Ecology has a bright future. It just may be somewhere else.

There’s lots of angst about the lamentable proposal funding rates at the NSF, on which many ecologists and evolutionary biologists are dependent. DEB is funding 3-7% of the proposals submitted to its panels, which is only about half of those recommended for funding, but as most panelists will tell you there are plenty of really good proposals that aren’t recommended for funding. This has led to much interesting back and forth about whether NSF should become NSERC and other potential fixes (over at Dynamic Ecology and Small Pond Science, among other places). Feared consequences of these depressing funding rates is that many scientists will fail to reach their potential (by DrugMonkey) or even leave science altogether. But, while I agree both of these consequences may indeed come to pass, I think we instead start to see in ecology what have already seen in other disciplines6 rather than leave science, people will just leave. The US. I fear an ecological brain drain may be around the corner for the USA.

A survey by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology found that 18% of researchers are considering continuing their career in another country. And why not? The investment in funding of all disciplines by the federal government has plummeted.  These massive declines in federal research funding have caused people to lose jobs, not just grants. If you study Climate Change, you might have to deal with politicians who subpoena your research records and even ban the term. But for many, the main driver behind a move seems to be the combination of quality of life and increased opportunities for research funding.

Case in point – Brazil has both national and state science funding agencies. The crown jewel in this system is São Paulo State’s FAPESP, which currently funds 49% of the proposals submitted to its core programs1,3,5. Added bonus - if you live in Brazil, you get 120 days of paid parental leave! That’s 120 days more than you get at many American universities, including mine (which generously allows you to use both your sick leave and vacation leave if you have a newborn).4I think the funding climate, coupled with the vibrant intellectually communities, is why other parts of the world are increasingly attracting scientists from US institutions. I haven’t asked, but maybe that’s why scholars like Ian Baldwin and Iain Couzin headed to Max Planck Institutes. William Laurance (ex-Smithsonian) is now happily ensconced at James Cook University in Australia2, and Nate Sanders traded Knoxville for Copenhagen (but then again, who wouldn’t? Wouldn’t you rather deal with average January temperatures of zero degrees C  than have to listen to Rocky Top all day?). The Institutes of Terrestrial Ecosystems & Integrative Biology at ETH Zurich are like mini-UNs, and leading centers for ecology & environmental biology like China’s Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, India’s ATREE, and Brazil’s INPA and USP are both attracting foreigners and making it a no-brainer their US-based or US-trained expatriates to come home.

It’s obviously more complicated than research funding and lifestyle, and across all disciplines the US continues to be THE destination for international research talent. But in concert with a willingness by foreign science agencies to invest in risky projects or build centers of excellence, I think that as the funding for ecological research in the US continues to decline we will see many more people jumping ship for the more sustained funding they can find abroad.

So pay attention to @LangForCareers: you now have another good reason for you to start learning Portuguese!

1FAPESP is admittedly unique. But the national agency CNPq and many other state agencies (FAPERJ and FAPEMIG) are also exceptional.

2Though these days it may not be a party in Oz either.

UPDATES 3/11/2015 in response to some questions and comments I received yesterday:

3Note the NSF funding rate in the table is inflated because many directorates have moved to a pre-propsoal format and the funding rate is for the smaller number of full proposals submitted. PS if you really want to be depressed check out the funding rate for postdoctoral fellowship applications.

4via Twitter Nate Sanders was kind enough to remind me his move to Denmark means free health care and college education for his kids. He also gets to watch the Copenhagen Derby. Rub it in, Nate, rub it in!!

5FAPESP is generous in part because it has to be - Article 271 of SP’s State Constitution mandates that at least 1% of the tax revenue it collects (minus the constitutionally mandated transfers to municipalities) must be given to FAPESP for investment in scientific and technological development.

5People leaving the US for places previously off the radar include stars, not just people looking to become established.

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Cover photo courtesy of sama0903 (CC BY-NC 2.0): Rio de Janeiro seen from the Pão de Açúcar, from Copacabana beach (far left) to Santos Dumont Airport (far right). The panorama was made from 10 separate photos.

Professor & Distinguished Teaching Scholar

My research & teaching interests include Tropical ecology and conservation, plant population ecology, plant-animal interactions, scientometrics and bibliometrics, science & science policy in Latin America matter.