Tag Archive | science funding

Good news, bad news, good news, 2015 edition

It’s been quiet here on the blog, but we’ve been busy behind the scenes. In 2014, we revamped our data management procedures and structures. Season 7 — the one you finished classifying most recently — was the first where images and metadata were fully pre-processed and vetted before being sent to the Zooniverse. This pre-processing makes things much easier on us after we get all your classifications back from Zooniverse. But it does add some lead time.

Season 8 is the first good news. We’ve been pre-processing all December, finding weirdnesses like 84 images in a row all with the same timestamp, miscellaneous video files, timestamps from the future, and so forth. We are just about to start sending the images to Zooniverse, a processes which takes a few days. You should see Season 8 up within a couple weeks. We’ve also tweaked the interface a tiny bit. More on that soon.

The bad news is bad. After waiting since August for a reply from the National Science Foundation about our most recent grant proposal, we finally got it at the very end of December: declined. That means that we are again scrambling to find funds to keep the cameras rolling for 2015. And this time without much warning.

Season 8 is the first half of 2014 and Season 9 is the second half of 2014. Those are already in the bag. The cameras are rolling right now, and so there will be at least something of a Season 10. Worst case scenario is that we have to shut everything down for a while until we get more funding. But Craig is working hard to find interim funds.

The other good news is that we’ve been talking with some other Serengeti researchers who have set up a small camera trap survey in the western part of the ecosystem. They have tons of images and we’re talking with them about putting their images up on Snapshot Serengeti for classification. These images would be of new locations in the Serengeti and potentially a few new animal species. Could be a lot of fun. So even if there’s a pause in our image collection, hopefully we’ll have these other images to classify from the Serengeti that will be useful for ecological research.

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Snapshot Team Update

Apologies for such sporadic blog posts recently. We’ve all been quite busy. I successfully defended my dissertation last week. And then I enjoyed the true spirit of Minnesota for the next couple of snowy days, getting to catch up with friends and colleagues whom I haven’t seen in quite some time. But I’m not quite done! I need to make some minor revisions to the dissertation text before submitting it, and this has been occupying much of my time this week, as I need to get it all done before the end of the month – and preferably earlier if I want to enjoy the holidays.

Ali, meanwhile, is deep in analyses of the Snapshot Serengeti data gathered to date. We’re still working on the time issues. If you’ve got crazy Python and/or SQL skills and some free time in the next few weeks, drop us a note. A little help would accelerate Ali’s research while I’m busy finishing up my dissertation work.

And Craig’s diving into the next round of National Science Foundation proposals. The preliminary proposals are due in mid-January and an accepted proposal would restart long-term funding for Snapshot Serengeti starting in 2015. The preliminary proposals are relatively short, but in some ways that makes them harder than the longer ones – we not only have to concisely describe the research, but also convince the reviewers that citizen science yields high-quality data.

While some ecologists are still skeptical of citizen science, more and more are coming to accept it as a valid and valuable way to gather and analyze science data. The astronomy field may be a bit ahead of ecology in this respect, but we’re glad they’re paving the way. And did you hear? The Zooniverse was awarded a $1.8 million Global Impact Award by Google that’s going to allow them to scale up their citizen science platform to host many more projects. I only wonder what citizen scientists will do in the (perhaps not too distant) future, when they have hundreds of citizen science projects to select among. How will you choose which ones to try?

Science Shutdown

It’s Day 2 of the U.S. government shutdown. While the media blares about congressional politics and occasionally offers a run-down of what the shutdown may or may not mean for the average Joe, the impacts of the shutdown on science are not generally noted. Notice that I said ‘science’ and not ‘U.S. science’ because this shutdown affects scientists around the globe.

For starters, all the federal grant-making agencies are shut. This means no processing of grants, no review of proposals. Everything grinds to a halt. At best, it causes delays. But at worst, it means important science that depends on continuity gets interrupted, forcing some scientists to start their experiments over from scratch; for expensive experiments, it could mean a death knell. Other research that depends on getting funding before a field season may be delayed a year even if the government is shut down for only a few days.

Much of U.S. science is actually done by government employees. One agency, the United States Geological Survey, employs (oh, I can’t look up the number; the website is shut down; let’s just say “many thousands of”) scientists who work on topics like climate,  ecosystems, earthquakes, and water quality. While some of these employees — like those who monitor for earthquakes, for example — will keep working as “essential” employees, most are furloughed. They get sent home with no pay and are forbidden by law to do any science. Forbidden. It’s a felony to work when furloughed. This hits home for me, as my husband is a post-doctoral geologist with the the U.S. Geological Survey and we are going without three-quarters of our household income for the length of the shutdown.

In addition to the direct impacts of the shutdown on government funding agencies and on government scientists, many more scientists are indirectly affected by issues of access. I am a fellow at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C., but I am employed by the University of Minnesota. The Smithsonian, being a quasi-governmental organization, is shut down. Most of the Smithsonian’s scientists are furloughed. (The folks in the entomology department, where I spend my time, are many of the ones that describe new species of insects previously unknown to science. No new species for a while, everyone. Sorry.) And on top of that, even people who aren’t employees of the Smithsonian (like me) cannot do their work, because they can’t get into the building. I know of visitors from other countries who came to visit the Museum for a few weeks to do research. But they can’t get in.

There are many, many scientists all over the world who collaborate with U.S. government scientists, who depend on U.S. government funding, and who use U.S. federal facilities. All these people are feeling the negative effects of the shutdown and aren’t able to get their science done.

no_science

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…)

Sneak Preview of Season 5 (July to December 2012)

Sneak Preview of Season 5 (July to December 2012)

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.

Braving the wilds of Washington D.C.

While Ali is braving the wilds of the Serengeti, I’m braving the wilds of Washington D.C.  You know — the herds of tourists, the temperamental and unpredictable congressional staff, the roaring protesters. I work right downtown on the National Mall at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History; I’m doing a fellowship here. And most days, I find shelter from the D.C. wildlife up in my office in the east wing.

Safely overlooking the D.C. wildlife from the east wing of the National Museum of Natural History

Overlooking the D.C. wildlife from the safety of the National Museum of Natural History’s east wing.

But for the next couple days, I’m donning my pith helmet business clothes, hopping into my Land Rover onto the metro, and heading over to the kopjes Capitol Hill. I’m going to be lobbying.

The Biological Ecological Sciences Coalition (BESC) holds an annual Congressional Visits Day, inviting scientists to come talk to congresspeople about the importance of federally funding biological research. Today is a training day, so that people like me can get clued-in to how the federal budget works and how to communicate with politicians. (My guess is that it’s not a good idea to spout off lots of numbers and use a lot of jargon.) Then tomorrow, we’ll be put in small groups and have meetings all day long with the staff of various senators and representatives.

I’m participating in the Congressional Visits Day in part because I’m always curious about how things work, and the opportunity to learn more about how money gets from the coffers of the Treasury into the hands of the scientist on the street savanna is a draw. But I’m also participating because federal funding for the sciences is in trouble. It has been stagnant for the past decades and is now declining thanks to the Sequester.

Over the next half-century (which I hope to experience), I see two major threats to our physical and financial well-being as a people. The first is the disruption of agriculture due to unavoidable factors like climate change and the introduction of invasive species. The second is the emergence and spread of zoonotic disease facilitated by unavoidable globalization. It is critical to understand the science surrounding these issues if we want to be able to adequately prepare for them, and the science to understand is fundamentally biological.

So I’m leaving the quiet sanctuary of my office to head out and study talk to the lions policy makers.

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.

Worth funding?

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.