Posted by: Jeremy Fox | March 23, 2012

The end of NCEAS (UPDATED)

NCEAS officially closed its doors earlier this week with an invitation-only symposium this week held an invitation-only symposium to mark the end of its NSF funding, though apparently it has secured some other funding sources and will be continuing on in some form. If it was a wake, apparently it was an Irish one; report from Marc Cadotte here. I posted my thoughts on NCEAS a while back, when it became clear that there wouldn’t be any last-minute reprieve for NSF funding for the center. Now seems like an appropriate time to link back to those thoughts.

UPDATE: Post corrected in response to info provided in the comments. Look for NCEAS to share the input from the symposium on its homepage, on Twitter (@nceas), and elsewhere in the coming weeks. Clearly there will be changes coming to NCEAS, since the funding will be changing, and so fortunately I think most of the commentary from myself and others is still relevant.

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Responses

  1. Sorry to hear that, I hadn’t known it was threatened: I attended two seminars there and both were excellent, and very unusual, learning experiences.

  2. I’d say it came to the end of its natural life–its NSF funding came to an end and was not renewed. It’s worth noting that NCEAS was never supposed to last forever (at least, that was never NSF’s intent), and that it lasted much longer than originally intended when it was founded. It had a great run, and it leaves a lasting and profound legacy in terms of a changed scientific culture in ecology, and in terms of the many imitators it spawned in other fields. It was a very risky thing to try when it was founded; I don’t think we’d be living up to its legacy if we stopped taking those sorts of risks.

  3. Sure is bad news. Did they try to get money to extend its life? I’m assuming so.

    • A while back (this is at least a couple of years ago now) NSF put out a call for a new global change synthesis center that would bring together biologists, physical scientists, and social scientists. UC Santa Barbera put in a proposal to host that new center; they didn’t make the shortlist (IIRC, I believe the new center is at the University of Maryland). In any case, the new center was always going to be very different than NCEAS (bringing in physical and social scientists, and focusing on the single issue (or set of issues) of global change). So even if UCSB’s bid had been successful (and I doubt they had much of a shot; I’m sure there was a feeling that it was “someone else’s turn”), NCEAS in its current form would have ended. In putting out a call for a new global change synthesis center, and not a call for an NCEAS, NSF indicated that they’d decided to let their half of NCEAS funding wind down.

      It’s worth remembering that NCEAS had already exceeded it’s originally-intended lifespan. For better or worse, government agencies never fund this sort of thing forever. The exact same dynamic happened at the center where I did my postdoc, the NERC CPB, save that the CPB still exists in a somewhat altered form because it changed direction and got other sources of funding (at least, that’s my understanding…).

      I know some folks had hoped that UCSB would continue to supply their half of NCEAS’s funding (UCSB funded NCEAS to the tune of about $3 million/year) to allow NCEAS to continue in some form. Which was not an unreasonable hope; NCEAS put UCSB as a whole on the map in many ways, and you don’t lightly shut down something like that. But if NCEAS continuing on as a UCSB-funded venture was ever in the cards (and I have no idea if it was or not), I’m sure it isn’t any longer, due to the economic crisis and the resulting funding crisis in the University of California system.UPDATE: As indicated by a comment below from someone with direct knowledge of the situation, this is unwarranted speculation on my part. NCEAS does still have various funding sources (what they are, I don’t know), and will be continuing on in some form.

      • Very helpful, thanks Jeremy. Yes, if they have to rely on UC for the funding to maintain it, they would be in real trouble.

        The idea that governments would never support such a thing on a regular ongoing basis is sort of the root of the problem I’d say. Take the risks of investing money and time to establish something worthwhile when you don’t know how well it will go, and then kill it when it’s proven itself important and effective. There’s some real real brilliance.

      • Have a look at the comments on my original post on this. You’ll see that Jim Brown for one agrees with you. And I can absolutely appreciate that point of view. I have more mixed feelings myself. You don’t want to get hidebound. NCEAS had already made a massive impact. In a sense, there was nowhere for it to go but downhill. Once you’ve changed the culture of an entire field, what do you do for an encore? And since funding NCEAS, or anything, always carries an opportunity cost, I do think NSF had to ask “Are there things we would rather spend our money on than NCEAS?” They decided that the answer was “Yes, we think it would be better to fund a center focused on bringing together biologists, physical scientists, and social scientists working on global change issues”. I don’t claim that you, or anyone, ought to necessarily agree with that decision (I don’t know if I agree with it or not). But as someone who’s argued for the need for more coordination of fundamental research efforts in order to enable us to better address global change, I hope you can appreciate why NSF made the decision it did. It may not have been the right decision, but I don’t think it was an obviously wrong decision.

        I guess what I say is that it’s a risky decision. NCEAS itself was initially a risky decision, but one that worked out brilliantly. Continuing to fund NCEAS would’ve been a low-risk decision, with rewards that, while perhaps not low, weren’t going to be nearly as high as they’d been in the past. I see NSF as having made a choice to take another big risk in the hopes of another big payoff.

        One element of the risk-reward calculation that I’ve just started thinking about is the extent to which the success of NCEAS was a product of the time at which it was founded. NCEAS was founded just at the time when the internet and advances in computing were making data compilation and sharing, and associated synthetic and collaborative work, much easier. Had you tried to found NCEAS in, say 1988, I doubt it would have been nearly as successful. If that’s right, then the question is “Are there big new opportunities in 2012 to fundamentally change and improve how we do ecology, and if there are, how can we take advantage of them?” I’ve phrased that carefully. I don’t know that there necessarily *are* any big new opportunities right now to fundamentally change and improve the way we do ecology. And perhaps NSF agrees, since as far as I understand (which is not that far), the new global change center is more of a response to perceived needs than perceived opportunities. We need to address global change, and we need to bring together physical scientists, biologists, and social scientists to do it. I certainly think there’s a risk that this new global change center will fail, because it is, by design, throwing away at least some of the open-endedness that was a strength of NCEAS (NCEAS interpreted its “synthesis” remit *very* broadly, more broadly I suspect than even some of its founders originally envisioned). But perhaps more important (and also much harder to gauge) is the risk that the new global change synthesis center will fail (or at least not have anything like the same impact as NCEAS) because the circumstances aren’t right for *any* center (new or old) to have NCEAS-like impact.

  4. Hi guys, we didn’t shut the doors. We did mark the end of NSF’s core funds during the symposium, certainly looked back on our years of growth with NSF, and used the symposium to gather ideas that look toward the future. We’ll be compiling the results of the symposium and sharing over the next few weeks (follow @nceas on twitter? we’ll update our homepage as well)… Hopefully it is just one of the steps toward engaging in a broader conversation that represents more viewpoints. We still have funding from a number of sources, and more projects in the works, and see lots of room for growth!

    • Thanks very much for the info, I’ve updated the post accordingly. I should not have leaped to the conclusion that NCEAS was shutting its doors once core NSF funding ended. I’ll correct some of my other comments appropriately in a sec.

  5. Indeed, I’m still sittin’ in my office staring at my computer. The doors do appear to still be open for the moment, and even have a working group in June, so…

  6. Also, as was tweeted and otherwise circulated yesterday, if you want to look at what was said at the symposium, the whole thing was being tweeted in real time at the #treas2012 hashtag. All of which is now archived at Storify. A lot of great information about the past and thoughts about the future.


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