Yearly Archives: 2020

How to review an NSERC Discovery Grant

This is a guest post by Jeannette Whitton, Group Chair for Group 1503 (Ecology & Evolution) of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (Canada) (and Professor of Botany, University of British Columbia). She has extensive experience with the review and evaluation of NSERC Discovery Grants (among other things!) While Jeannette writes here specifically about reviewing proposals for Discovery Grants, much of her advice will serve you well in reviewing other kinds of grants, or grants for other agencies*. It will also serve you well in writing grants – because if you know what reviewers and evaluation panels are looking for, you can deliver just what they need.  Dig in!

Some weeks ago, you graciously agreed to review an NSERC Discovery Grant (DG) proposal, or possibly two or three**, which makes you an awesome person, especially in 2020. Because of confidentiality issues, we don’t get much training with reviewing grants – but just as for manuscript reviews, it takes time and care to provide a thoughtful grant review. How I review DGs changed after I served on the evaluation panel and got to see what was most useful, so I thought I would write down some thoughts about what to focus on. I hope this helps those who are new to NSERC DG reviews – or to reviewing grants more generally.  Comments are most welcome! Continue reading

Do people really not know about research ethics boards?

Warning: I’m feeling cranky today.

It’s great to see scientists getting excited about doing interdisciplinary work – for example, in science studies.*  It’s embarrassing, sometimes, to see how bad they are at it. Continue reading

The teaching book I’ve always needed

I taught my first undergraduate course in 1992 (I think it was), as a final-year PhD student. I had no idea what I was doing.

28 years later, some days I feel like not much has changed.*

I’m like most university instructors, I think, in three important ways.  First, I’ve never had any formal instruction in how to teach.** Second, while I know there’s an enormous literature on the scholarship of teaching, I’ve read very little of it, and when I try, I usually find it impenetrable. Third, I care about my teaching and want to do it better. (Yes, I’m aware of the apparent tension between the third statement and the first two – but that will have to be a blog post of its own.)

What I needed desperately, 28 years ago, and still need now, is a user-friendly book that could orient me to best practices in teaching. Continue reading

Opinion, evidence, and preprints

Perhaps you’ve noticed that scientists, like other humans, can hold very strong opinions about certain things.* Perhaps you’ve also noticed that those opinions are sometimes backed up by voluminous evidence (gravity points down; climate change is real and caused by humans; vaccines are safe and effective) – but that sometimes they are not. Here’s a great example related to preprints.

Preprints are probably the most interesting development in scientific publishing in the last 100 years.** Continue reading

The Easter eggs in my entomology course

No, not that kind of Easter egg.

Our fall semester is in the home stretch now, much to my relief – and I’m sure that of my students, too.  My teaching this fall was entirely online. While those with strong but uninformed opinions were furiously tweeting about slipper-wearing profs dialing it in from their easy chairs, I was working hard – unsustainably hard – to produce online courses that work.

Was I successful? I don’t know. But I used every technique I could think of to make my online entomology course navigable, transparent, and engaging. Continue reading

Art and science in “This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart”

Read any good books lately? I have.

CP Snow famously argued, in the 1950s, that science and the arts/humanities were “two cultures”, with a gulf between them that was far too seldom bridged. While there’s been pushback against Snow’s portrayal,* it’s surely true that there’s more separation between the two than there ought to be (just as an example, I’ve commented here on the relative dearth of scientists as characters in novels). After all, if points of contact between science and the arts were commonplace, people (including me) wouldn’t be so fascinated with them when they do occur. Continue reading

How to make an author happy: Pandemic holiday edition

The Covid-19 pandemic has (you’ve probably noticed) changed everything. Some changes have been seismic; others have been more subtle. Along the more subtle end (and admittedly, along the less important end) of the continuum has been the impact on book publishing. In particular, the pandemic may have boosted reading, but books published this year have had a really hard time finding their way to readers. Launches and readings were cancelled; media attention was elsewhere; libraries were closed; publishers’ warehouses struggled to ship. I don’t know that this affected the John Grishams or the Stephenie Meyers all that much; and Barack Obama’s memoir has set sales records.* But for books from university and other small presses, books from new authors, and books that aren’t thrillers, vampire romances, or biographies of the famous, it’s been rough.

Do you care about this? Continue reading

A year of books (7): Is this the strangest assortment yet?

It’s time for another instalment of #AYearInBooks, in which I track the non-academic reading I do.  If you needed any further evidence that my reading habits are all over the map, this one should do it. Here’s why I’m doing this. Continue reading

Some writing books I like

Tomorrow, I’m giving a Member Webinar for the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution, called How to Write a Better Thesis Faster: Learning the Craft of Writing. (Want to attend? You can join today and get the link tomorrow. Look, I’ll be honest: I’m not worth the price of membership. But you should join anyway – it’s a fabulous society with a great annual meeting and members who are brilliant, engaged, and kind.*

My talk** is a rather whirlwind compendium of advice for early-career folk wanting to learn to write more easily. One piece of advice – one I wish someone had given me early in my own career – is that it’s worth reading books on writing. Books plural. There are quite a few good ones (and yes, it’s true, also quite a few bad ones). Continue reading

The other crisis of 2020

This is a guest post from Emma Despland.  You might remember her from “Covid-19, Mystery Novels, and How Science Works“.

Remember back in January 2020, when the bushfires in Australia seemed the biggest catastrophe of the year, harbingers of the ever-advancing climate crisis? Now, in October, my friend in California says that, where she lives, the forest fires are a bigger concern than Covid-19 and even than the upcoming presidential election. People check their phones for fire alerts and smoke dispersal modeling to know if it’s safe to go outside. Most of the time they stay indoors with windows closed to avoid the smoke and no air-conditioning because of the power outages.

These fires are not only major disasters destroying people’s homes and threatening lives, they represent phenomena totally new within human memory. Continue reading