Crossing the Atlantic

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Someone once asked me if my research collaborations abroad were a worthwhile use of time and money. I had just explained a project, which was effectively desk work – the statistical analysis of a large dataset. Why use public money to fly all the way to Denmark and upend a life to do a project that could easily be achieved by email and videoconferencing?

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I have been thinking about this question a lot. I just returned to the United States from a long stay in Denmark, for the second time in two years. The experience of having lived and worked in both Aarhus (with Jens-Christian Svenning) and Copenhagen (with Carsten Rahbek) has been very valuable to me, and wholly different from a collaboration built on digital communication.

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There are three reasons why this travel was valuable for me, all of which likely generalize to many other scientists.

First, projects are far easier to complete when all the participants are in the same place. Data are easy to exchange, conversations are easy to have, and ideas are easy to communicate. The bandwidth of any given interaction is far higher, in-person, than by email. New ideas are also easier to develop in a shared environment. The atmosphere of being in a place, interacting with a group of smart and interesting people, provides fertile ground for creativity.

Second, travel to a new institution broadens one’s perspectives and approaches to science. In the United States, my home institution is a broad ecology and evolution department, with only limited focus on macroecology, biogeography, and climate change. Both Danish institutions I visited focus on these areas and recruit a wide range of top people to think about these topics. The result is an informal education in a discipline that fascinates me. Moreover, this education comes from a different perspective than I am used to, because different research traditions and approaches have dominated on both sides of the Atlantic. I have a broader appreciation for the history and breadth of the field than I had before.

Third, investment in a research visit is not just investment in projects – it is also investment in people. These research visits has given me a broader network of collaborators and contacts in the ecology world, people who I know and now know me. Future collaborations and interchanges are now much more likely because of these present-day connections.

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From a personal standpoint, these visits have also been wonderfully world-expanding – exposure to a new culture, a new language, and a wholly different landscape. A life away from my home country seems very possible and maybe likely. These impacts are harder to measure or communicate to a funding agency, but they are very real.

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So at the end of things, on this trip back to Arizona, I think about the money that the US National Science Foundation and the Danish National Research Foundation have invested in my work. Two major projects are nearly finished, and three or four more are well underway thanks to their investment. But the impact of the money is far greater than that, and I hope you can now see why.

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