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And then the rains came …

Tree Stories - Fri, 01/20/2012 - 09:52

malee-nature-lovers-bungalowCHIANG MAI, THAILAND —  ”Rain never come in January.”  Malee had overheard me predicting heavy rain for the night, as the black clouds swirled around the steep limestone cliffs at the base of Doi Luang. The clouds tore off in little wisps of vapor, black and menacing, and rose upward, obscuring the jagged, orange-stained, overhanging wall that was visible from Malee’s Nature Lover’s Bungalows in Chiang Dao. She brought 4 cups of home-roasted coffee, a basket of home made spring rolls, and two plates of coarsely cut French fries, stacked high, to the table and set these down in front of us.

“Not big rain, like you say now” she continued, “sometime small rain only.”  She pronounced the word “small” as suh-mawn. As spelled in Thai based on its Sanskrit origins, words that end with the equivalent of the letter “L” are pronounced as we pronounce “N”, which is one of the more endearing things about Thai speaking English, to my ear.

Malee, always cheerful, has been a friend of ours for more than a decade. Orawan and I stumbled upon this amazing place in 1998 while looking for field sites. I was in search of the two Thai pine species that were reported to grow in the area, and we drove up the narrow road that dead-ended at an amazing cliff side Buddhist temple about 1 km past her rustic sign. At that time hers was the only guesthouse in this entire area, surrounded by empty fields and jungle, and local villagers foraged the nearby forests for bamboo, edible plants, and anything else of use. We stayed there one night and it seemed within hours we were friends, and we stayed with her numerous times until about 5 years ago when we stopped working in the region. Malee came to our wedding in Chiang Mai in October 2001, one month after the terrible 9/11 attacks. Coming back here now was like visiting family again after a long absence. In the years that have passed much has changed, and now there are guesthouses everywhere on this road, in the true Thai fashion of mimicking what has proven successful. But still, in spite of the oversupply of copycat businesses, Malee’s is an oasis of peace and quiet, and her business is very successful.

buddhist temple

Cliffside buddhist wat near Malee's guest house.

It is true that it is highly unusual for heavy rain to fall between December and April in northern Thailand, the months that comprise the driest part of the annual dry season. In the two decades that Malee has run her business, neither she nor any of her staff can remember heavy January rains like that which we were about to get. In most years it remains virtually rain free from late November until late April, when the heat reaches unbearable heights and the humidity boils up from the Gulf of Thailand. That is when the rains come, in May and June, not now.

The rhythm of the Asian Monsoon, as reliable as your own heartbeat, tracks the movement of the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), which follows the migration of the sun’s most vertical ray from the Tropic of Capricorn in the Austral summer, to the Tropic of Cancer in Boreal summer — 23.5 degrees latitude in both hemispheres, respectively.  This is the stuff of Physical Geography 101, and I can still hear the booming voice of the late Dr. Dow, my undergraduate advisor and mentor:

“The ITCZ moves north and south with the seasons, and this means… What?… Brendan! What does it mean when the ITCZ moves north to 23.5 degrees latitude?” The fear that accompanied students in Dr. Dow’s classes was ubiquitous across the room, particularly for those inclined not to pay attention. I thought of Dr. Dow now, and how I am glad that I was one of the students who actually did pay attention.

“I don’t know, Malee, it sure looks like heavy rain to me.” I said.

“Not possible” she replied, “it not rain in January”.

Hours later, as the rain pounded the metal roof of our bungalow with hellish force for two straight hours I thought about how one of the lessons of the prior week’s workshop in Chiang Mai applied to the anomalous weather we were experiencing today. Dr. Andrew Bell, a post-doctoral fellow working with me for the past year, presented work we have been doing for our Greater Mekong Basin project that uses our long tree ring records to inform climate predictions with extremely simple models that even small-scale farmers might be able to use. There are predictions made by local religious leaders from nearly all countries in Southeast Asia, for example in Thai from the Nung Seu Bee Mai Mueng “Book of the Northern New Year” which gives some kind of guidance to farmers. What Andrew has found is that these predictions have some degree of predictive skill simply because climate has a tendency to show persistence from one year to the next, and to statisticians this can be modeled as autocorrelation.

brendan

Not only was it raining hard, it was cold too.

This feature of climate data is obvious when thinking about the seasonal shifts that we know well, for example, New York’s winter is cold, so there is a degree of correlation between January of one year and January of the next (i.e., both will be cold). The same is true for the dry season of Thailand — January will be dry in each year, hence the autocorrelation. The anomalous years, however, also tend towards persistence, such that if it is wetter or drier than usual (or colder or warmer, if you will) in a given season, the tendency to remain the same for the next year is slightly better odds than flipping a coin. So, if we assume persistence in the climate we can do a reasonably good job of predicting climate for the following season only. However, if we want to make informed 5-year or longer predictions, so that farmers might make more bold decisions about how and what to plant, and increase their profit margins, we need a better predictive tool than just guessing at persistence.

Andrew demonstrates that by using centuries or more of background data (e.g., long tree ring reconstructions of drought indices) one can do a pretty good job, far better than merely assuming persistence, at deciding what the next 5 years are going to be like, and the longer the record leading up to a given period, the better we do at predicting those next 5 years. The offshoot is more than just deciding what to plant, however. The real prize is in being able to use this information to give some form of blanket insurance to small-scale farmers, known as index insurance, which allows for coverage in case of drought or some other climate index value that is determined to be important. Interestingly, it is not the failure of the crops that is being insured, but the failure in the climate. Whether or not the climate adversely affects the crops is not relevant, as payout is made solely on the basis of climate. And by having lots and lots of small farmers buy into such a scheme, the greedy insurance companies can still make their profits and keep the costs low. For the GMB project, we are tasked with trying to find out how climate and its impacts can lead to conflict, what the parameters are for the conflict, and what factors are necessary to mitigate conflicts when they occur. We always believe that the past can help inform us of our present and our future, so using proxy records in these ways is done with this in mind.

doi luang after the rain

After the rain

The rain had ceased long enough for Orawan and me to walk out to meet our friends Paul and Anna, and their two children, Jonas and Amarita, who had gone out for a late lunch, and we joined them at the Chiang Dao Cave, about 2 km downhill from Malee’s. They sat out the rain in a small roadside restaurant, ordering food by pointing at things that looked appealing and hoping for good results. Paul and Anna are both seasoned travelers, and are no strangers to off-the-beaten-path locations, so they were enjoying their time in the village. We met them and strolled around the neighborhood, finding giant spiders and dead snakes, and an assortment of other horrible things the kids were fascinated with.

By the time we walked back to Malee’s it was near time for dinner, and the rain was beginning again. We had scarcely finished eating around 8:00 p.m. and walked back to our bungalow when the rain began in earnest. Broad sheets of water pounded the roof with a deafening roar until the morning light began to infiltrate our room. It was clear, that for today at least, the rains had come.

When it rains it pours. That phrase entered my mind, as I lay awake, eyes wide open, my wife breathing deeply beside me in the depths of slumber. Malee’s has always been one of the darkest places I have ever been at night, but on this night it was blacker than usual and I had a difficult time making out any features in the room through the impenetrable darkness. I had been having an inordinate number of interpersonal breakdowns with people lately, colleagues in particular, and I considered the notion that often things, negative things, come in groups or clusters, like rain falling. When it rains it pours.  I agonized over the role I may have played, either indirectly or perhaps through callous indifference, in developing these rifts with other people, and I wonder sometimes about karma, and about biorhythms or other phenomenon that can lead to such things. Or maybe it is just the way of the world that sometimes we enter anomalous periods and lots of shit goes wrong. My Vietnamese friends tell me that my age, 53, is a very unlucky year, as is 49.  I don’t remember much about 49, but in truth my 53rd year has been an outstanding year on many fronts. However, whatever is wrong with the cosmos lately that has me offside of so many people could be just a passing anomaly that will wash away, run off or be absorbed like the heavy January rains on the limestone flanks of Doi Luang.

The message of the day resonated with me.

Surviving doomsday, bat poop and deniers

Tree Stories - Tue, 01/03/2012 - 13:07

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — 2012 arrived in Phnom Penh with a splashy display of fireworks, and raging bands of celebrating Khmer youth who beckoned me to join their celebrations as I walked past them on my way back to my hotel. But conspicuously absent was the promised 2012 doom-and-end-of-the-world business that I was so looking forward to (although, it is still 2011 in the other half of the world, so I suppose there is time yet for Armageddon).

I had arrived in Phnom Penh just in time to join three fascinating women for dinner, Nancy Beavan and Sian Halcrow who I met in early 2010 when we worked together on a log coffin/jar burial site in southern Cambodia, and Kelly Fitzpatrick, the personal assistant to the Head of Administration for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, whom I was meeting for the first time. Kelly was the PA to Andrew Cayly, the Co-Prosecutor for the Tribunal, before she recently switched jobs. Unfortunately I didn’t get to talk to her too much about her work, because it sounded truly fascinating. Nancy is an ex-Lamonter and a radiocarbon specialist who has been working and living in New Zealand for years, and is one of the more colorful people I have met in academia. By way of example, she worked for 8 days on the above-mentioned field trip to Phnom Pel with a rather obviously broken arm, and kept insisting “it really isn’t that bad, I don’t think it’s broken” while refusing to leave the field site early for treatment. However the moment I arrived at the field site I could see that her arm was broken, even after having been transported by taxi, rivercraft and motorcycle in the stifling, searing heat of the Cambodian lowlands, my brains still scrambled from the heat … the first words from my mouth were “How did you break your arm?”

Always cheerful and talkative, Nancy is a rare person with a remarkable path to academia and science. Among the more interesting aspects of her juvenile delinquency was running with motorcycle gangs, being a horse thief (okay, that sounds worse than it was!) and being an all around wild child before being brought into Columbia University under some sort of special program for at-risk youth, and that is how she ended up at Lamont-Doherty and met legendary Earth scientists like Wally Broecker and Lynn Sykes, among many others. She moved to New Zealand with her husband John Beavan, whom she met at Lamont, where she worked for years as a radiocarbon specialist before pursuing, rather later in life like me, her Ph.D. She is not one to shy away from controversy and a good scientific battle, a trait she attributes to her time with Wally and the other heavy hitters of the science world at Lamont. She is in the middle of a rather interesting row regarding the timing of the arrival of the first rats in New Zealand, and in true American fashion, exhibited little cultural sensitivity to the NZ scientific community’s consensus on such matters. I listened, riveted, to this story around a campfire in Cambodia, with rogue elephants crashing through the forest, and it was one of the highlights of this amazing trip which is captured by this wonderful radio piece by the freelance journalist and all-around nice guy, Brian Calvert, who joined us in Phnom Pel. The link is here. While you are at it, you might visit Brian’s website for some samples of his excellent writing, and truly ballsy journalism.

Sian Halcrow is a professor at Otago University in the lovely South Island city of Dunedin, New Zealand, and she spends much of her time each year working on archaeological sites in Thailand’s Isaan Province on the Cambodian border. Sian and Nancy have worked together for years, and have developed a really fun rapport that is great to be around. It was good fortune, therefore, that I was able to join them last night, since today Nancy is driving to the southern Cardamoms with a huge payload of food and supplies to be helicoptered into a new and very exciting jar site that they are just beginning to work on, and Sian seemed like some serious jetlag was coming on (she had just arrived from New Zealand).

Nancy just recently wrote a manuscript on the work so far on these coffins, based in large part on the series of Accelerator Mass Spectrometer (AMS) dates we managed from the little bits of wood I cut off the ends of each of the coffins. (When it makes it through the review process I will include more information, because it is quite fascinating). I tried to core the coffins with a micro-corer by crawling on my belly on narrow ledges, in the oppressively humid heat, where they were left by unknown people centuries ago (and I have the bat shit-impregnated clothing to prove it!) so I had to abandon that idea as it made the locals very nervous to think I might split the coffins in half. There is still much belief in ghosts and spirits in this part of the world, and they were not too happy with the possibility of pissing off the evil spirits! This continuing work in the Cardamoms is truly interesting, so I will try to keep things updated as the exciting bits begin to emerge. (For more on my attempt to core the coffins read, Race to the spice highlands: An expedition to Cardamom Mountains.)

After a long time without doing so, I finally logged onto my blog page the other day, and I saw there was a recent message from Paul B. who wrote in response to last year’s entry on Debating Global Warming: Lines in the sand.

“Believer?” “Denier?” These words are the realm of religion, not science.

Regarding AGW (anthropogenic global warming), I defy anyone to define the FALSIFIABLE HYPOTHESIS.

No one will. Because there isn’t one.

AGW is Lysenkoism at its finest: science-by-consensus … mob science.

The Consensus said Galileo was wrong. But The Consensus is a logical fallacy just waiting to happen.

Earth to REAL scientists … wake up!

First I want to thank Paul B. for getting me to look up Lysenkoism on Wikipedia, which describes, among other things:

Lysenkoism, or Lysenko-Michurinism, also denotes the biological inheritance principle which Trofim Lysenko subscribed to and which derive from theories of the heritability of acquired characteristics, a body of biological inheritance theory which departs from Mendelism and that Lysenko named “Michurinism”.

The word is derived from the centralized political control exercised over the fields of genetics and agriculture by the director of the Soviet Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Trofim Denisovich Lysenko and his followers, which began in the late 1920s and formally ended in 1964.

Lysenkoism is used colloquially to describe the manipulation or distortion of the scientific process as a way to reach a predetermined conclusion as dictated by an ideological bias, often related to social or political objectives.

Well, I admit I hadn’t heard of Lysenkoism, and I am thankful for the chance to add that to my increasingly overflowing brain storage area.  As I interpret it, Paul B. is clearly implying that the side that is manipulating and distorting the facts is the one that claims there is a human component to warming temperatures (i.e., AGW — and incidentally, nice touch equating climate scientists and Leninism in the same sentence — well played, sir), and this manipulation was conducted for purely political reasons. To this end, presumably, there is no political reasoning on the other side of the debate — the side that states humans can’t possibly be influencing the climate, which is the view pushed by the energy sector and other industry-friendly groups — you know the groups with political reasons for pushing a no-AGW agenda. Hmmm … now, if only I could find a way to link them to Nazis …

To be totally fair, there is politics on both sides of any debate, and I thought I was clear that I believe that very thing in my Debating entry. I am not sure that Paul B. read carefully what I wrote, but be that as it may, I would like to think that, as scientists, we avoid “picking sides” of a debate and instead concentrate on doing the best analyses of data that we can do in order to prove or disprove hypotheses … when possible. I know that is not always true, of course, but in my experience I have met very few individuals, inclusive of the main Climategate players, who didn’t seem completely above board when it came to their science. We may have an informed opinion on the matter, but we ought to strive for letting the data speak for itself, and being able to admit when we were wrong. (Is it so wrong to gloat a little when we are proven right?)  When someone questions an interpretation we make, it is an opportunity to look for corroboration or refutation of that interpretation. That is our job, in fact.

This was the idea behind the BEST project (please go to Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature for full details on this fascinating attempt to take the politics out of the AGW debate). This really was an independently funded initiative, and was in large part driven by Paul B.’s “deniers” including the much-vilified Koch Brothers and other industry friendly groups, who I can only imagine were hoping for an entirely different outcome from the one that emerged. The lead PI (principal investigator) was Dr. Richard Muller, himself quite skeptical of the AGW alarmists (another incendiary term — I plan to use a lot of those this year). In short the BEST study does not prove or disprove that AGW is real, but it does do something equally as important. It really does show that, some of the more embarrassing emails from some of our scientific community aside, that the climate scientists were not falsifying data as Paul B. and others would like us to believe, and there were more things correct than incorrect in the way data have been analyzed to this point (climate data in particular). In short, there is no sinister motivation in play by climate scientists to keep our highly lucrative jobs going.

The real story here then, with regard to BEST, is that there almost was no story. I am willing to bet that if a poll were taken in America that it would be a very small minority that has even heard of it, while that same poll with regard to Climategate (there I go, incendiary yet again!) would show a very high awareness, in direct proportion to the amount of media coverage they respectively received. Where did this story go?

I don’t mean to be disrespectful of Paul B. and others who have a viewpoint that I may or may not agree with. I for one actually do leave myself open to being convinced one way or the other on any matter. It is the tone of Paul B.’s message that I find objectionable. It isn’t debate, but just name-calling (though, admittedly creative name-calling) and does little to advance real answers to anything. It solidifies a base, nothing more. I wonder what Paul B. and others have to say about the BEST study? I welcome more comments on the matter, I really do.

And by the way, to all the Nazis, Commies, and other unsavory types out there, Happy New Year, and be safe and prosperous in 2012. I don’t believe our world will end this year, and that bias will color everything I do or say for the remainder of 2012. Lysenkoism, it seems, is alive and well.

The road to hell

Tree Stories - Sat, 12/31/2011 - 10:09

The Writers Club and Wine Bar on Ratchadomnoen Road, Chiang Mai

CHIANG MAI, THAILAND — The Writer’s Club is a small bar and restaurant on Ratchadomneon Road in central Chiang Mai, and I sat facing the street, sipping contemplatively on a glass of the house red wine, inexpensive but surprisingly good. Orawan sat across the table from me, and we were discussing my inability to launch my first blog entry of the new season abroad, after my last entry about 9 months ago. I had been going on about this in my mind for the past few days, agonizing on what I was going to write, and how many other more important things I had to write first — a pre-proposal that is due in a week, 2 paper reviews and a review for an NSF proposal still not finished. It all bothered me, this pile of impending work, and yet I was having a difficult time getting stuck into any of it. Still, it nagged at me most that I hadn’t gotten around to writing a simple entry for this blog, just to jump start things for the new season. I realize it has to take a back seat to my real work, but I had promised Lori that I would have something written on the long flight across the Pacific. And here I was, empty-handed.

“I intended to have at least 2 entries by now.” I said, more to myself than to my glassy-eyed wife, who was becoming bored with my whining about my unfulfilled intentions. “Seriously, I have a plan.  I will get this done.” I didn’t sound all that convincing.

“You know …” she began slowly, looking at the red wine that she twirled in her glass distractedly “that the road to hell is quite literally paved with such good intentions.”  This last part dripped with no small amount of sarcasm. “No, really …” she continued, “I have it on good authority — the late Mrs. Buckley (God rest her soul) who told me as much.”  My mother was fond of these kinds of expressions, and my own wife’s love of wordplay drew them to each other in the short time they had together before my mother’s passing. Orawan has been writing every day since we got here last week, short stories mostly for various Thai publications. Her diligence has impressed me, and quite frankly I thought she was being a bit smug about it now, in the face of my own losing battle with internal demons.

“Is that so?” I inquired with mock indignity. “Well I have it on equally good authority, the late Uthai Tong-Jeeeeeet (I said this last part exaggerating the way Orawan’s father would pronounce their family name, Tongjit, by drawing out the last syllable because in Thai the name ends with two “t” consonants — incorrectly so on his part, I should add) that Gum kee dee qua gum dot!”  I sat back, satisfied that I had won this round of witty repartee.

“That doesn’t even make any sense.” She threw back at me. “I would rather have a handful of feces than a handful of flatulence? How is that relevant to this discussion?”

“I don’t know.” I mumbled, looking around now for some new distraction. “Hey look, Michael Vickery is here.”  I got up and walked toward a shiny-pated, white mustached man sitting at the bar, drinking a glass of white wine.

writers-club

Sitting in the Writers Club, with proprietor the lovely Mrs. Thong, in the background.

Michael Vickery, the famous and colorful Southeast Asian and Khmer historian whose 1977 Ph.D. dissertation at Yale University was titled “Cambodia After Angkor, the Chronicular Evidence for the Fourteenth to Sixteenth Centuries”, is a long-time resident of Southeast Asia, most recently residing in Chiang Mai. He is a prolific writer of history, and still regularly visits his beloved Cambodia for months at a time, and in fact I met him a couple of years back at the EFEO in Siem Reap, where he and I were both keynote speakers at a workshop on the University of Sydney’s Greater Angkor Project. The beautiful thing about Michael, I discovered quickly enough, is that whatever is in his head usually comes out from his mouth, unfiltered. He can say the most wonderfully inappropriate things in mixed company, and usually of a prurient nature.  Here is my chance, I thought, to get something juicy and politically incorrect that I can use in my blog.

“Michael Vickery, how are you doing?” I asked, extending my hand.

“I can’t see your face. Who is that?” came the reply, his hand shading his eyes as he squinted in my direction. It was already evening and the bar was dimly lit. I noticed that his large, Mr. Magoo-like glasses were sitting beside him on the bar, so of course he couldn’t see a thing. He wore his usual local garb, the loose-fitting cotton seua puen mueng that he sported exclusively. Michael is a regular visitor to the Writer’s Club and other Chiang Mai haunts, and he usually has some rather hysterically candid things to say about the “wannabe writers” who inhabit the place.  As acerbic as he can sometimes seem, I have grown quite fond of the man, from the few meetings we have had, and the stories I hear from others who have met him. And he is really a brilliant mind with regard to the history of the region.

“Brendan Buckley,” I said.”It’s me, Brendan Buckley.”

“Oh yes, tree rings. How are your tree rings, Brendan Buckley?”

“They’re fine, Michael. My tree rings are all fine.”

We chatted for a few minutes, but he had to run off so I ended up with nothing juicy to quote from him. I returned to our table after but a few moments, slightly deflated, as our food came — a delicious Thai ginger soup and a few other dishes that we had ordered.

“Micheal is a pretty interesting guy,” I said to Orawan who was savoring the first spoonful of Tom Kaa Gai. “Maybe I can work him into my blog entry?  I don’t know, like something about Angkor and climate change, something like that. What do you think?”

“I thought you planned to write about that BEST study from Berkeley that you were going on about the other day.” Orawan responded. “You kept saying how it was an independent vindication of the integrity of the climate scientists but hardly got a word of press, while the so-called Climategate business got covered to death and blah, blah blah… something about that. Weren’t you chomping at the bit to write about that?”

“Well, yes, I had intended to write about that but I couldn’t find the right title,” I offered weakly.

soup

Delicious Tom Ka Gai, with galangal and chicken, very good for health

The truth is, that I have about 10 different subjects I want to write about, and the BEST study is surely there at the top. I have been trying to think about the angle I want to take on it, aside from just the obvious lack of attention it has gotten. I also plan to write about all the stuff I got up to this past spring and summer, including several conference presentations; a pilgrimage to what may arguably be the very birthplace of modern dendroclimatology as we know it, at Mesa Verde National Park; working with Utah State University scientists to reconstruct streamflow along the Wasatch Range; my 3 week backpacking trip with my brother, our childhood best friend and his early 20s son to the John Muir Trail in the Sierras, more than 3 decades after I had done it as an 18 year old; the proposals written and rejected over the summer; the trials and tribulations of a soft-money dendrochronologist. These are all things I intend to write about this season, along with covering the several trips I will be taking to Cambodia, Vietnam, China and Taiwan. I intend to write about all of these things, and I intend to write another proposal, even a paper or two, while I am here.  Of course, it is a possibility that I may just be paving a few more kilometers of road on that journey to hell. That remains to be seen.

On the road again

Tree Stories - Fri, 12/30/2011 - 09:31

Brendan Buckley’s research on tree rings is creating a record of climate spanning 700 years.

Brendan is off to Asia again. If you missed last year’s adventures catch up with previous Tree Stories. While we wait for this year’s blogs, take a  look at the images sent in by Brendan as he made his way to Asia.

airport

Sitting at the airport in Newark waiting to fly off to Asia on Dec 17, 2011

brendan-soup

First breakfast in Chiang Mai at Phyom Market, my favorite blood soup and the first thing I like to eat when i am jetlagged and wake up before light.

soup

A close up of Blood and spare rib soup. very delicious.

Hard Realities, Part 2

Tree Stories - Mon, 04/25/2011 - 08:59

The Hard Reality of Soft Money: Part 1

It is a love-hate relationship I have with the National Science Foundation (NSF). I love them when they accept my grant proposals and I hate them when they don’t. In fairness, the majority of the time my proposals have been rejected (and it is the majority of my proposals that have been rejected) I can clearly see the reasoning behind it, because for the most part the system works as it is supposed to. As I noted before it is a competitive business, and some really brilliant people are competing against me, and this number increases every year (in direct proportion to my decreasing success rate). There are times when I have gotten reviews back that make me think the reviewers had no idea what they were talking about and I completely disagree with their assessments, and other times where I felt I was personally attacked. I have also been mystified when I got funded for a proposal I was convinced was not my best effort, so it really works both ways. Most of the time I feel the system is fair and I accept when I haven’t been good enough to make the grade. That is the nature of the beast that is the world of science funding and I am happy to play by the rules of the game.

Recently I had two perplexing exchanges with NSF. In the first instance, we got reviews back on a proposal I was included on (not as the lead principal investigator (PI))  that got the highest recommendation from the panel for funding. The peer reviews were mostly excellent and our proposal landed in the top 15 percent of the proposals based on the panel rankings. Then the program director, having decided to fund the top 20 percent of proposals in that batch, rejected ours from the chosen few, in spite of the recommendation of the panel to fund our proposal based on peer review. I am sure he had his reasons for doing so, but these weren’t explained to us in any way that I am aware of. If I had been lead PI, I would have been spitting fire, but the lead PI calmly allowed the issue to die a quiet death, which was the correct and adult decision (“live to fight another day” and all of that), though I would have at least asked for an explanation.

The second issue was more perplexing, involving a proposal that I am the lead PI on. In this case the program director decided not to even send our proposal out for review because we didn’t format the biosketch for one of my foreign co-PIs exactly right (we omitted a section heading). To be fair there are clear guidelines for such formatting, but we weren’t terribly far off from what is required. It seemed patently unfair to be rejected for a very minor infraction, and not at all in keeping with the spirit of the rules. I worked so hard to get this proposal submitted on time that I felt compelled to complain and lobby the program to reconsider. To my utter surprise they did reconsider (the squeaky wheel and all of that), and my proposal is now at the mercy of the peer review process, but at least it has a fighting chance to sink or swim on its merits. I believe that this is a really solid proposal, cutting edge even, and I would hate to see it not even get into the ring, as it were, regardless of its fate once it gets there. I think this example illustrates that the spirit of the review system is alive and well, when you can make your case on a matter such as this, and the very overtaxed “powers that be” at NSF can actually be persuaded. The love end of my relationship was, at least until the next rejection, restored.

One of the comments to my last entry regarding this matter was by another blogger, Eli Rabbet, who wrote:

As a hard money person who reviews soft money grants over the last 20 years I have noticed an increase in the number of proposals and a decrease in proposal quality as the soft money folk chip themselves up into smaller and smaller pieces (seriously 3 percent on one proposal).  I have seen people chew themselves up as funding shrinks. Because you have to write more proposals, less time is spent doing science. I have remarked on this in my usual quiet way to a number of program managers.

Eli makes a good point, and I agree with him to a large extent. We do have to spread ourselves very thin, taking too few months per project and having to juggle several projects at a time, each with their own suite of administrative duties (and these duties increase in number every year). We spend less time “doing our science” than we would like to, and more time fulfilling an increasingly long list of administrative requirements attached to less money per project. But I still defend this system of science as perhaps the best terrible system we can come up with. If we received full support we might find the creative energy needed out of stark necessity, but few of us would complain about the increase in freedom to research without the constant anxiety about funding. As I said before, the system is by no means perfect. But it is the system we’ve got, and so far (knock wood) I have kept the lights on and the heat cranking.

More worrying to me than the system we are using, however, is the increasing anti-science clamor that is permeating our society. That is the biggest threat to getting good science results per dollar invested. We have always used our NSF to encourage the freest of thinking to take place. Instead of putting out strongly mission-driven calls for proposals, the NSF has always given miles of latitude for free thinking scientists to push the envelope of their respective fields. That is what put U.S. science at the forefront of global research, and it makes a compelling argument for increasing our commitment to science rather than decreasing it. Time will tell how far this trend continues, but we are all watching it closely. Soft money institutes like ours are finding it increasingly difficult to retain the brightest young scientists who understandably are going where the hard money is.

I have been terribly busy since my return from Asia two months ago, and this blog has been nearly mothballed during that time. But I have a few things I do want to write about, so for those who haven’t lost faith stay tuned.

How Volcanoes Can Change the World - CNN

TRL Featured News - Fri, 04/16/2010 - 09:24
Lamont scientist Rosanne D'Arrigo discusses the global impact on climate from Iceland's Laki volcano eruption in 1783-84.
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What happened at Angkor Wat? - The Washington Post

TRL Featured News - Sat, 04/03/2010 - 11:00
Discusses study led by Lamont scientist Brendan Buckley.
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Drought and flooding led to collapse of Angkor - Los Angeles Times

TRL Featured News - Wed, 03/31/2010 - 11:00
Discusses new study led by LDEO scientist Brendan Buckley.
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Hydrothermal Vents Sometimes Colonized From Afar - Science News

TRL Featured News - Fri, 02/26/2010 - 16:46
At that rate, a larva could be wafted about 300 kilometers in a month, said Andreas Thurnherr, a physical oceanographer at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, N.Y. He and a colleague reported analyses of currents along the East Pacific Rise at the meeting on the same day as Mullineaux’s presentation.
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