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 disciplines6rather 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 : 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.

17 thoughts on “Ecology has a bright future. It just may be somewhere else.

  1. Terry McGlynn

    This fits with my anecdata, with a caveat. A lot of people I know who have aspired to run big and productive labs have taken postdocs and jobs abroad, because these international institutions are simply offering not just faculty (or faculty-like) jobs, but ones with lots of resources and massive potential for growth.

    Meanwhile, some of the most academically amazing people I know have taken the not-lesser-travelled road, and during grad school and postdoc chosen to take jobs at teaching-intensive institutions. They have a clear research agenda and ambitions, but also won’t have the resources or the PhD students. Their brains aren’t draining from the USA, but there will be less research and I bet as often happens, many will end up winding down their research programs a lot more promptly than would happen if they chose to go to a research institution.

    1. Emilio M. Bruna Post author

      Terry, I hadn’t thought of that as a research brain-drain, but yeah – that makes sense. And let me emphasize I don’t think it’s liable to be a huge shift in numbers, but it may not have to be if certain people go. Nate was a ‘loss’ to us not just because of his productivity, but also his role as a collaborator and teacher at his institution. BTW he was kind enough to remind me he also gets free health care and university education for his kids. Really? Pour it on, Nate…

  2. Matthew Venesky

    Nice post, Emilio. I’ll second your thought on Brazil’s funding situation. I have colleagues that are continually funded via FAPESP and CNPq. Bureaucratic issues aside, these funding rate has a very positive impact on the rate at which they can conduct ecology research.

    1. Emilio M. Bruna Post author

      Yeah, funding from FAPESP and CNPq may sometimes be more challenging to administer, but the constancy is really important – less boom and bust periods for researchers (at least the ones who stay productive).

  3. Robin Chazdon

    Emilio, you are so right about this. I am getting support from both CAPES and FAPESP now and don’t know if I’ll ever get another grant from NSF.

    1. Emilio M. Bruna Post author

      Robin, I started my gig here and had 3 NSF grants in a row, I figured if I worked hard and stayed productive I would always (or at least usually?) have a grant. Having just gotten another rejection (NSF PIRE), I am sadly feeling the same way as you are! I would gladly trade smaller but constant grants for bigger ones with lower funding rates, but maybe it’s because I do cheaper science.

  4. Emilio M. Bruna Post author

    (Felipe Melo from UFPE posted this over on Facebook, so I have transferred it here)

    I agree that the Brazilian system has been rather attractive during the last 12 years. I also agree that our employment system is really good for the researcher: fair salaries, 45 days of vacation per year and almost no pressure for publishing, at all. But the comparison between US an Brazil’s systems seemed too simple to me. We fund almost half of the proposals because we are just paying some sort of “intellectual debt”, and I think US has exactly the reverse problem. Anyway, the reflection is certainly worthy

    1. Emilio M. Bruna Post author

      Felipe thanks for the comment. I want to emphasize that this wasn’t intended to be a broad and thorough comparison of the US and Brazilian systems – only a comparison of the funding rates of FAPESP vs. DEB and that FAPESP has a funding rate that is ~10x that of the NSF Division of Environmental Biology. In fact this number is actually an underestimate of the impact on researcher’s programs because in contrast to most in the Brazil, for many of us in the US the way we fund graduate student fellowships is with grants – no grant means no students. As for the the motivations for funding that many proposals, I think that is in large part due to the fact it has to given as per the SP state constitution – other states clearly don’t fund that much. And from the perspective of the researcher, the motivation may not matter as much – intellectual debt or constitutional mandate, we’ll take the money either way! Anyway, thanks for commenting.

  5. Dylan Schwilk

    This post echoed some of my recent thoughts. I just forwarded it to one of my students who is Portugese. I’ve seen many colleagues in my cohort take jobs outside the US. I came very very close to moving last year as well, but family and an irrational addiction to the American west kept me here for now.

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    1. Emilio M. Bruna Post author

      Always nice to make the DE reading list, though I disagree with Jeremy’s wording of what my argument was. YOu can read my reply there along with any other comments, but I repost here as well:

      “Hi Jeremy, thanks for the ping. I don’t think I was necessarily arguing there will be an huge migration, in fact as I say in the post the US continues to be the primary global destination for scientific talent. By “Brain Drain” I also meant the potential for star scientists who in the past would never have considered leaving – even a few of these more per year could be a big deal in terms of where the global academic hotspots are (see, e.g.,

      The TLDR summary is that I think we might see in ecology what has become an emerging trend in biotech fields — a willingness on the part of people, including major stars, to consider places previously off the radar. Sure, there have always been people who would consider leaving a position in the US for one at ETH Zurich. But what about for one in Singapore or the XTBG? 15 years ago I think not. Today, the financial resources available at those institutions (along with the increasingly global community of scholars and quality of life there) means many would consider it seriously, at least IMO.

      Anyway, thanks as always for the link…curious to hear what your readers think.”

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  8. Sarcozona

    I left the US. I love the way the more predictable funding structure changes lab culture – there are more long term employees. They create infrastructure for projects and data management that make my own work so much easier. Additionally the better health care has totally changed my life. Not only is my pay higher than I could have expected in the US, but my health care expenditures are much reduced. So financially I’m much better off.

  9. Alex Bond

    I wonder if this will decrease scientific immigration to the US? Though I didn’t consider the US when searching for post postdoc jobs from Canada, it would have been a huge factor. As would the 9-month salary. What do those on 9-month-salaried positions do without grant money? Spread out the salary to cover 12? Covered by uni?

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