Posted by: Jeremy Fox | May 20, 2011

It’s the end of NCEAS as we know it (and I feel fine)

As reported in Science this week, the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) will be winding down within a year or so (at least in its current form), as its NSF funding reaches its long-planned end. Approximately half of NCEAS funding (about $3 million USD/year) comes from its host university, the University of California-Santa Barbara. The University says they are searching for more funding and want to do everything they can to keep NCEAS going. But even if they succeed there will surely be big changes. And the director of NCEAS, Ed McCauley, has just left to return to the University of Calgary as Vice President (Research)*, further drawing a line under NCEAS in its current form. So now seems an appropriate time to reflect on NCEAS’ legacy.

A previous post summarizes some of the prehistory of NCEAS, and the Science article is entirely correct about how successful and influential NCEAS was. That success is proving difficult to replicate–for instance, the NSF evolutionary synthesis center, NESCent, hasn’t been nearly as successful. Part of the difficulty of replicating NCEAS probably reflects NCEAS’ location. Everybody wants an excuse to go to Santa Barbera. I’ve heard from colleagues who’ve participated in NCEAS working groups that NCEAS staff sometimes complain about their location, taking the view that the working groups would work harder if they weren’t distracted by the beaches, bars, and restaurants. Surely they recognize that, if it weren’t for those beaches, bars, and restaurants, it’d be a lot harder to get people to participate in working groups at all?

A big part of NCEAS’ success was the open-ended nature of its calls for proposals–they always interpreted ‘synthetic’ work very broadly. There was no systematic effort, for instance, to focus on large-scale biogeographic and comparative patterns (‘macroecology’). NCEAS supported postdocs and working groups doing things like conducting meta-analyses of the experimental literature, or theoretical modeling. As long as you weren’t proposing to collect new data, you probably had a shot at getting funded.

And that’s probably NCEAS’ biggest legacy–the sense that the answers to all, or at least many, of our questions are already out there, in existing data that just needs to be pulled together. It’s easy to see the attraction of this approach, especially in a discipline like ecology where data often are noisy (so that you need as much data as possible to tease out a signal) and can take years to obtain (so that you really want to make the most of the data you already have). Plus, the internet has made collaboration and data sharing much easier.

But I do wonder if there will ever be pushback at some point. As the saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Similarly, if all you have is the data you’ve currently got, every question looks like one that can be answered with those data. Especially if, consciously or unconsciously, we start choosing our questions based on whether they can be answered with existing data. Or even redefining our questions so that they can be answered with existing data. Synthesizing existing data often is easier and faster than collecting new data. But nobody said ecology was easy.

A useful comparison here is another ecological research center, which predates NCEAS, became very famous right around the time NCEAS began, and which still exists today: the Centre for Population Biology (CPB) at Imperial College London’s Silwood Park campus. I was a postdoc at Silwood for 4 years. In many ways it was much like NCEAS. The core of the CPB was a group of about 20 or so postdocs, working on essentially whatever research they wanted to work on. There was a continuous influx of new ideas as the postdocs got permanent jobs and were replaced by new postdocs. The host university had a very strong group of ecologists and evolutionary biologists on the faculty, and there were frequent extended visits from internationally-leading ecologists (no working groups, though). But there was a big difference: the CPB is all about collecting new data (with the exception of the Global Population Dynamics Database, which CPB curates). Most famously, CPB houses a multi-million dollar custom-built controlled environment facility, the Ecotron, used to conduct pioneering experiments on biodiversity and ecosystem function (Naeem et al. 1994). Those experiments addressed questions that couldn’t have been addressed in any other way, certainly not by synthesizing existing data, since there wasn’t any.

It’s interesting to me that the CPB seems not to have inspired any imitators, while NCEAS has inspired more than a dozen. One reason is money–the Ecotron was expensive to build. But as important as the Ecotron was to the CPB’s success, only a fraction of the CPB’s research output was from the Ecotron experiments. Personally, I think that copying CPB, sans Ecotron, would be a very interesting thing to try. The $3 million/year that UCSB puts into NCEAS could pay for a critical mass of postdocs doing their own data collection, if that’s the direction UCSB wanted to go.

Not everything NCEAS did was equally successful. NCEAS has put a lot of resources into ‘ecoinformatics’, but I can’t say I’m aware of any impact of that work. Perhaps it’s had impact in subfields of ecology far from my own. The sort of datasets I (and everyone I know) work with can be handled easily on an ordinary laptop with ordinary software like Excel and R. I’m currently leading a working group on plankton dynamics for the Canadian Institute for Ecology and Evolution (another attempt to replicate NCEAS), and we’re getting along just fine without any ecoinformatics or high performance computing resources.

NCEAS’ legacy is secure. It changed the culture of the entire field of ecology. That’s why I’m personally not too worried about the fact that NCEAS is winding down in its current form. It’s the end of NCEAS as we know it, and I feel fine. NCEAS will live on through its imitators, and in the attitudes and approach of a whole generation of ecologists. As we look towards the future, I hope we as a field will continue to experiment and to pursue a range of approaches to ecology. There was a time when NCEAS was a big gamble–we wouldn’t be living up to NCEAS’ legacy if we stopped gambling.

*Neither I nor anyone I know at Calgary had any advance notice that Ed was coming back. We’re as surprised as you are. And no, I haven’t heard any gossip about the reasons for Ed’s decision. I assume he missed the snow. 😉

p.s. Near the end of my time at Silwood, I applied to do a postdoc at NCEAS. My application was deservedly rejected. I didn’t have any good ideas for a synthetic project so I basically proposed a fishing expedition that was spotted for what it was.

p.p.s. The title of the post is a play on the title of this song.


  1. I just want to add my agreement with this post. Will it be published in Oikos?
    This is indeed the end of NCEAS as we have known it. It is a tragedy for the US and international communities. I was a member of most of the committees and workshops that led to the founding of NCEAS. I can say that it FAR EXCEEDED our most optimistic hopes and expectations. Yes, its legacy is awesome. It was still serving its function. Although it could have used some fine tuning in preparation for the next decade, I cannot see any good reason for discontinuing NCEAS at Santa Barbara in pretty much its present for. But nobody asked me. I guess that it was politics, which I detest, especially when it harms good science.
    Jim Brown
    University of New Mexico
    P.S. I did not sign on for the blog because I already get too much e-mail. But I am really upset about this.

    • Thank you very much for your comments Jim. It was my hope that this post would attract some comments from folks like you, who (unlike me) have actually been closely involved with NCEAS.

      ‘I feel fine’ about the end of NCEAS in its current form because its legacy is secure. While NCEAS is still going strong, it’s hard to imagine that its future work would continue to have as much impact–if you’ve already changed the culture of an entire field, there’s nowhere to go but down. Having said that, from the point of view of NSF resource allocation the relevant comparison is not really future-NCEAS vs. past-NCEAS, but future-NCEAS vs. future-something-else. So yes, I basically agree with your point: if NCEAS is still going strong, NSF needs to be pretty confident in the need for, and in the future success of, the new environmental change synthesis center to be willing to allocate resources away from the former and to the latter. Presumably they would say that they do have that confidence, and that taking the risk of replacing a known quantity (NCEAS) with something new is something they need to do because to have major impacts you need to keep taking risks rather than resting on your laurels. I’m not saying I necessarily buy that argument in this particular case, I’m just imagining the sort of argument NSF would need to make to justify the decision. Certainly, one hopes that the decision was not driven by political considerations such as the notion that UCSB has ‘had their turn’ and that it’s someone else’s turn to have a synthesis center now.

      It will be interesting to see if the new synthesis center succeeds. Being in Canada I haven’t followed it that closely, but its my impression that its remit is in some ways narrower than that of NCEAS (focused on global environmental change), but in some ways broader (bringing together physical, social, and biological scientists). Whether those differences in remit increase or decrease its likelihood of success, I’m not sure. Of course, in a sense the new center is almost doomed to fail, or to be seen as a failure, in that it is replacing NCEAS but can hardly be expected to match NCEAS’ legacy.

      p.s. Currently there aren’t any plans to publish this post (or any other post) in Oikos, but I’m flattered at the suggestion and will have a word with the EiC about it.

  2. […] a bit of attention, including this nice piece in Science [1].  I was particularly intrigued by Oikos’s treatment of this, in which Oikos editor Jeremy Fox writes,that’s probably NCEAS’ biggest legacy–the sense that […]

  3. Jeremy, very nice post. Found the bits about synthetic science nicely provocative, I think that’s a good discussion to have and think you’ve hit on some key issues; such as that most of us aren’t doing synthetic work that requires eco-informatics or high-performance computing, and that if all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail. I just interpret those things a bit differently, you seem to imply that we have enough synthetic research, I thought your observations made a good case for why we need more.

    You inspired me to write my thoughts on this here:

    Thanks again for a nice column, I too would like to see it published in Oikos.

    • Thanks Carl, glad you liked the column. I’ve posted a detailed reply on your blog. Here, I’ll just briefly clarify that I’m not saying that we have ‘enough’ synthetic research. My point is that the risks have shifted. Because time and money are finite, there are always trade-offs between different approaches to science, and opportunity costs to pursuing one approach rather than another. I think we ought to use existing data to answer our questions when that’s the best way to do so, and collect new data to answer our questions when that’s the best way to do so. Pre-NCEAS, I’m sure we were failing to take full advantage of existing data. Post-NCEAS, I think the risk is that we’ll sometimes (not all the time, obviously) rely on existing data when it would be better to collect new data.

      Post-NCEAS, I also think there’s a risk that we’ll let the data we have available, or that are rapidly becoming cheaper and easier to collect (e.g., gene sequence data) shape the questions we ask. I’m not sure that’s a good idea–I’m a ‘question-first’ guy. That’s what I really meant by the ‘if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail’ remark–the risk that we’ll sometimes (again, not all the time) let whatever data we happen to have dictate or circumscribe our choice of question.

      The EiC, Tim Benton, is considering whether we ought to publish some posts in Oikos, or perhaps revised versions that incorporate comments. There are reasons to do this, but also reasons not to.

  4. […] in large part to the influence of NCEAS, more and more ecologists are involved in collaborative research networks these days. Via email, […]

  5. […] Why I’m not worried about the end of NCEAS […]

  6. […] wouldn’t be any last-minute reprieve for the center. Now seems like an appropriate time to link back to those thoughts. Share this:FacebookTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

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