radiation of species from a single point. But evidence began accumulating that not everything lived everywhere, and that some groups of species had complex ranges spanning continents. Coupled with the discovery of fossilized organisms on mountaintops or in inhospitable areas, science was forced to confront the idea that the distribution of life did not have a simple explanation.

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This atlas was one of the world’s very first attempts to synthesize knowledge on plants. It is a beautiful work, printed from engravings onto thick paper, with hand-painted maps for each group of species. But its beauty belies its limitations. You can see that the geography of South America is very fuzzy, with mountain ranges drawn in that don’t exist, and with ambiguous cartography of many rivers systems and coastal borders.

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Empirical knowledge of plants was simply quite weak at this time. You can see on this global map, most of the Pacific islands are represented simply as being the ‘land of the breadfruit’ – hardly a comprehensive description. This atlas represents something of the birth of ecology and biogeography.

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Since then, thousands more botanists have traveled the world, made collections, established taxonomies, and so synthesized knowledge. We are much better informed about the world than we ever have been, and so we are now able to begin to explain global patterns of biodiversity. We now know roughly how many species there are on Earth, and roughly where they live. We have assembled large databases to standardize and share this information. Every day, more scientists are exploring the wild and not-so-wild corners of the planet, and we are progressively getting closer to the truth.

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Holding this atlas made me feel proud of the progress we have collectively made. The road forward is long and difficult, but we are certainly further down it than we have ever been before.


Faces of Biology

I just won second place in the Faces of Biology contest, sponsored by the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS). They focus on showcasing the broader impacts of science in society, and this contest was a way for them to present the different aspects of science to policymakers. I’m very proud to have contributed an image. It, and the other winners, will be featured in an upcoming issue of BioScience.


The photo shows my collaborator Percy Orlando Chambi Porroa measuring the branching architecture of a plant sample in Manú National Park, Peru. We’re sitting in a small wooden house, deep inside the cloud forest. Better measurements of branch architecture may be useful for making better models of carbon storage and growth in plants. The overall project is led by Yadvinder Malhi out of the University of Oxford and is focused on understanding the carbon dynamics of tropical forests. One of the best things about the project, in my mind, is that it brings together researchers from a range of countries and enables students (like Percy, and like me) to have much richer experiences than they ever would get otherwise.

Below is a scene from the forest, as branch samples are collected and tagged to be measured.


Percy was kind enough to pose for several pictures. Here’s one of the other candidates – a nice memory of some beautiful weeks in the field.


Where the wild things aren’t


The value of wild landscapes is a theme that has preoccupied me for the past weeks. A stream of coincidental experiences have contributed to this focus: the Wilhjelm+12 rewilding conference at the University of Copenhagen, a recent PNAS publication by my collaborator Greg Asner on elevated rates of gold mining in the western Amazon, a Science paper documenting global patterns of deforestation, and a screening of the (in my opinion, strongly environmentalist) film Koyaanisqatsi.

I have written before about the ‘last of the wild’ and the consequences of its loss, but never about my personal opinions. I have a conflicted view of things, made no more simpler by the experiences of the past weeks. While thinking about these ideas, I have also been spending my days exploring European landscapes, protected and unprotected. The past few weeks have seen tours through a national park in Denmark (Mols Bjerge), a national park in Spain (Monfragüe), and protected areas west of Prague in the Czech Republic. It was hard to escape from the patchwork landscape of agricultural usage and old settlements, to the point that the very idea of wilderness seemed alien. I felt a deep sadness inside, and it took me some time to understand the reason. It was because these landscapes had not been wild in thousands of years, and so no one could see the absence of wilderness. I felt like something had been lost, and nobody knew. This, of course, is an oversimplification of the important and ongoing conservation efforts in these places, but represents accurately how I felt. And feeling it brought conflicting thoughts, which I want to share here.

On one hand, wilderness has inherent value for all the non-human living things there, as well as value for the humans who depend on it indirectly for the ecosystem services (water, clean air, biodiversity, and so on) it provides. But non-wild landscapes also have immense value. They represent thousands of years of human efforts and human success, our domination of the planet that enables us to feed billions of people and control our environment, to harness resources unavailable to any other species. Every cornfield and railway represents civilization and progress, health and prosperity, the conquering of uncertainty, long hours of toil. Destroying wilderness means freedom from predators, a consistent source of food, the stability to build cities and capital.


So here is the conflict: I love a part of the world that is largely incompatible with our modern world. My desire for wild landscapes may deny others the opportunity to prosper, and imposes values that are at odds with the reasonable value of others to use land in the service of their prosperity. I want to feel at peace in wild places, yet cannot live in them, and my life depends heavily on the exploitation of resources in other parts of the world. I mourn the loss of wilderness in Europe yet celebrate its cultural achievements made possible by this growth.


But the situation is not actually so simple, because wilderness and prosperity are not necessarily opposite each other. Many clever people and the governments of many countries and are trying to find ways to meet development goals without the exploitation of more land, or are finding ways to improve or expand conservation efforts that are supported by local populations. I am not offering any insights into this complexity.

Instead, I do want to suggest one thing: that all people, whether they be ardent environmentalists or businessmen, urbanites or farmers, rich or poor, learn the value of both wild landscapes and conquered landscapes.

To illustrate the problem, here is an example from the United States, where thinking about conservation issues is heavily biased by socioeconomic factors. Visitors to national parks are over eighty percent ethnically white (disproportionately to the general population, and forestry or natural resource jobs are taken by over ninety percent whites. Every person depends on our collective usage of natural resources, yet a very biased subset of people are involved in the conservation. I am sure the same issue (with different labels, different specifics) applies in other places.

I fear most a world in which we depend increasingly heavily on the exploitation of natural resources, yet do not appreciate the scope of this dependence or its true price.

On the cover of Ecology Letters

My friend and collaborator, Naia Morueta Holme, just had a paper come out in the scientific journal, Ecology Letters. The study is about the distribution of rarity in the New World – where are the endemic species, and where are the large-range species? Surprisingly, this is the sort of basic question that you might imagine had been answered long ago, but hasn’t been. She found that most of the New World’s rarity is in Central America, the Brazilian Atlantic rainforest, and the Andes. Why does that matter? One of the big ideas in ecology is that the present is only a shadow of the past, such that paleoclimate leaves a strong signal on present-day distribution of biodiversity. The study found that regions with more unstable climates over time (for example, in lowlands where post-glacial climate change velocity was high) have few endemic species. Thus, this study is a hemisphere-scale demonstration that rapid climate change poses a particularly large problem for these rare species. You can read a press release about the article or download the journal article.

Scientific journals often feature a different image on their cover each month to highlight the most exciting research they are publishing. The authors of the articles can submit candidates, and Naia asked me for an image of a transition between a mountainous area (with more rare species) and a lowland area (with more large-range species). I gave her a photograph of the transition between the high Andes and the Amazon basin, and we were lucky enough to have it selected for the cover.


You can see a larger version below. The photo is taken in southeastern Peru, half an hour before sunrise. You’re looking from Tres Cruces, at an elevation of approximately 3900 meters, down into the cloud forest and lowland tropical forest of eastern Peru and western Brazil.

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Earlier this spring we were doing fieldwork at high elevation in this region, and decided to wake up one morning to see the sun come up over the Amazon. Our field camp was several kilometers’ walking from the best vantage point, so we had to have an early start.

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I still remember waking up at a little before four-o’clock in the morning, shivering in the cold air, looking up at a clear sky, navigating a ridgeline in the dark to await the beginning of the day. The sky was full of stars, and the only other light was from an occasional headlamp.

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A magical morning, and a pleasure to see this moment, and this image, find a home as advertisement for a new scientific discovery.


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