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


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

(Bird) Food for thought

Posted 13 January 2015 by Tom Webb

At this time of year I tend to get through the post a steady trickle of catalogues, reminding me of the mailing lists to which I still need to unsubscribe. Qutie a few of these are wildlife related, with a good chunk given over to the £200M wild bird food industry. For a while now I’ve felt rather uneasy about the excessive commodification of what should be a simple act - attracting birds to the garden just to enjoy their company.... Read more

Ecologists as rock stars? Oh how I wish it were so…

Posted 19 December 2014 by Tom Webb

The annual meeting of the British Ecology Society last week was unusual in a couple of ways: it was held in France, as a joint meeting with Societé Française d’Écologie; and, for the first time since I started going in the late 1990s, I wasn’t there. Rather than throw an almighty sulk about the injustice of this, I followed #BESSfe on Twitter as best I could, and felt I got a reasonable flavour of the conference - minus the hangovers, as an... Read more

A Case for Anonymous Open Review

Posted 23 October 2014 by Tom Webb

I recently reviewed a manuscript for the pioneering journal PeerJ. This presented me with a quandary. PeerJ’s experiment in open reviewing is nicely outlined in their recent post, and includes two steps: reviewers can sign their reports, and authors can publish the review history alongside their accepted paper. My quandary was this: I love the second idea, and think it is an important step forward in opening up the peer review process; but I don’t like to sign my reviews.... Read more