Monday, October 13, 2008

Chainsaw massacre and the need for speed

This feature from yesterday's Observer on Britain's trees is worth a look. It's particularly good on the benefits and threats to urban trees, which was all new to me. When it looks at woodland, and efforts to restore it, I found myself wishing for a lot less Felix Dennis (flying over his woodland in his helicopter, talking nonsense on climate change) and a lot more (any) Oliver Rackham.

There's a sentence about how the Woodland Trust has found itself outbid when trying to buy land in southeast England that made me think of a recent Ecology Letters paper on how to work out when to buy land, weighing uncertainty of it's conservation against the need to buy it before someone else does.

Eve McDonald-Madden of the University of Queensland and her colleagues use a modelling technique called stochastic dynamic programming – often applied to animal foraging behaviour – which predicts what you should do at any given time, given what’s already happened. They come up with an optimal method for decision making, and a simpler rule of thumb which uses current knowledge of the sites conservation value, and the deadline on a decision, to give a deal-or-no-deal answer.

I guess this might not be so applicable in the UK, where pretty much everything is already surveyed, so conservation value is well known and budgets and land prices are the main issue. But perhaps it might help in prioritizing. And I thought it was a neat paper in general.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Group theory

I've got a feature in this week's Nature about using network science to work out what makes for a successful collaboration - mainly in terms of writing highly cited papers, but also more generally. It grew out of seeing Northwestern's Brian Uzzi (you can download his papers here) and Pietro Panzarasa of QMUL talk at NetSci 08 this June. (here's Panzarasa's abstract)

Here's the nub of the matter. I think you have to pay for the rest.

...the scholars who study the folkways of science have been tracking the decline of the single-author paper for decades now. And they have followed the parallel growth of 'invisible colleges' of researchers who are separated by geography yet united in interest. But what is new is how their studies have been turbo-charged by the availability of online databases containing millions of papers, as well as analytical tools from network science — the discipline that maps the structure and dynamics of all kinds of interlinked systems, from food webs to websites.

The result is a clearer picture of science's increasingly collaborative nature, and of the factors that determine a team's success. Funding agencies are not using this work to decide where the money goes — yet. But the researchers behind the analyses are willing to give tentative tips on what their work reveals. They also think that their studies point to rules of thumb that apply very broadly, whether you're looking for a gene or putting on a show.

One related thing I didn't mention in the piece, but is worth checking out, is the extremely cool Map of Science.