Monday, July 22, 2013

How research gets out in the media

The last paper I did on bison weights and climate change got some media attention. It was written up for newspapers like this. It was covered on radio like here. Some different news stations covered it, too.

To be clear, this wasn't NPR or the New York Times Science Times, but still I'd like to think that the story traveled beyond an academic paper.

So how did that happen?

Here's the basic process that follows here.

1) Contact university media person.

If you have a good idea, you need to convince them that this might be a news story that could get some media attention.

2) Media person writes press release and releases it.

Press releases are short. They typically have a few quotes. K-State's looked like this.

I asked Greg Tammen, who wrote this one, to summarize the process:

Once the release is written we paste it into an email as plain text and send it as a listserv to various media. The plain text lets them copy and paste the story without having to worry about markup messing things up when it goes online or in print. As media staffs get smaller, it's important to make the content easy to work with. For research stories, we address the email to all of the larger national newspapers and stations that report on science as well as the larger media outlets in the state (ex- Topeka Capital-Journal, Kansas City Star). We use the BCC function so it's not apparent who all we're sending the email to. 

As far as getting media email addresses, most should be available on their website or under a story they've written. We try to send the releases only to the people who report on science or education since there's a greater likelihood the release will be used. A lot of us also were former reporters so we know people who are at the newspapers/stations and have built a relationship with them. The writer also often targets individual reporters and outlets that we think might be interested in the topic. A lot of these email addresses come from Google searches, The Gebbie directory (which is purchased) or from the reporter's professional Twitter account.  

We also put the release on three paid distribution services: EurekAlert!, Newswise and ExpertClick. Any media with Internet access can search these sites by topic, university, etc. 

So, the short summary is that we deliver the story to their inboxes and publish them on research distribution services. Once an outlet runs the release or does their own, it's a safe bet that others will follow.  

These press releases are generally under embargo based on the publication date. Journals will also often promote a select number of papers, too. Many smaller newspapers just reprint the press releases verbatim. Our Manhattan Mercury does this pretty regularly. Other websites can choose to reprint these in one form or another. ScienceDaily picks up a select number of articles. Other hybrid news sites report on the press release and/or article itself, like here.

3) Radio gives you a call.

Newspapers can reprint. Radio programs need to interview. Radio news people scan the press releases or search out people for a topic. I did something like 3-4 interviews on this so far.

Some of these are long-format. One of the ag news services, I talked to broadcast 15 minutes of our conversation.

Others, have your soundbites ready. And practice your facts.

Speaking in short, declarative sentences is not easy. I made one guy call me back and do the whole interview over. The first just sounded bad.

4) Video.

K-State also has a service where they put together video for news outlets to pick up.

Lindsey Elliot, here at KSU, was in charge of this.

Here's here take on the process:

I read the press release that was sent out about your work and immediately knew it was a topic that national media would be interested in. So I contacted you and arranged a time to get video. After filming, I then picked out the soundbites that I thought told the story, but also has some emotion and "opinion" in them. Then I edited together my video of the bison and wrote a script for a story. After that, I uploaded the video to our distribution services and sent out mass emails with a short blurb describing the story. Then media were free to download it and run it!

The whole video that I upload is usually 3 minutes long. For this story, I chose three soundbites, each about 10-15 seconds long and put those first. Then I put together about 2 minutes of bison and cattle video, shots of the animals grazing and close-ups of eating and grass, since the focus had to do with protein in the grass.

Once that is done, I upload the video to a service called PathFire, which is a video distribution service you have to pay to subscribe to. It has about 750 television stations that download video from it. I also upload it to a dropbox folder that I have. The story is what you call a vo/sot format. Basically, it is written so that the anchor can read the story while video is playing and then they play the soundbite. I've attached the script to give you an idea of what it looks like. I then send out email to the hundreds of television stations we have on a master list that I've created. I also have a list of specifically agriculture stations that I send this out to. From there, the tv stations can download it and use it as they please. They can put it together exactly how I wrote it or they can condense it or they can make it into a whole minute and a half story. I provide enough video and soundbites that they can choose whatever format they desire. We hope for a full package, but are happy with any coverage we get out of it. :)

When you watch the video, it's hard to tell it comes from a subscription service, but this is less rare than one would think.

Lindsey and I spent the morning finding bison and cows to film. I talked in front of the camera for maybe 15 minutes.

I should have had her let me shoot everything a second time, too. She did a great job of finding short bits that don't sound too inarticulate, but a second take would have been better.

That's my experience with this one so far. When I first wrote the paper, I'll admit I had the news angle set: climate change to shrink bison. We all think our work is interesting to everyone, and I've tried to push out some things in the past that went nowhere--and for good reason.

The relationships with the university press corps is important. They are the main engines here.

I'm sure researchers at Stanford don't have to work hard to get press, but for the rest of us, this may help.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Alternative Stable States: Grasslands vs. Forests

One of the great scientific pleasures of my career has been to have a conversation with William Bond.** I write "a" conversation because since I met him in New Zealand in 2001 it feels like we've  had one, long discussion revolving around one topic.

**William was just elected to the US National Academy of Sciences. It is well deserved.

The conversation can be summed up as "Why do grasslands exist?"

Asking why any one species evolved is difficult. There's too much stochasticity in that. It seems like it should be easier to understand why an entire biome exists.

It's a harder question than one might think.

When you look at modern grasslands climatically, they occupy a climatic region between deserts and forests, but essentially anywhere you have grasslands, you can have forests. Or at least ecosystems dominated by woody species.

Grasslands don't occupy a particular soil type. There are sandy soil grasslands and clayey soil grasslands.

They don't occupy a fertility niche. There are low- and high-fertility grasslands.

Some would refer to grasslands and forests as alternative stable states. William refers to them as uncertain ecosystems. It is uncertain whether you would have grasslands or forests at a particular site.

Grasslands and forests are certainly alternatives, but are they stable? And if so, why.

The questions about grasslands always circle back to the same questions.

What are the factors that lead to long-term persistence of grasslands? You can have grasslands for millions of years in the same spot. But how? Once grasslands are established, what are the positive feedbacks that maintain grasslands? And do they become even stronger with time?

If the two can switch back and forth, something must be responsible for reducing the abundance of woody species initially. These are generally disturbances.

But what disturbances are required to maintain grasslands? Fire? Drought? Herbivory?

And what are the roles of chronic stresses in maintaining grasslands?

Nutrient availability certainly alters the form of the grasslands, but is nutrient availability a defining feature of grasslands? If not nutrients, then is it water availability?

The trick on all of this is to understand the stability of grasslands.

It seems like if grasslands only required disturbances to maintain grasslands, there should be enough variability in disturbances among years to cause grasslands to occasionally "flip" over to forests.

What else keeps the abundance of woody species low?

For example, one under-appreciated issue is propagule pressure. When you maintain large expanses of grasslands for long periods of time, times without disturbance won't flip to grasslands to forests if there are no forest tree seeds coming in.

Frequent disturbance + reduction of propagule pressure...would that be enough to keep grasslands grasslands long-term?

It seems like there is another factor out there that we don't understand. Nutrients are certainly a factor, but likely no the defining one. Water? Likely based on the climatic envelopes. But how? Is it annual dryness? Is it low water potentials directly? Or the disturbances that come with dryness?

CO2 is the one resource that we understand the least. Grasslands arose during periods of low CO2. When CO2 levels drought, carbon becomes more expensive. Woody species need excess C for wood; grasses use minerals to help build structure. Excess C can also be used for secondary compounds like tannins, which grasses rarely use. Low CO2 favors species with C4 photosynthetic pathways--almost half of the grasses are C4. Low CO2 increases water loss from plants, which can exacerbate water stress and reduce C availability that can aid in C starvation once plants close stomata.

When we think about low water availability, we picture drought-tolerant species such as cacti or chaparral. When think low light, shade-tolerant species are easy to picture. Low nutrients? Low-nutrient plants are well-known.

Low CO2 plants? Who is on the poster?

If grasses should be placed on the poster, CO2 might be the missing link that explains the long-term stability of grasslands.

Disturbances + intermediate precipitation + low CO2 might be the ultimate formula for the grassland biome.

Before that's certain, we need to update our understanding of alternative stable states. The experiments that are needed to confirm this will not be simple.

More importantly, if grasses are low-CO2 plants, we might be about to lose a lot of grasslands, regardless of how much drought or fire or herbivory we push through those systems.

A lot of work remains to make grasslands certain ecosystems.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

A quick lesson on the economics of applying for grants

A scientific system that is set up to run off of grants should make sure that the system is economically viable. If it's not sustainable, it cannot be guaranteed to run in the future.

What are the economics of applying for grants?

Under what conditions is it cost effective to apply for one?

Here's a first calculation.

Let's say a person makes $75k a year. That's about a 12-month salary for an assistant professor. That's a daily salary of $300. (Ignore costs for insurance, etc.)

Let's say a proposal takes 2 weeks to write and submit. That means it costs $3000 to submit a proposal.

If the proposal is funded, the applicant applies for 2 months of salary. $12500. For now we are going to assume they don't even have to do any work. They just get 12.5k if the proposal is funded.

Probability of being funded.
Let's assume 5%, which is about the going rate these days.

Costs = $3000
Benefit = $12,500 x 0.05 = $625

Net benefit = -$2375.

Another way to write that is that you'd have to submit 20 proposals to get $12.5K. That would be 40 weeks of work ($60k in costs)

That's a horrible business model.

Spend 60k to get 12.5k.

One way to make this more sustainable is to increase the funding rate.

That would be a funding rate of 24% to break even.

Decrease the time it takes to write a proposal?

Essentially, you'd only spend 2 days on the proposal?

These calculations don't even take into account that once you get the money, you have to do more work. Then the calculations become harder because they depend on replacement income--how much would you get for doing a different job (or how much is your free time worth).

The whole system still works because 1) people put grants in together. But that takes an average of 5 people per grant to make it sustainable. 2) Overhead subsidizes the system. The return on investment for the system is higher because the salary of the person applying for a grant is subsidized by other income derived from the grant. Overhead has to make up the difference, which means an extra $50k can be taken in per grant and paid to the person writing the grant.  If it costs 3k to write a grant with 5% funding rate, the grant has to bring in 60k for that person's salary to make things sustainable.

Take home points?

Applying for grants can be economically unsustainable.

Funding agencies would have to go with nothing more than the current short proposal that takes 2 d to write to bring things back to equitable.

Individuals would likely never write grants just for their salary. If they did, they would spend no time on it and never do the work once it was funded.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Why carbon dioxide threatens grasslands

Although we are learning more and more about how global change will affect ecosystems, it seems like less and less of that information is making it to the public. 

Thinking about this, recently, I wrote a few pieces for Drover's Cattle Network on the consequences of elevated CO2 for grasslands. The magazine is the oldest livestock publication and is subscribed to ranchers across the US. Subscription base is about 100,000 with a similar number of on-line accessing it each month. Considering most ranchers have never actually seen or heard a global change scientist, this was as good a venue as any to talk about grassland and global change.

I started with a 4-part series on some of the ways elevated CO2 will impact grasslands. Link is here.