20 May 2016

No mystery how invaders cross oceans

I hate it when news organizations act boggled when there is no reason to be.

Man-Eating Nile Crocodiles Found In Florida, And No One Knows How They Got There

Obviously, the “man-eating” thing is a bit overblown and lurid, but it’s that second half that bugs the heck out of me.

Nile crocodiles are large (hence, potential “man-eaters”) animals that live in Africa. There is one way, and only one way, that they got across the Atlantic Ocean to wind up in Florida.

People moved them.

They didn’t swim. They weren’t carried off by flying rocs and dropped off. They weren’t picked up in some freakish weather event. (Though Crocnado would be an awesome name for a bad SyFy movie, if sharks hadn’t got there first.)

Sure, maybe we want some more details about who did the moving and why. The article goes on to suggest someone thought a Nile crocodile would be a great pet. The technical paper notes:

Over the last decade several large groups of C. niloticus have been imported from South Africa and Madagascar for both zoological display (e.g., Disney’s Animal Kingdom) and the pet trade, with the latter being the most likely introduction pathway for these individuals.

Saying, “Nobody know how they got there” is a lame dodge of responsibility. It’s just another example of humans messing with wildlife. We need to recognize that, and not absolve people through “mystery.” A few years ago, I heard someone on a radio show say something like, “Our pets have become family, and wild animals have become our pets.” We need to get over this notion that almost any type of animal can be a pet.

Hat tip to Andrew Thaler. Update: Andrew rightfully points out:

The specific mode of each introduction is hugely important. Accidental release from a zoo? Illegal exotic trade? Unintentional transmission via shipping? Those details matter, and we don't know yet.

That’s a fair comment. Those details are important. They may be more important for those of us studying the pet trade or working on policy than it is in a general news story. In a general news story, more good might be done by spreading the message, “Don’t keep exotics.”


Rochford MR et al. 2016. Molecular analyses confirming the introduction of Nile crocodiles, Crocodylus niloticuslaurenti 1768 (Crocodylidae), in Southern Florida, with an assessment of potential for establishment, spread, and impacts. Herpetological Conservation and Biology 11(1): 80–89. http://www.herpconbio.org/Volume_11/Issue_1/Rochford_etal_2016.pdf

External links

Man-Eating Nile Crocodiles Found In Florida, And No One Knows How They Got There

Picture from here.

11 May 2016

Research underemployment

In general, people in science get doctoral degrees because they want to do science. But the opportunities to do so after grad school and post-docs have shrunk dramatically.

Karen James wrote about the prospects of being an unsupported scientist. Shortly after, Terry McGlynn talked about the prospect of self-funding research. Both are expressions of a common frustration: more people are getting trained to do science, but after that “training period” is over, there’s less money for research per scientist than there used to be. It’s getting tighter and tighter, with no end in sight.

While I was turning this over in my mind, two questions came to me.

Who is to blame?

The answer, of course, is nobody is to blame. Funding agencies, states, and universities each have their own, often contradictory, sets of goals and incentives. On science social media, most of the talk rotates around the policies federal funding agencies, neglecting the role of the states, incentives for institutions, and that some trends occur with no help from funding agencies. (For instance, those agency policies don’t seem to account for the growth in master’s degrees.)

The last one – institutional incentives – is is not looked at enough. If I were a university president, even knowing the oversupply problem, if I had a chance to create more doctoral programs, I would do it. There are just too many advantages. You get higher university rankings and more money.

For instance, look at the Carnegie classifications of universities. Their first pass on classifying universities as research (R1, R2, R3) is based on the number of doctoral programs. In my state, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board groups universities by the number of graduate programs, number of graduate students, and research expenditures. (The last is another potentially corrosive influence.)

Why is number of graduate programs and students used to measure research output? It assumes that faculty perform no research outside of supervising doctoral students. Why not number of publications or scholarly products? Universities collect that data. Heck, I’ve lost count of the number of times my university has asked me for my CV.

Obviously, there are potential pitfalls in systems intended to measure academic productivity. But consider what would change if universities were classified more by what research they put out instead of how many training programs and students they have.

Using the number of doctoral programs as a proxy measurement for amount of research capacity of a university is like using the Impact Factor as a proxy measurement for the quality of research articles: deeply, if not fatally flawed for most purposes, but survives because it’s convenient. The difference is there’s no shortage of researchers, editors, and others writing articles and editorials pointing out that the limits of Impact Factors.

Why are there so few solutions suggested to address these problems? 

Everyone likes to support “training.” Nobody’s going to get fired for putting money into training, since education is one of those rare areas that pretty much everyone wants to be seen supporting.

People with doctorates have some of the lowest unemployment rates in the U.S. There’s very little concept of underemployment and no balance sheet for missed opportunities. That makes it a tough sell to convince politicians that people with a Ph.D. are a group in crisis.

Like the weather, everyone talks about Ph.D. oversupply, but nobody know what to do about it besides dressing for today and hoping it’ll chance to something nicer soon.

External links

Karen James’s Twitter rant
Self-funding your research program
Refusing to be measured
In the future, all research will be funded by Taco Bell

10 May 2016

Building a winning trivia team

Trivia night!

A local pub, Grain to Glass, hosts trivia night every Tuesday. I got invited to join a team over a year ago now. Our team consistently does very well, thank you.

I’ve thought a lot about why our team does so well. I’ve concluded it’s because pretty much everyone on the team is different. We have Americans, an Englishman, and a Canadian who’s lived in Australia (me!). Just that geographic diversity helps a lot. Our ages from youngest to oldest covers probably 20 years. Our professions are different. We have both men and women. My strength is science and movies, but I suck at sports... which a couple of other team members know very well.

If we had someone who kept up with current pop music, we’d be unstoppable. (Why are there so many questions about One Direction?!)

This same applies to departments and institutions, too. Diversity can build a better team.

05 May 2016

Personalizing PDFs: reclaiming a personal touch on reprints

As a grad student, one of my keys to my development as a professional scientist was getting acquainted with the relevant literature. Because I be old, this was all done on paper, and largely consisted of raiding my supervisor’s files and photocopying her reprints. Some of her reprints were signed, often with short little personal notes on them.

When I started to send off reprint request cards in the mail, I started getting back a few of my own signed reprints. I liked the personal touch, and I tried to put a personal touch on my own paper reprints when I mailed them out.

Of course, email requests and PDFs supplanted posted reprints (thank goodness!). I would never want to go back to managing huge file cabinets full of photocopied reprints, but I kind of miss that personal touch. I realized, though, that there is a way to reclaim it.

If you can edit PDFs (which you can in Adobe Acrobat), you can insert test anywhere you want using the “Tools.” You can use a typeface that has a handwritten look (say, something from comic letterer Blambot) to make it distinct and separate from the main text of the paper.

You can place a signature file, like a scan of your signature on paper, using “Fill & Sign.”

It takes only a minute or two. You can make a personal message, and thank the person requesting your reprint by name. While it might not entirely capture the charm of the ink on paper, but it shows a bit of effort. And maybe it can provide some of that sense of personal connection to a community that I felt as a grad student when I was looking through my supervisor’s filing cabinets.

04 May 2016

And the cycle repeats

Today is the last day of class for the Spring semester, which kind of means it’s the end of the first regular academic year at UTRGV. Okay, sure, there is summer session, but really, most of us faculty have a nine month salary, so our pay stubs say this is the end.

Where are we with UTRGV? Ugh. It’s still in beta testing. There are still many weird, unsettled (and unsettling) things going down for my liking. There’s an obsession with instant growth, and a lot of parachute candidates for administrative positions. Could it have been better? Sure. I suppose it could have been worse, though.

Meanwhile, speaking of education, Texas is set to review its science standards again. Slate has the story. Notably, author Zack Kopplin writes:

Via public records request, Slate obtained the full list of 545 applicants. Many seem up for the task, including the employees of the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, scientists from Houston’s energy industry, the president of the Micropaleontology Press, science-assessment specialists from the textbook publisher Pearson, and hundreds of K-12 science teachers or college professors.

I was one of those hundreds of educators who applied, by the way. I’ll let you know if I get picked, but I think the odds are long. As the article says:

Members of the Texas State Board have full discretion over whom they want to appoint to the review panels—and history shows they often pick creationists.

In other words, here we go again. At least because this is happening in summer, I should have time to blog about it.

And it’s also Star Wars day! I won this glass at the pub last night during trivia.Thanks, Grain to Glass! They made both Light Side and Dark side glasses. Only Dark Side glasses were left, but I would have picked that one anyway. I’m definitely a Sith.

I won it knowing what “AT-AT” stands for. (Gloss for the non-Star Wars fans: The AT-ATs were these things, introduced so memorably in The Empire Strikes Back.)

“AT-AT” stands for “All Terrain Armored Transport.”

External links

Scientist vs. Creationist: Who will get to update Texas’ science standards?