Macroecologists to rule the world… for a while

I saw the first two paragraphs of this quote from an interview of Hal Varian by The McKinsey Quarterly over at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science. The whole interview is great, but this section suggests the promise of macroecology (and… OK… statistics as well) for training people in the broadly important area of acquiring, manipulating, analyzing and understanding large quantities of data:

I keep saying the sexy job in the next ten years will be statisticians. People think I’m joking, but who would’ve guessed that computer engineers would’ve been the sexy job of the 1990s? The ability to take data—to be able to understand it, to process it, to extract value from it, to visualize it, to communicate it—that’s going to be a hugely important skill in the next decades, not only at the professional level but even at the educational level for elementary school kids, for high school kids, for college kids. Because now we really do have essentially free and ubiquitous data. So the complimentary scarce factor is the ability to understand that data and extract value from it.

I think statisticians are part of it, but it’s just a part. You also want to be able to visualize the data, communicate the data, and utilize it effectively. But I do think those skills—of being able to access, understand, and communicate the insights you get from data analysis—are going to be extremely important. Managers need to be able to access and understand the data themselves.

The third paragraph (the part not discussed at SMCISS) speaks to a challenge that we are really still grappling with in ecology:

You always have this problem of being surrounded by “yes men” and people who want to predigest everything for you. In the old organization, you had to have this whole army of people digesting information to be able to feed it to the decision maker at the top. But that’s not the way it works anymore: the information can be available across the ranks, to everyone in the organization. And what you need to ensure is that people have access to the data they need to make their day-to-day decisions. And this can be done much more easily than it could be done in the past. And it really empowers the knowledge workers to work more effectively.

This challenge is the easy access to data by those doing the science, those evaluating the science, and those attempting to apply science to address major socioecological issues. Data is increasingly available, but it is in a wide variety of formats, hosted by different providers, and much of it comes with strings attached. This, combined with a general lack of appropriate technical skills among practicing ecologists, puts us at a disadvantage for tackling important problems and doing so in the most general and useful ways. To be sure, these problems are being addressed by a variety of groups, but we still have a lot of work to do. Perhaps the promise of ruling the world (and the fear of missing our 10 year window) will help keep us moving forward.

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