ABOUT Tom Webb

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I’m interested in marine biodiversity, and the past, present and future of the marine environment. I pursue this interest using macroecolgical methods – essentially, statistical experiments on large biological databases. Since 2008, I have been able to do this thanks to a Royal Society University Research Fellowship which I hold in the Department of Animal & Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield. The kinds of ecological questions I work on span many temporal and spatial scales, and require me to adopt methods from various related disciplines including statistics, evolutionary biology, palaeontology, economics, sociology. So, I’m very interested in how interdisciplinary research works, and how it could be made to work better. I’m interested more generally in how science is communicated, and how it is represented both in the science and news media, and more generally in our culture (e.g. in literature). All of this has stemmed from a love of natural history, which I try to maintain whenever possible by exploring nature in my garden, walking in the Peak District or wherever else I find myself, snorkelling when the water’s warm enough, kayaking when it’s not. I share thoughts on all of the above on Twitter as @tomjwebb.

 

Tom Webb: All Posts

 
 

Who are you writing for?

Posted 26 May 2016 by Tom Webb

It is widely acknowledged that a to pursue a successful career in science requires the hide of a rhino (or, as I put it in my first ever post, the skin of a sunfish…). Receiving, giving, responding to, and gossiping about criticism are such an integral part of the job, that to take such things personally is a recipe for misery. Over the years I think I have got better at reading criticism of my own work at one step... Read more

An open letter to the people of Sheffield, Yorkshire, England, Britain, Europe, the World…

Posted 29 April 2016 by Tom Webb

One of my colleagues has just been awarded a huge grant from the European Research Council. In the last decade or so, my department has been extremely successful in this scheme, which rewards top individual researchers. And Sheffield as a whole is an ERC powerhouse - in a 2013 report, the University - with 25 ERC grants funded - ranked joint 33rd in Europe as institution (table on p58 of this pdf). Seven UK institutions ranked higher, a further 15 had... Read more

Grand Ambitions, Modest Goals

Posted 31 March 2016 by Tom Webb

At the beginning of this year, I set myself an exercise target. Of course, I am hardly the first to resolve in early January to get fitter; of course, this is hardly the first time I have done it myself. What’s been different this year is that I settled on a target that I knew I could achieve, with minimal disruption to my normal daily routine; but a target, nonetheless, that would require persistence over the course of the whole... Read more

Trait databases: the desirable and the possible

Posted 15 December 2015 by Tom Webb

Another major traits database has recently come online. This time, all you need to know about the life histories of 21,000+ amniotes (reptiles, birds, mammals), courtesy Nathan Myhrvold, Morgan Ernest and colleagues. I’ve been working with ecological traits for a good while now, and this kind of thing excites me. It also demonstrates the kind of self-interested altruism that typifies the Open Science mentality. As Morgan puts it in her blog post on the paper: The project started because my collaborator,... Read more

A Rational Optimist’s Reluctant Case for Panic

Posted 20 October 2015 by Tom Webb

As European rugby fans look back with regret on (yet!) a(nother!!) chastening weekend, one of Monday’s papers put up a poll: When do you think a northern hemisphere team will next win the World Cup? There was a choice of the next five tournaments, 2019 to 2036. (Plus ‘none of the above’, one assumes…) Which got me thinking about something that has been nagging at me for a while. On this kind of timescale - a few years to a... Read more

Peer Review, Amis Style

Posted 1 October 2015 by Tom Webb

I have read for pleasure for as long as I remember, some books haunting me for years after I finish them, others drawing me in only while they last. But two authors had a particularly formative influence on me in my late teens, in very different ways. Richard Dawkins caused me to reassess my position in the world. And Martin Amis showed me that so-called literary novels could also be pretty good fun. In the couple of decades since, my... Read more

Piloting the Imperial Shuttle

Posted 20 July 2015 by Tom Webb

At staff meetings and the like, I often find myself channelling Princess Leia. The HoD, faculty head, or whoever will be outlining some pioneering new initiative, but what I’ll hear is General Madine announcing the theft of an Imperial shuttle to the assembled rebels in Return of the Jedi: “Disguised as a cargo ship, and using a secret Imperial code, a strike team will land on the moon and deactivate the shield generator.” To which I incredulously respond (usually -... Read more

Science, Gender, and the Social Network

Posted 10 June 2015 by Tom Webb

Some while ago, preparing a piece for the British Ecological Society’s Bulletin on the general scarcity of female ecology professors, we had the pleasure of interviewing Professor Anne Glover. (Shortly afterwards Anne went on to become EU Chief Scientist. Coincidence? You decide…) One of the things that Anne talked to us about was the importance of informal social networks in career progression within science. Business conducted after hours, over drinks. Basically Bigwig A asking Bigwig B if he (inevitably) could... Read more

Cricket averages: what do you mean?

Posted 10 April 2015 by Tom Webb

Easter has always seemed a nothing sort of a holiday to me. Partly it’s because I never know when it will be (I would vote for a party that pledged to standardise Easter, but that’s another matter…) There is - of course - an R function, timeDate::Easter(), but Easter’s date will never be ingrained in the way that Christmas is, and thus anticipation will never build to the same extent. There’s not much to look forward too, either. Don’t get me... Read more

Diversity and extinction of tongues and species

Posted 27 February 2015 by Tom Webb

Some years ago, at a rather posh function in a swanky London venue, I got talking to a peer of the realm. By this point I had been drinking my endless glass of wine for some time (they have stealthy waiters at these kinds of dos), and didn’t quite catch his name, but he had been, apparently, head of a large supermarket chain. And his response to me mentioning the word ‘biodiversity’ has stuck with me. “When I took over... Read more