South Africa, here I come.
Back in October, I wrote about how a grant proposal was turning me into a zombie.
Well, much to my surprise, turns out that my foray into the world of the walking dead was worth the effort. I’ve just heard that the National Science Foundation does, indeed, want to send me to South Africa to carry out this research!
Basically, I’m interested in how the other big carnivores (hyenas, leopards, cheetahs, and wild dogs) manage to live with lions. And I think that one of the keys to their coexistence has to do with how the other carnivores distribute themselves across the landscape to avoid being killed or harassed by lions. Do they avoid huge tracts of land and lose access to the valuable resources within? Or are they able to fine-tune their behavior and still use those areas without getting into trouble?
As you know, I’m using the camera traps to try and figure out these patterns of habitat use by the major carnivores. But that still just tells me what they do in a place (the Serengeti) where there are lions, and I don’t know if the lions are directly causing these patterns. I can’t, for obvious reasons, do an experiment where I take out all the lions and see if the rest of the animals change their behaviors, which would help me identify such a causal relationship.
But in South Africa, there are two virtually identical reserves — they have the same habitat, the same prey animals, and the same carnivores…except that one has lions and one does not. These reserves are right next to each other and surrounded by fencing. So they are pretty much the perfect experimental system where I can actually answer whether or not the patterns we see in predator behavior are caused by lions. What’s even better is that there are already ongoing research projects there that are running camera trap surveys very similar to Snapshot Serengeti. So most of my work will be doing some measurements of the vegetation and working with the researchers in South Africa to compile their data in a way that we can draw these comparisons.
It’s going to be a *lot* of computer work with a *little* bit of getting out into the bush, but the questions are so cool and the ability to effectively isolate the effect of a single top predator (lions) in a natural ecosystem is so rare, that I couldn’t be more excited about it.
Good News Bad News
So there’s good news and there’s bad news. Which would you like first? Good news?
The good news is that the pictures from Season 5 are being processed at the Minnesota Supercomputer Institute right this minute. There are about 900,000 images total, so it will take a few days to process them all. (What are we doing? We’re resizing them, extracting the place and time they were taken, and grouping those that need it into groups of 3.) Then we’ll need to upload them to Zooniverse’s servers. That might take another day or so. If everything goes without a hitch (fingers crossed), we’ll be ready to unleash Season 5 by the end of next week! (So for those of you who wanted some warning, this is your warning. Clear you schedules. Get your work done early. Set up an ‘away’ message on your email…)
The other news is bad, I’m afraid. We just found out that the grant proposal we wrote to the National Science Foundation back in January got turned down. Our grant would have funded Snapshot Serengeti and the Serengeti Lion Project for another five years, and included money for scientists to continue to analyze all the data you’ve been generating by identifying animals in the Snapshot Serengeti images.
Our proposal was reviewed by three other scientists independently and then talked about by a group of scientists who had our proposal and the three reviews to look at. Our three reviews varied. One person thought that our proposal was the most exciting project s/he had read yet this year. But the others were a bit concerned about exactly how we would analyze the data. This proposal was a “pre-proposal,” meaning that we only had a few pages to explain what we wanted to do, how we would do it, why it’s important, and the broader impact we would have. I guess we didn’t manage to get in enough of the “how” for these reviewers.
We were all taken by surprise by the rejection. The Lion Research Center has been reliably funded by the National Science Foundation for decades. But things are changing. Firstly, this “pre-proposal” system is new; it’s only in its second year. And everyone — both proposal writers and proposal reviewers — are still figuring out what exactly should go in the new shorter pre-proposals. And secondly, the Sequester is still in place, so the National Science Foundation has less money to give out this coming year than usual.
In any case, we’re now regrouping to come up with a new funding plan. We’ll be able to apply again to the National Science Foundation in January 2014 to fund camera trapping starting in 2015. And we’ve got several papers that we plan to write in the next six months using Snapshot Serengeti data that we’ll be able to point to to show reviewers that we can properly analyze the data. Meanwhile, we’re going to try to keep the cameras rolling by looking for other funding sources to cover our year-long funding gap. Suggestions welcome.
Sequestration, Science, and Snapshot Serengeti
Even if you live outside the U.S., it’s been hard to miss the arrival of the dreaded sequester. However, the impact of sequestration on science research doesn’t get a lot of attention in the general din. The U.S. government funds almost all of the nation’s basic science research, which means science research that doesn’t have an immediate application like creating a new medicine or figuring out how to grow crops to withstand drought.
Much of ecology research is basic. In Snapshot Serengeti, we’re interested in learning how a large assemblage of animals coexist and use the landscape. The results will not have an immediate impact on how the Serengeti is managed, but we hope it will help inform conservation management decisions down the line.
Most of the nation’s basic research – and much applied research – is being cut by approximately 8%. Now, science funding hasn’t been doing all that well over the past couple decades anyway. And now things are getting worse. Snapshot Serengeti and its parent organization, the Lion Research Center, are mainly funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which announced recently that it will award 1,000 fewer grants this year than anticipated.
You may remember that in January, we were working hard on a grant proposal to keep our cameras rolling past the end of 2012. The way the process works is that each proposal gets evaluated on whether it is good, well-planned, and worthwhile science and either gets recommended for funding or rejected. To give you an idea, in our division of the NSF, 16% of proposals got recommended for funding last year.
But it doesn’t end there. Each year the NSF gets many more good, well-planned, and worthwhile proposals than it can fund. So it ranks them. And then it starts funding them, starting at the top and moving down the list, until it runs out of money. Of the recommended proposals, NSF expected to be able to fund just the top 22% of them this year.
And with sequestration, that pot of available money just got even smaller.
What that means for our proposal isn’t clear yet. If the sequester sticks, then we will be competing for a smaller pot of next year’s NSF money. And even if it doesn’t, we’ll be in tighter competition with all those really good proposals from this year that just missed out on getting funded. In either case, the sequester is bad news for Snapshot Serengeti.