Friday, March 29, 2019

Intellectual death by a thousand cuts

My business is thinking. Let me be a little less succinct. My profession as a Professor of Biology is my passion, and I am fortunate enough to be paid to think about how the natural world works and to come up with possible solutions to global problems. I was trained to do this and my past training (all 11 years) and my current salary are paid by taxpayers to do this. This all seems rather straightforward, but yet why does it feel like the universe is conspiring to prevent this intellectual work from being done?

As pointed out brilliantly by Cal Newport in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in an article titled “Is E-mail Making Professors Stupid?”, Professors are being buried under a pile of administrative work at the expense of intellectual pursuits. The amount of time and effort spent on managing people and money, sitting on departmental/university committees, representing the university externally, and applying for research funds and awards have all increased significantly over time. Professors are increasingly being converted into middle managers, the victims of a culture of bureaucratization and downloading.

At the organizational level, this all makes sense. The necessary regulatory obligations and internal checks and balances are very robust, and appear, to outside scrutiny, as though tax-payer funds are being used correctly and efficiently. However, the reality is that university bureaucracies have grown substantially over the past couple of decades while student enrollment and faculty numbers at many institutions has been stagnant or even declining. And a byproduct of this increased bureaucracy has been an increase in internal programs and procedures that require communication and paperwork.

This increase in internal communication and administration has been paired with increasing external demands for professors’ time. Increasing requests to perform grant and manuscript reviews, participate in panels, pressure to include outreach and knowledge mobilization in research projects, and the inundation of predatory journals and conference requests have been experienced by all researchers.

All these forces conspire to eat away at the ability for professors to do the thing they are actually paid to do –literally the death of the intellectual by a thousand cuts. If I were to properly answer all of the e-mails I receive, I would be spending 3+ hours a day doing this one task. Not to mention meetings. Professors spend much more of their time in meetings today than a generation ago. I just looked at the next week in my calendar (an uneventful week by my standards), and there are 14 hours of meetings scheduled. I also need to schedule these meetings myself an increasingly frustrating activity that requires multiple attempts. So e-mail and meetings alone would amount to about 25-32 hours a week.
What should I be doing with my time? Well, working on manuscripts (my students and my own), editing and reviewing for journals, writing grant proposals, teaching, participating in student committees, data analyses, research projects and training, and reading are all necessary. My estimation of the time needed to optimize these, or at least do a minimally acceptable job, would be about 30 hours a week. So, either I work a minimum of 60 hours a week, or something has to give. I am fortunate that I have the resources to hire a lab manager and do not need to deal with lab management and ordering supplies, etc., which would require an additional 4-8 hours a week.

At the moment I am faced with a dichotomous decision, work evenings and weekends or purposefully prioritize certain activities over others. And to the frustration of colleagues and administrators, e-mail tends to the bottom of the priority list. But this cost of bureaucratization should not be burdened by professors alone.

Cal Newport highlights several mechanisms to relieve this burden in his article. Minimally, professors should schedule e-mail time, like one hour a day. And, filed under “do as I say, not as I do”, professors should say 'no' to many of the unsolicited requests that pull them away from their core responsibilities. Yet institutions have a role to play. Newport suggests that Professors require executive assistants to manage e-mail correspondence, scheduling and paperwork and these should come with their positions (not one to one, perhaps shared amongst groups of faculty). Since professors routinely work extra hours to stay on top of all the demands, they should start to be compensated for this additional work. Further, there should be an agreed upon fixed amount of administrative service they are required to do (e.g., 10 hours a week), and going beyond this should require teaching buyouts or other forms of compensation (e.g., funds for assistant).

While the onslaught of demands seems so overwhelming, there are solutions. They just need to be pursued and pushed to university administrations.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Life isn't all Rainbows and Butterflies...

Guest post by Carolyn Thickett, MSc. Candidate at the University of Toronto-Scarborough

Life isn't all Rainbows and Butterflies...

… especially in an age of extreme habitat loss, chemical pollution, invasions by alien species and climate change. All of these pressures are contributing to the dramatic decline of insects currently being observed all around the world.

In Canada, the general public is responding by trying to contribute their time and knowledge in any way that they can. Citizen Science programs encourage people with little or no previous experience to participate by working with staff from one of the conservation areas in the Greater Toronto Area. These programs are aimed at engaging the general public in conservation efforts for the purpose of education, but with the added benefit of reducing the cost of expensive conservation work.

Many more events are happening out of the public eye, not advertised, even held in secret. I attended one such event this past June, held in an undisclosed location, in Eastern Ontario. This was an invitation-only event, attended by a consortium of people concerned about the status of the Mottled Duskywing Butterfly in Ontario, spearheaded by butterfly enthusiast Jessica Linton.

Mottled Duskywing Butterfly. Photo: Carolyn Thickett

Dr. Gard Otis, a bee and butterfly researcher from the University of Guelph, is unveiling new
information about these specialist butterflies and their unique habitat requirements. The Mottled Duskywing depends on New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus), a plant that is common to alvars as well as sandy soils supporting oak savannas, a critically endangered habitat in Canada. Land management issues related to the preservation and restoration of grassland habitats, such as oak savannas, must then be included in the Mottled Duskywing recovery strategy.

One of those issues is fire suppression, originally put into practice due to the inherent risk to
property and human lives. The suppression of fire over time promotes plant succession, which is the process by which grasslands turn into shrublands, then into thickets and eventually into forests. Succession is detrimental to New Jersey Tea. It is a grassland plant that requires full sun and is unable to compete with the increasing canopy density of a forest. But what if fire wasn’t suppressed? Wouldn’t New Jersey Tea burn too?

As it turns out, New Jersey Tea is not only tolerant of fire, but it produces vigorous growth shortly after a fire disturbance (Throop & Fay, 1999). So, there is a threatened population of butterflies… living in a rare habitat… and scientists are setting it on fire?? Yup. It’s called prescribed burning.

But how do the butterflies survive such a disturbance? Sites are burned in sections, creating a patchwork of habitat with some portions left for conditions required by the butterflies. Some research by Swengel and Swengel (2007) suggests that some permanent unburned areas within the landscape may be important for specialist Lepidopterans, such as the Mottled Duskywing and the Karner Blue Butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis), which is extirpated in Canada. Additionally, fire can provide many benefits which can even outweigh the risks. Recent work by Henderson et al. (2018) shows the short-term positive effect on another grassland butterfly to prescribed fire regimes. The diagrams below illustrate the results of their study and show the positive benefit derived from regular, and even frequent, burns.

Dr. Otis and myself walked transects through specific locations within the landscape, recording the location of each Mottled Duskywing that we encountered, the quantity of New Jersey Tea plants and keeping tally of the totals. Dr. Otis’ study will examine how Mottled Duskywings respond to the prescribed burns by utilizing different portions within the landscape. The next prescribed burn will occur early next spring by property staff, then the butterfly populations will again be assessed and compared with the baseline data.

In addition, staff at the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory are currently working on determining the caterpillar rearing requirements of a related species, the Wild Indigo Duskywing. At this point they have had success getting females to lay eggs in captivity and rearing the larvae. The knowledge gained with the Wild Indigo Duskywings will be applied to the Mottled Duskywings, working towards reintroduction to one or more sites where they used to occur within the province, perhaps as early as 2020.

The Mottled Duskywing butterfly population we surveyed is the largest in Canada. At the end of the count, we received word that 4 teams of observers recorded 210 butterflies. This was great news for the researchers as the population appears to be stable, although the true population can only be determined through a detailed mark-recapture study which is tentatively being planned for summer 2019.

Mottled Duskywing conservation is gaining momentum… work has already started on habitat recovery and caterpillar rearing protocols. The information gathered and recovery actions taken could have implications for many other native prairie and grassland species. The same can be said for every other count, assessment, or restoration event. Whether you are a researcher or a concerned citizen, get involved. Know that your efforts could have massive implications for biodiversity, you could even SAVE a species from extinction!

To get involved in conservation, visit citizen science.

For more information on Mottled Duskywing butterflies, read the recovery strategy.


Fickenscher, J.L., Litvaitis, J.A., Lee, T.D. & Johnson, P.C. Insect responses to invasive shrubs:
Implications to managing thicket habitats in the northeastern United States. Forest Ecology
and Management 322 (complete), 127-135 (2014).

Henderson, Richard A., Meunier, Jed, & Holoubek, Nathan S. Disentangling effects of fire,
habitat, and climate on an endangered prairie-specialist butterfly. Biological Conservation 218
(complete), 41-48 (2018).

Swengel, A. B. & Swengel, S. R. Benefit of permanent non-fire refugia for Lepidoptera
conservation in fire-managed sites. Journal of Insect Conservation 11, 263–279 (2007).

Throop, Heather L. & Fay, Philip A. Effects of fire, browsers and gallers on New Jersey tea
(Ceanothus herbaceous) growth and reproduction. The American Midland Naturalist 141 (1),
51 (1999).