The power of coffee … a comfy sofa and a bit of a chinwag

When I was an undergraduate I walked into the coffee area of our zoology building and was informed that “some of the most important papers on animal behavior were written here”.  It was a somewhat ugly coffee area in an ugly concrete building, with vinyl covered plywood tables and bright orange upholstered bucket chairs that looked like they had escaped from Austin Power’s 1960s love pad. The coffee wasn’t even good, in fact the zoologists were highly envious of the botany department who had a tea trolley with excellent tea and chocolate covered cookies, but I digress… The coffee area was the place to be as that was where everyone in the department congregated, talked about what they were reading or working on, and most importantly, brain-stormed ideas.  Sure there was a certain amount of procrastination going on, with faculty avoiding having to go back to grading, hiding from sheets of data that had to be entered onto excel spread sheets, or balking at yet another hundred samples to analyze back in the labs. But the collegiality that there was in that coffee area: with undergrads chatting to the “silverbacks” of the zoology faculty, sharing their innovative ideas, and getting mentoring advice in return; or scientists from different disciplines advising on different or new techniques to colleagues that had encountered a brick wall in their research progress; was quite frankly more valuable than many lectures, and worth the price of a disgusting cup of instant coffee. Our department was not alone. At the famous big science facility CERN, home of the large hadron collider, there are whiteboards in the lunchrooms because when the scientists there get together they can’t but help brainstorm ideas, and this is encouraged as some of these lunch time collaborations have yielded important scientific fruit.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that conferences are a necessity for the growth of an academic. They give you a chance to share your ideas with other academics to receive support, or possibly criticism, so that you can strengthen and refine your analysis and your interpretation of your data. They are important events to find out the methods and results of peers in your field, information that could be incorporated into your own studies. Informal places where you can get advice, share ideas and develop research and writing partnerships. Rare is the conference where I don’t come home with a note book full of contacts to email, studies to cite and methods to try out. You can travel around the world to find a venue to discuss and debate with your peers. But isn’t it ironic that there are often few of such places within a university?

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Scientific Stockholm Syndrome

In response to unprofessional behavior by another scientist, a marine science colleague recently stated that they were so used to bad behavior in their area of research that they just accepted it as normal, and that they basically had “Stockholm syndrome”. Sadly this all too common, that unprofessional behavior in some fields and areas is so common (whether it be academic bullying and hazing, plagiarizing and stealing ideas and data, or sexism and harassment see The Dark Side of Academia) that it becomes the accepted norm. This is particularly prevalent in fields that are small and insular.


Stockholm, despite its associated syndrome, is really quite lovely

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So you’ve been asked to review a manuscript? – Tips for the novice reviewer

Review a manuscript

Any scientist who is trying to publish relies upon the generosity of other scientists to peer-review their work. As any scientist will tell you, this has pros and cons – constructive advice can greatly improve a manuscript and fix flaws, but on the cons side every scientist has stories about the infamous “reviewer #3” who makes every scientist’s life hell at some time or other. As you start to build a name for yourself, you’ll be asked to review manuscripts, and you should! Reviewing manuscripts is an essential task for any academic and is an integral part of academic life – it is basically an obligation. But there is generally no class on “how to review manuscripts” despite it being a critical part of an academic’s job, and the reviewer has a huge responsibility: your review could potentially make, or seriously hamper, someone’s career. Moreover, doing a poor job reviewing could let bad, unscientific research get published, or even prevent important research getting accepted. To help navigate the minefield of reviewing, here are some tips and suggestions for the novice reviewer…

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The Yellow Admirals of Academia

As a fan of nautical writers CS Forester and Patrick O’Brian* I do like reading the rollocking adventures of the intrepid Captains of His Majesty’s Navy avasting their mainsails and hoisting their topgallants against the scourge of Emperor Napoleon’s forces. In these books I discovered a new nautical term, a “Yellow Admiral”.

When naval captains of the 18th/19th Century achieved seniority they were promoted to the ranks of admiral. There was no promotion on merit, it was simply a case of surviving until a position opened up. There were three ranks of Admiral (rear Admiral, Vice Admiral and Full Admiral) for each of the main naval forced: the Red, White and Blue squadrons, which were patrolling key strategic areas of the world’s oceans. However, there were some captains that you really did not want to be in charge of a single ship, let alone a naval battle group. These individuals were dubbed “Yellow Admirals” and were given administrative positions on land. As a result, a lot of naval logistics in the Napoleonic wars was mired by incompetence, ego-driven power plays, and financial irregularities. We have something similar in academia: instead we don’t call them Yellow Admirals, we call them Associate Deans.

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In the future all scientific research will be funded by Taco Bell …


At my university, we recently received a missive from the academic powers that be that faculty research productivity (and thus promotion, raises and tenure) will primarily be measured by the “amount of research funding (direct and indirect) received by the department and the college”.

I think this is a major problem and is a common one across universities.

It’s well known that some fields have lots of research funding available, while other fields don’t (for example). So effectively the above missive means that academic hiring and promotion decisions will not be done on a level playing field. Read More

Got grants? New small grants for marine conservation launched by SCB Marine

The Society for Conservation Biology Marine Section (SCB Marine) has just  initiated their Conservation Small Grants Program (CSGP) to fund worthy conservation projects around the globe.

Society for Conservation Biology - Marine Section's photo.

The grants will vary from $500-$700 and priority is being given to individuals from developing countries and those working in developing countries, where projects a small amount of money could make a big difference. The application form is short and simple and some suggested activities that describe the sort of projects that could be funded include:

providing materials to train local residents to reduce impacts of human activities on marine animals and their habitats;

developing educational materials or equipment for teaching fishers to reduce bycatch;

surveys of previously un-surveyed areas to evaluate status and conservation of marine organisms or habitats.

You can find out more about the program at :

Applications for funding are due by October 1st and queries can be sent to: [email protected].

 What is particularly nice is the efforts that have been made to make the application process accessible to all marine scientists with large type, translated and even braille versions of the application material being available.
So if you have a developing country project where $500 would make a big difference, do think about applying, or forward the details to a colleague for whom this grant might be helpful !

When conservation scientists talk the talk but don’t walk the walk

A couple of days ago I was at a big meeting to welcome environmental scientists into our university. The catering supplied by the university came on non-recyclable plastic, with non-recyclable plastic glasses cups for drinks and some food items that were from infamously unsustainable sources. Instead of going away saying what a great program, half of those going out of the door were talking about the catering faux pas. To be fair, the organizers didn’t expect catering was going to bring the environmental equivalent of platters of grilled panda marinated in dolphin tears, but then again this is something that perhaps they might have anticipated – after all the University administrators have put the Environmental Science Department in one of the most energy inefficient, environmentally unfriendly buildings on campus. In winter, you can see plumes of heat and asbestos leaking from the faculty’s office windows from miles away.

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How to NOT get ahead in advertising – what many conservation NGOs are doing wrong

This year’s International Congress for Conservation Biology had a special double symposium on conservation marketing. What is conservation marketing I hear you ask? Well it’s using the tried and tested techniques from the advertising field, behind which there is a significant amount of research, to increase public awareness and especially change public behavior to aid conservation. Conservation marketing is already being used by several NGOs and initiatives – RARE for example. The Society for Conservation Biology has recently set up a working group for Conservation Marketing and Engagement* as it’s believed that this technique could help highlight many endangered species and highlight important conservation issues.

In this symposium myself and several colleagues had a presentation on why the advertising campaigns of conservation NGOs are doing things wrong – specifically these campaigns are often geared towards fundraising, telling members and especially donors what a great job they’re doing, launching surveys or petitions that do little to help conservation, oh and more fund- raising. The general public has a dire understanding of the need for biodiversity conservation or endangered species, and instead of increasing awareness and getting the public to change their behavior to act in a more pro-conservation manner, NGOs are instead concentrating on …hey did I mention fund-raising?!

As the result of many requests for copies of the presentation slides, I’ve decided to make them available for Southern Fried Science. Most of the slides are self explanatory. Feel free to copy and steal memes you like and count up the number of geeky references ….

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The difference between animal welfare and animal rights

I have just attended a big international conservation meeting for the past week and there was a lot of discussion about the “Cecil the Lion Phenomenon.” In many discussions, the terms animal welfare and animal rights were brought up frequently, and it was very clear that many conservation scientists do not know the difference between the terms, or the differences between those who advocate on issues that are more about individuals than species or populations. When the term “welfare” was brought up, it was often with scorn and PETA was almost always the organisation that was given as an example. This really does show a fundamental lack of understanding about advocates and organisations that represent individual animals, and that could be major (even essential) assets and allies in conservation.

The terms “welfare” and “rights” cover a wide spectrum; lumping them together is like lumping Democrats (left wing liberals) and Republicans (right wing conservatives) together and making no distinction because they are both political parties. There are nuances, but as a basic primer, here are some (very) approximate distinctions:

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In an Adventure …. with Scientists ! (…or why does America hate science so much?)

In the UK “The pirates ! In an adventure with scientists” an animated movie by Aardman Animations (the studio behind Wallace & Gromit) saw some success at the movie box office. The film was based by on the popular book by the same name by Gideon Defoe, which features, as the name suggests, pirates, Charles Darwin and scientists of the Royal Society. When the movie was screened in the US however, the title was changed to “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” because it was thought that American children would avoid a movie with scientists in. All reference to Darwin, who was one of the main characters, was also removed from US trailers, presumably because evolution is viewed as ‘controversial’ in the US.

Why is it science is such seen this way in the US?

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