Science at Notre Dame

Post by Jody Peters, PalEON Program Manager

While PalEON members come from a multitude of institutions from around the US and across the globe, there are a number of individuals based at the University of Notre Dame. Here at Notre Dame we are remembering Father Ted’s impact on the growth and development of scientific research at ND.

To learn about Father Hesburgh’s influence see:

The Magic of Science is its Complexity

Post by Lizzy Hare, sociocultural PhD student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her dissertation research is on the contributions of paleosciences to the development of forecast models that could be used for policy and management. PalEON is one component of her dissertation.

As an anthropologist of science, my goal is to try to discourage obsolete and idealized views of science through the development of more open and realistic accounts. My training is in cultural anthropology, a sub-discipline that has traditionally worked through the medium of ethnography – descriptive accounts of the customs and practices of people and cultures.

Credit: Climate Change Encyclopedia

Credit: Climate Change Encyclopedia

In my research, I am learning about the process of producing scientific knowledge about climate change adaptation so that I may write about this for a general audience. I hope to share the daily practices, the complexities, the passions, the concerns, as well as the monotony, the frustration and the many absolutely mundane decisions that go on “behind the scenes” of knowledge production, so that we can move beyond idealized understandings of science that have caused political trouble around issues pertaining to climate change adaptation.

There is a great body of information that could aid policymakers and land managers in developing climate change adaptation strategies, but the political climate is such that the issue is avoided, as if ignoring it will make it go away, or is discussed obliquely, as in Florida governor Rick Scott’s recent efforts to begin to address the consequences of climate change without mentioning its causes.

Credit: Rice University/

Credit: Rice University/

Part of the problem is declining trust in science by those who identify as politically conservative or moderate (Gauchat 2012). But thinking of the issue as simply a matter of conservatives versus liberals is a gross oversimplification. This is a part of the same cultural phenomenon that has led educated, high-income (and generally politically liberal) mothers to opt out of childhood vaccination schedules (Reich 2014). Both climate change skeptics and anti-vaxxers eschew scientific consensus, favoring instead the right to individual freedom to weigh evidence and make independent decisions. Adherents of this position see their method of knowledge acquisition (through shared first-hand accounts, anecdotal evidence, and sometimes even religious texts) to be equivalent to that produced in mainstream science.
Further, because it has become such a politically contentious topic, the polemics on both sides can make it difficult to take seriously those with dissenting opinions. Politicians with largely anti-science constituencies, such as Senator Coburn, have found it politically advantageous to scrutinize science in general and the NSF in particular, and the findings of his report were mocked in the conservative-serving media. On the other side of the spectrum, Michael Mann’s pugnacious and often condescending public persona demonstrates an utter disinterest in the reasons why people choose not to follow science.

Anthropologist of science, Myanna Lahsen and self-described conservative journalist Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry have written about how the public’s idealized perception of science contributes to the contention. According to Lahsen (2013) and Gobry, the public generally believes that science should be an objective broker of truth, independent of culture and politics. Members of the public are thus understandably confused, frustrated, and skeptical when scientific findings emphasize uncertainty or change from year to year or get involved in heated political debates. After all, if they are brokering in absolute Truth, a scientific finding would be the final word on a matter. Lahsen, following anthropologist Christopher Tourney (1996) calls the belief in an idealized science “scientific fundamentalism”. Gobry simply and more bluntly calls it a “botched” understanding of science.

Whether you see the idealized understanding of science as fundamentalist or flawed is relatively inconsequential. Of more immediate concern are the unrealistic expectations that these idealized understandings place on scientific findings. Not only do they discount the tremendous amount of work that goes into continually adjusting, refining, and occasionally revolutionizing scientific knowledge, but they also set up an expectation that science should be wholly without cultural or political influence. This is something that science simply cannot do. Lahsen (2013) shows how unrealistic expectations of science made the Climategate controversy more problematic than it ought to have been, because the “troubling” material that the hackers found in the Climatic Research Unit’s emails can only be considered problematic if there is an a priori assumption that science does not include making subjective decisions about data, analysis, and findings. Following Climategate, contrarian interpretations of climate change gained support in the United States, because it produced evidence that mainstream science is “flawed” by politics and therefore cannot produce Truth (capital T). If this is the case, so the logic goes, then other politically-motivated interpretations of science must be equally valid. (A great example of this kind of interpretative symmetry can be found in the Heartland Institute’s response to the article by Jank³ et al. (2014) that PalEON member Simon Goring described in his blog posts here).

To try to put an end to this argument, the belief that science is a perfect, objective, apolitical, knowledge-producing machine needs to be laid to rest. In place of that narrative we need one that explains the awesome, dynamic complexity of science in practice. There is absolutely no reason for why we need to exaggerate or make science appear magical, the history of science is truly impressive. After all, science has made possible unprecedented advances in knowledge, technology and quality of life.

References Cited:

Gauchat, G. (2012). Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974-2010. American Sociological Review 77(2):167-187.
Lahsen, M. (2013). Climategate: The role of the Social Sciences. Climatic Change 119:547-558.
Reich, J. (2014). Neoliberal Mothering and Vaccine Refusal: Imagined Gated Communities and the Privilege of Choice. Gender & Society 28(5):679-704.
Tourney, C. (1996). Conjuring Science: Scientific Symbols and Cultural Meanings in American Life. Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick.

You Are Suffering For the Greater Good of Science

Post by Simon Goring, Postdoc at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
This post originally appeared on downwithtime.

When you have hayfever you are suffering for the greater good of science.”
-Me. The Larry Meiller Show, WPR. July 16, 2014 [Program Archive]

Figure 1. Your pain is science's gain. Pollen may go into your nose, but it also enters aquatic environments where it is preserved in lake sediments. Photo Credit: flickr/missrogue

Figure 1. Your pain is science’s gain. Pollen may go into your nose, but it also enters aquatic environments where it is preserved in lake sediments. Photo Credit: flickr/missrogue

Of course, I was talking paleoecology and the way we use airborne pollen trapped in lake sediments to help improve models of future climate change. We improve models by reconstructing forests of the past. This is one of the central concepts in PalEON (not suffering, paleoecology): Improve ecosystem model predictions for the future by testing them on independent reconstructions of the past. Give greater weight to models that perform well, and improve models that perform poorly.

I was lucky to be on the Larry Meiller Show along with Paul Hanson to discuss PalEON and GLEON, two large scale ecological projects with strong links to The University of Wisconsin. We talked a bit about climate change, large scale research, science funding, open science and historical Wisconsin. It was lots of fun and you can check out the archive here.

I feel like I was a little more prepared for this interview than I have been in the past. Jack Williams passed along his (autographed) copy of Escape from the Ivory Tower by Nancy Baron. The book helped me map out my “message box” and gave me a much better sense of what people might want to hear, as opposed to the things I wanted to talk about (how much can I talk about uncertainty, age modelling and temporal connectivity?). It was useful, and I hope I came off as well prepared and excited by my research (because I am). Regardless, just like learning R, public outreach is a skill, and one that I am happy to practice, if only because I intend to keep doing it.

Anyway, enough science outreach for one week. With this blog post and WPR I’m well above quota!

PalEON on TV

Posted by Jody Peters, PalEON Program Manager

The elevator pitch (a 30 second to 2 min synopsis of your research) is critical for sharing science with other scientists and the general public. However, developing this pitch usually does not come naturally to most people. It is something that needs to be practiced. Recently Jason McLachlan and Sam Pecararo from the University of Notre Dame, had the opportunity to practice their pitches in featured segments on Outdoor Elements, a show on our local PBS station. Not only did Jason and Sam have to prepare their elevator pitch, but they also had to come up with visual props that would be interesting to view on TV.  We think they both did a great job condensing their science stories into a few minutes!

Jason’s segment, Paleobotany & Climate Change, originally aired on Feb 9, 2014 and focused on PalEON in general and specifically described some of our work with tree data from the Public Land Survey. After he was taped for this segment last fall, Jason wrote a blog post about what he wished he would have said. Compare what he wished he would have said to what actually was aired!


Sam’s segment, Tree Coring, originally aired on February 16, 2014 and featured Sam coring a tree and talking about using tree rings to get an idea of how climate or other environmental variables influence tree growth.


Check out these segments to see Jason and Sam’s elevator pitch for some of the work of PalEON! Click on the links or photos above and scroll down to where it says “Play segment” to view. Each segment is approximately 7 minutes long.


Macrosystems Ecology: The More We Know The Less We Know.

Post by Simon Goring, Postdoc at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
This post originally appeared at downwithtime.

Dynamic Ecology had a post recently asking why there wasn’t an Ecology Blogosphere. One of the answers was simply that as ecologists we often recognize the depth of knowledge of our peers and as such, are unlikely (or are unwilling) to comment in an area that we have little expertise. This is an important point. I often feel like the longer I stay in academia the more I am surprised when I can explain a concept outside my (fairly broad) subject area clearly and concisely. It surprises me that I have depth of knowledge in a subject that I don’t directly study.

Of course, it makes sense. We are constantly exposed to ideas outside our disciplines in seminars, papers, on blogs & twitter, and in general discussions, but at the same time we are also exposed to people with years of intense disciplinary knowledge, who understand the subtleties and implications of their arguments.  This is exciting and frightening.  The more we know about a subject, the more we know what we don’t know. Plus, we’re trained to listen to other people.  We ‘grew up’ academically under the guidance of others, who often had to correct us, so when we get corrected out of our disciplines we are often likely to defer, rather than fight.

This speaks to a broader issue though, and one that is addressed in the latest issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.  The challenges of global change require us to come out of our disciplinary shells and to address challenges with a new approach, defined here as Macrosystems Ecology.  At large spatial and temporal scales – the kinds of scales at which we experience life – ecosystems cease being disciplinary.  Jim Heffernan and Pat Soranno, in the lead paper (Heffernan et al., 2014) detail three ecological systems that can’t be understood without cross-scale synthesis using multi-disciplinary teams.

Figure 1. From Heffernan et al. (2014), multiple scales and disciplines interact to explain patterns of change in the Amazon basin.

Figure 1. From Heffernan et al. (2014), multiple scales and disciplines interact to explain patterns of change in the Amazon basin.

The Amazonian rain forest is a perfect example of a region that is imperiled by global change, and can benefit from a Macrosystems approach.  Climate change and anthropogenic land use drives vegetation change, but vegetation change also drives climate (and, ultimately, land use decisions). This is further compounded by teleconnections related to societal demand for agricultural products around the world and the regional political climate. To understand and address ecological problems in this region then, we need to understand cross-scale phenomena in ecology, climatology, physical geography, human geography, economics and political science.

Macrosystems proposes a cross-scale effort, linking disciplines through common questions to examine how systems operate at regional to continental scales, and at multiple temporal scales.  These problems are necessarily complex, but by bringing together researchers in multiple disciplines we can begin to develop a more complete understanding of broad-scale ecological systems.

Interdisciplinary research is not something that many of us have trained for as ecologists (or biogeographers, or paleoecologists, or physical geographers. . . but that’s another post).  It is a complex, inter-personal interaction that requires understanding of the cultural norms within other disciplines.  Cheruvelil et al. (2014) do a great job of describing how to achieve and maintain high-functioning teams in large interdisciplinary projects, and Kendra also discusses this further in a post on her own academic blog.

Figure 2. Interdisciplinary research requires effort in a number of different areas, and these efforts are not recognized under traditional reward structures.

Figure 2. From Goring et al., (2014). Interdisciplinary research requires effort in a number of different areas, and these efforts are not recognized under traditional reward structures.

In Goring et al. (2014) we discuss a peculiar issue that is posed by interdisciplinary research.  The reward system in academia is largely structured to favor disciplinary research.  We refer to this in our paper as a disciplinary silo.  You are in a department of X, you publish in the Journal of X, you go to the International Congress of X and you submit grant requests to the X Program of your funding agency.  All of these pathways are rewarded, and even though we often claim that teaching and broader outreach are important, they are important inasmuch as you need to not screw them up completely (a generalization, but one I’ve heard often enough).

As we move towards greater interdisciplinarity we begin to recognize that simply superimposing the traditional rewards structure onto interdisciplinary projects (Figure 2) leaves a lot to be desired.  This is particularly critical for early-career researchers.  We are asking these researchers (people like me) to collaborate broadly with researchers around the globe, to tackle complex issues in global change ecology, but, when it comes time to assess their research productivity we don’t account for the added burden that interdisciplinary research can require of a researcher.

Now, I admit, this is self-serving.  As an early career researcher, and member of a large interdisciplinary team (PalEON), much of what we propose in Goring et al. (2014) strongly reflects on my own personal experience.  Outreach activities, the complexities of dealing with multiple data sources, large multi-authored papers, posters and talks, and the coordination of researchers across disciplines are all realities for me, and for others in the project, but ultimately, we get evaluated on grants and papers.  The interdisciplinary model of research requires effort that never gets valuated by hiring or tenure committees.

That’s not to say that hiring committees don’t consider this complexity, and I know they’re not just looking for Nature and Science papers, but at the same time, there is a new landscape for researchers out there, and we’re trying to evaluate them with an old map.

In Goring et al. (2014) we propose a broader set of metrics against which to evaluate members of large interdisciplinary teams (or small teams, there’s no reason to be picky).  This list of new metrics (here) includes traditional metrics (numbers of papers, size of grants), but expands the value of co-authorship, recognizing that only one person is first in the authorship list, even if people make critical contributions; provides support for non-disciplinary outputs, like policy reports, dataset generation, non-disciplinary research products (white papers, books) and the creation of tools and teaching materials; and adds value to qualitative contributions, such as facilitation roles, helping people communicate or interact across disciplinary divides.

This was an exciting set of papers to be involved with, all arising from two meetings associated with the NSF Macrosystems Biology program (part of NSF BIO’s Emerging Frontiers program).  I was lucky enough to attend both meetings, the first in Boulder CO, the second in Washington DC.  As a post-doctoral researcher these are the kinds of meetings that are formative for early-career researchers, and clearly, I got a lot out of it.  The Macrosystems Biology program is funding some very exciting programs, and this Frontiers issue attempts to get to the heart of the Macrosystems approach. It is the result of many hours and days of discussion, and many of the projects are already coming to fruition.  It is an exciting time to be an early-career researcher, hopefully you agree!

Why should we care?

Post by Jason McLachlan, University of Notre Dame Professor

On Friday, we had a film crew from a local natural history show Outdoor Elements on campus to film a couple of segments on PalEON. I led a segment on the changes in vegetation from the era of European settlement to the present and Sam Pecoraro led a segment on tree-rings. The host and director, Evie Kirkwood, asked each of us to come up with some photogenic activities and to think about why the Outdoor Elements viewers should care about our work.

(1) The first part was easy. Jody and Zoe helped me pull together the settlement-era PLS survey data for the area that would later be the Notre Dame campus. Zoe and Jody overlaid the modern campus road system on top of the original survey map and the transition is striking. Back in 1829, when William Brookfield surveyed the area, Saint Joseph’s Lake and Saint Mary’s Lake are shown as a single lake (which was separated in the mid-1800s to reduce swampy lake margins). The creek draining this lake into the Saint Joseph River is now an underground culvert.


Resurveying the corner trees shows a transition to smaller trees in places that are now forested, and a transition to larger trees in open grown or ornamental settings. The broader settlement-era landscape includes long-gone features like the “Portage Prairie” along the canoe portage to the Kankakee River. Evie asked us if any of the original settlement-era trees still existed. The only plausible candidate we know of is this white oak on campus. It’s size and open grown form make it a plausible survivor, but it’s hollow, so we don’t really know if it was around when William Brookfield first passed by.

Meanwhile, Sam cored trees at the resurveyed PLS points for the camera. Sam cuts a rugged figure in his field gear (no picture available) and he is far more articulate than I am. Chelsea Merriman had earlier helped him prepare replicate cores for analysis, so, like Julia Child, Sam was able to instantly pull out sanded and counted tree-cores for the show.

(2) Getting our message across was much clumsier for me. Evie Kirkwood is a real pro and she made it as easy as possible for us, but academics are trained to be bad communicators, I felt really stumbly trying to get the magnificence of PalEON across in 7 minutes.

Here’s what I wish I’d said:

“We care about this for two reasons: First, we think we know our home, but what we think is permanent is transitional. Everyone hates to see changes in their town, or their neighborhood, or the landscape of their youth, but these things always change. Even when William Brookfield surveyed this township in 1829, it was changing, recovering from the French and Indian wars. (Everyone should read Richard White’s, “The Middle Ground”). PalEON shows us the pace and character of this change, so we can understand where we live.

Second, we know a lot about how the world will change moving forward, but not enough. The models we have for anticipating our impact on the atmosphere and the biosphere are stunningly clever and powerful. But they are also too simple (they are supposed to be simple). I’m not sure if we will ever provide the accurate forecasts that policymakers seek, but our best effort will combine these models with data on how ecosystems really change. That’s what PalEON does.”

Here’s what I actually said:

Actually, I don’t remember what I actually said. I was really nervous. What I was thinking was: “Am I supposed to look at Evie or the guy with the camera? Did I just stick my arm right in front of Zoe’s face? Shit. I forgot to mention the changing stem densities! Does this new haircut make my face look fat?”

Luckily for me, Evie is a good editor; we gave them a lot of good visuals; and Sam is a natural in front of the camera. Everyone says I didn’t look nervous and I made sense. We’ll see when the show hits the air in 2014.