What Would Darwin Do With $100,000?

One of my favorite things about professional conferences is getting to hang around and chat with friends/mentors/heros/other biologists. This year I found myself one evening hanging out with a group of exceptional biologist and we came around to discussing some society business.

SSE may have a bunch of this. What should we do with it?

SSE may have a bunch of this. What should we do with it?

One of the biologists in the group is on the board of the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE). He mentioned a little quirk of numbers over the past few years. You see, the societies try to break even on the conferences. They estimate how much it’ll cost to run the conference, divide that by how many people will attend and then set this as the cost of registration. However, as luck would have it, every year for the past 5 or so there have been more attendees than anticipated. As a result, there is a surplus or funds.

So the question came up, what do we do with extra money?

There are two main schools of thought: save it all for a rainy day or spend it on making the study of Evolution more awesome. Although I can see the merits of the first choice, given how the publishing landscape is changing from paid subscriptions to open access, for the purposes of this post I am going to focus on the latter option.

As we all know, the purpose of SSE is to promote the study of evolution in the US. So let’s say, hypothetically, that the society has an extra $100,000 to spend every year. What should we do with it? I’d like to offer what I have been thinking, and suggestions that others have provied, but this post is really an open ended question. Think big, what can we do with $100,000 to promote the study of evolution?

The first suggestion is to fund graduate students. This was envisioned in one of two ways 1) give more travel grants for graduate students to attend the meeting and/or 2) give more graduate student research funds. As a graduate student I think both of these are GREAT ideas. However, the society has already set up both of those to deal with earlier surpluses. This year SSE gave fourty $500 travel grants to graduate students who were society members and volunteered at the meeting. Additionally the Rosemary Grant Research Awards are given from the society to fund graduate student research. On one hand, we could just increase the number of Rosemary Grants and/or travel awards. On the other, what else could we be doing?


Increase graduate funding? Give undergraduate research funds?

We all came to the conclusion that the root of the problem in evolutionary research is there is not enough money. Although this is always a problem, right now the funding rates have gone from low, to abysmal. But, $100,000 a year, while a lot of money, isn’t really enough to cover the cost of running a lab that is out of money. And if it were, SSE would only be able to fund ONE lab… while there are many who  need funds.

Ok so just handing the money to graduate students is already happening (THANKS SSE!) and funding full labs isn’t possible. We’ve established that the root of our problem is funding, so how do we increase the overall funding rate?

I’ve heard two possibilities:

1) increase evolution education and create a more scientifically literate society. This is obviously a long term solution, but might be something worth looking at. National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent), which currently handles most evolution outreach and education might not be around forever. So maybe take that $100,000 and hire an education/outreach coordinator? Or take the money and put it towards fighting legislation that would ban the teaching of evolution in schools? What do you think?

2) Hire a lobbyist to lobby congress to increase funding for basic research. This is a shorter term solution than the above option, but the question then becomes, is $100,000 enough money? I love this option because it has the potential to increase funding and therefore research across the board. But I have no idea how much hiring a lobbyist would be, and whether $100,000 a year is enough to make real strides toward increasing overall funding rates or whether we’re just throwing it away. One colleague did mention that maybe we could start an optional fund, for SSE members to donate towards lobbying for increased funding. Imagine if all our members contributed $20 each, we might be able to make a dent.

And here’s where I run out of ideas. Do you have any?

The best science happens over beer.

The best science happens over beer.

7 comments on “What Would Darwin Do With $100,000?

  1. As a science filmmaker, I’d love to see more grants for science communication. We need more films, YouTube videos/channels, interactive media and games focused on teaching the public about evolution!

  2. Ok, this is still vague, but it draws on a felt desire I had in undergrad. Having gone to a small, not particularly well-known or well-to-do liberal arts university, I felt like the bio department there didn’t have the resources or critical mass to invest very heavily in its non-medical biology majors. How could $100k a year be used to support and make evolutionary biology more strongly and attractively represented on smaller campuses where there’s generally not quite enough critical mass to for those schools to justify building departments in that direction? Could some sort of semester program tailored to a specific topic in evolution be created? Is (or would) there be enough demand for something like that? How many REUs or similar programs could $100k per year support? Or maybe the money could be divided into grants for small schools hoping to do/expand evolutionary research at their own campuses? I think at smaller schools, there aren’t always the resources to teach evolution as a subdiscipline, so it gets treated only as an idea (albeit, a really important one). Any investment that allowed students to see/experience evolution as a branch of study rather than just a concept, would, I think, attract more people to this corner of science.

  3. As a graduate student in Louisiana, a state that allows creation to be taught in schools, I love the idea of using the money to promote science, and perhaps specifically, evolution literacy in the general public. Perhaps this is something that SEE could do itself or maybe the money could go to a great organization that already specializes in this sort of outreach.

  4. noahmattoon says:

    I’ll take a crack at it. What about a fund for people to do natural history research? Much work in evolutionary biology is based on a foundation of basic natural history, but doing that kind of investigation in a new system can be hard in terms of funding/grad student time as there may not yet be enough data available to justify it. On the other hand, it doesn’t always have to be expensive. If somebody could get 10-20k to pay for travel/field station fees/basic supplies for collection/husbandry that might give a student interested in a new system the opportunity to demonstrate something really interesting is going on in order to pursue further funding for flashier research approaches ($$-omics). It would also help fill a gap in terms of funding things that most people believe are necessary, but don’t necessarily attract funding. I’m thinking of this in terms of explicitly high risk exploratory type studies mostly geared toward observation and very basic manipulation.

  5. Hird says:

    i like the idea of community outreach – the truth about evolution straight from the horse’s mouth. maybe they could break the money up into chunks (~$20,000?) and solicit grant applications for how to better communicate with the public. i wonder if there are a lot of people out there interested in this type of work, but who are worried it’ll detract from their cv. i’d love a side-project like that – plus other grant applications would love to see that type of outreach and it’s enough money to be impressive without having to take over your research program. any level of academic could be competitive for that type of grant (i think). make it happen, CJ! :)

  6. Tim Vines says:

    How about a fund for data archiving? Dryad has just introduced fees (<$100) for depositing data, and the SSE has covered this cost for papers in Evolution. Why not cover data archiving costs for all SSE members, no matter where their paper is published? 100K would cover these costs for a long time.

  7. […] nicely timed (although slightly profane) complement to CJ’s post last week on science funding.  Do you really f*&#ing love […]

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