Why collecting Long Term Ecological Data is not cool enough for funding agencies?

Most of my papers include in one way or another a sentence apologising for not having long term data, and excusing myself for using either a snapshot of whatever happens in a given year, or using long term data that is limited in regards of its completeness or has sampling limitations. This is because most pressing questions in ecology require to consider time to fully understand how things work, but temporally replicated data is rare.

The solution? Let’s collect the appropriate data, then! Not that simple. Funding for long term ecological data is almost non existing in EU*. I guess they take too much time to build up, and do not produce high impact factor papers in the first year. However, most long term research is not expensive, and can be maintained with a small budget, but surprisingly nobody wants to fund it. And yes, I tried, and I got comments like “not novel enough”.

Why I am writing this now? The Doñana Biological Station has been doing some monitoring programs for the last ~10 years. I am not going to explain the details, because I’ll probably do it wrong, but the fact is that the long term monitoring funds externally granted for 2014 didn’t arrived and the monitoring of e.g. butterflies in the park where about to be suspended in 2015. It was only thanks to the direction of EBD, and individual researchers that we can finally maintain this going, and avoid losing the temporal series, at least,  in 2015. For example, the cost of maintaining the butterfly monitoring is under 1000 EUR, which I will cover this year from my personal grants**. I am not using this data right now and the data is publicly released, but I see the value of having it. With the several threats the park has right now, including climate and land use change, having a baseline data on how communities fluctuate is critical to understand how the ecosystem will respond.

I would like to do more long term ecological research in my lab. I calculated this research will cost less than ~4 000 EUR/year. Why the Spanish ministry is willing to give me a ~50 000 budget for a 3 years project, but not a 12 year project with the same budget? I know it’s a political constrain, but Science should be beyond politics.

*LTER sites in the US is not optimal, but works better than here.

** And I know other researchers are assuming costs of monitoring other organisms.

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5 thoughts on “Why collecting Long Term Ecological Data is not cool enough for funding agencies?

  1. You’ve raised some really interesting points that have exercised me too, and I agree, long-term (really medium-term relative to paleoecological time frames) data collection should be a priority and need not be expensive. I’ve mentioned this on the blog, but it’s worth repeating: annual field courses that return to the same area every year provide an excellent opportunity to repeat-sample and I wish that more field courses did this (my impression from talking to other academics is that it’s rare). Our Tenerife Field Course has built up a couple of data series spanning over 10 years and I intend to keep it going as long as possible. The only question is: when do I publish….? :-)

    It’s reminded me that I had a post related to this a few years ago: https://jeffollerton.wordpress.com/2012/08/27/we-are-so-very-umble/

    • Good point about using field courses. Citizen science is another option that has been successful for some types of data.

      Regarding publishing, this kind of research needs different funding schemes, because its not about testing one idea, producing one publication. Its more about monitoring and have the potential to use this data for testing ideas you don’t have yet. You just don’t know when those will be ripe, but if the data is not there, when the idea comes, you won’t be able to test it (temporally at least).

  2. It may be because a different philosophy about “time” that some Oriental countries, such as Japan, are able to understand the importance of this concept on science. I heard recently about a nice funded project: “Monitoring Sites 1000”, which involves the long-term monitoring of over
    1000 sites representative of Japan’s various ecosystems. Definitely, we are far from that in most European countries.

  3. Pingback: Something for the weekend #4 | Jeff Ollerton's Biodiversity Blog

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