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How Important Is Long-Term Ecological Research?

By Dan Blumstein
Originally posted on the Huffington Post
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We Americans love our baseball. According to baseballplayersalaries.com, Alex Rodriguez was the highest-paid baseball player in 2012, earning a cool $29 million for his efforts. Meanwhile, the payroll of the best-paid team, the Yankees, was $210,430,969, and the payroll of the worst-paid team, the Astros, was $36,987,370. Clearly, we value America's pastime. But how much do we value America's future?

America's future will be based on scientific and technical knowledge. Knowledge is created by having an excellent education system (something that we're struggling to maintain given rampant underfunding by municipalities and states), and knowledge is created through research. Here I'll suggest that it's not just the biomedical and engineering research that is important; all research contributes to the mix of knowledge that will help us solve the world's problems, and diversity is required to spur innovation. Importantly, I believe the federal government plays a vital role in ensuring that there is sufficient research support for non-biomedical fields.

I'm going to write about the environmental biology budget for the National Science Foundation. The NSF website says, "The Division of Environmental Biology (DEB) supports fundamental research on populations, species, communities, and ecosystems." What this means is that they fund a lot of the studies that give us the tools to manage the effects of climate change, to understand the consequences of a toxifying and urbanizing environment on animals and plants in nature, and to develop a fundamental understanding of the constraints on an evolutionary response to a the new world we're so rapidly creating. It's important stuff, you may think, but by some objective measures, we as a society don't agree.

The 2012 budget request for DEB was $142.5 million — much less than the best-paid baseball team. Of this, only $139 million goes directly to fund research. That's $139 million to the entire country. Given that NSF must be concerned about spreading its funds around the country, you could say that on average less than $3 million of DEB research funds go to a given state (in practice, it's a bit more variable than this). About half these funds are available to support new projects; the rest of the money goes to support already funded projects.

Ecological field studies are not all created equal. Most last two to three years (the duration of a M.S. or Ph.D. student's field research), and while some important things can be discovered in two to three years of work, to understand nature in sufficient detail to solve our future environmental problems, we'll need to know more about species and ecological systems that can be created over short-term studies. Fortunately, the NSF DEB supports a particularly important program if you value such long-term research; it's called the Long Term Research in Environmental Biology (LTREB) program.

LTREB supports projects that have been going for at least five to 10 years and show promise of creating new insights over the next five to 10 years. What sorts of insights can long-term research generate? Certainly anything that involves how a population responds to climate change. Additionally, studies of how changes in land-use practices influence species abundance or diversity are enabled by long-term research. Moreover, anything that involves understanding the limits to evolutionary adaptation over time can only be learned from long-term studies. That's valuable stuff, right? So what do you think our society values it at? In other words, what's the NSF budget for LTREB? Guess.

I bet you thought it would be more than $3 million. This supports six to eight new grants a year. In case you think it's easy to get these funds, let me just say in a sentence: It's not! Depending on the exact program, in NSF, 5 to 15 pecent of proposed projects are funded, and in many cases budgets are cut to the quick. I will note that NSF is smart and the LTREB massively leverages their funds with other programs within the NSF in an attempt to double the $3 million from the program, but still, that's not much given the value to society of the research that it supports.

Think about this for a moment: Many baseball players make more than is awarded by a program in NSF that gives us the tools and understanding to manage some of humanities' biggest ecological and environmental issues.

Now I'm a bit biased here, because I now run a long-term (51 years and counting) study of yellow-bellied marmots that's based at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL), a mecca for long-term ecological research. Our study has already generated novel insights about how marmots respond to climate change (marmots emerge earlier and have been getting larger) and how the environment drives population size (marmots don't do to well in long winters and dry summers), and we've learned a lot about their social behavior, antipredator behavior and communication. A number of these insights inform the current generation of population models we're developing now, and we're just now able to look at how natural selection has been acting over the past decades.

I'm very grateful for project-sustaining funds I get from LTREB, but the pie simply must get bigger, not to make my life easier but to enhance all of our lives. The pie must get bigger because our society and our Earth need the knowledge generated by long-term ecological research. The pie must get bigger because things are changing rapidly, and the rules of change must be decoded now. We're running out of time to understand the ecology around us so that we can manage it in a hotter, drier, stormier world.

Going over the fiscal cliff will destroy non-essential government research funding. But even if we don't go over that cliff, we all need to realize the importance of long-term ecological research. Isn't producing the tools and knowledge to solve some of our major ecological and environmental problems at least as important as our national sport?

My neighbor and colleague Ward Watt originally came up with the baseball comparison, and I thank Ian Billick, Director of the RMBL, for sharing it with me and discussing many of these points.