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


Mixed messages on Marine Protected Areas

Posted 5 March 2014 by Tom Webb

I can’t remember the details of the first scientific conference I ever went to - not even its name - but I know it was on marine conservation, in Cardiff, and that a couple of us undergrads had made the trek from Norwich with little idea what to expect. The keynote speaker was Bill Ballantine, some of whose work on Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in New Zealand I’d read as research for an essay. I remember no details of his... Read more

Reading, writing, and aestheticism

Posted 30 January 2014 by Tom Webb

Last week my daughter turned one, and - as well as celebrating all the fun of her first year - I found myself reflecting on the growing list of ‘things I used to do’, in those dimly remembered days before the arrival of Webbs 2.0 and 2.1. There are the obvious activities - eating (and drinking) out, sport, long walks and lie ins. There are things that have come alarmingly close to making the list. ‘Doing my job properly’ springs... Read more

Life with Attenborough

Posted 20 December 2013 by Tom Webb

Christmas day 1981. A six-year-old boy sits on his bed in the Horton General Hospital, Banbury. He feels poorly, no worse, but for now nobody knows quite what’s wrong with him. His parents hide their worry so well that he is only now, a parent himself, starting to appreciate it. But on Christmas day it’s all smiles, with mum, dad and big brother all crowded into the small room. His brother’s main present was a portable radio, and the two... Read more

New conservation, old conservation

Posted 6 December 2013 by Tom Webb

In 1999, at the inaugural Student Conference on Conservation Science in Cambridge, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. I’d just given my first conference talk - something to do with extinction risk and phylogeny in birds - and it seemed to have gone OK. I was meeting lots of interesting people, sharing the cosy impression that our research was on track to make some real difference to conservation efforts. Then Stuart Pimm stood up to give the plenary. He... Read more

An Appreciation of John Steele

Posted 6 November 2013 by Tom Webb

When I received the sad news, yesterday, that John Steele had died of the cancer that had afflicted him this last year, my instinct was to share the passing of a scientific hero as widely as possible. I duly tweeted, but given the general lack of response I wondered if perhaps his legacy is not as widely appreciated as I believe it should be. Hence this personal appreciation. I never met John, although I had been corresponding with him over... Read more

Natural history and desk-based ecology

Posted 11 September 2013 by Tom Webb

The recent Intecol meeting in London, celebrating the British Ecological Society’s centenary, was perhaps the most Twitter-active (Twinteractive?) conference I’ve been to, with Twitter-only questions at plenaries and plenty of discussion across multiple parallel sessions. One such discussion I dipped into (#ecologyNH) concerned the extent to which a 21st Century ecologist needs to know natural history, a question I’ve been pondering for a while, and one which surfaced again only yesterday in an exchange triggered by Matt Hill (@InsectEcology) and... Read more

Measuring the intangible: lessons for science from the DRS?

Posted 21 August 2013 by Tom Webb

The final Ashes test of this summer has just started, a welcome distraction, no doubt, for some of those academics holed up preparing REF submissions (see Athene Donald’s recent post to get a feel for how time consuming this is, and the comments under it for a very thoughtful discussion of the issues I’m covering here). It also provides the perfect excuse for me to release another convoluted analogy, this time regarding the approaches taken in test match cricket and... Read more

Wild extrapolation and the value of marine protected areas

Posted 23 July 2013 by Tom Webb

Last week, the UK National Ecosystem Assessment published a follow-on report on the value of proposed marine protected areas (rMPAs) to sea anglers and divers in the UK. This report gained a fair bit of coverage, likely because the headline numbers it proclaimed are quite astonishing: “The baseline, one-off non-use value of protecting the sites to divers and anglers alone would be worth £730-1,310 million… this is the minimum amount that designation of 127 sites is worth to divers and... Read more

Midsummer Indulgence

Posted 21 June 2013 by Tom Webb

Sorting through some papers recently, I came across a printout of a piece I wrote in (I think) the summer of 2002, fresh out of a PhD and wondering what happens next, looking after the ailing family dog at my parents’ house in West Norfolk, playing with the idea of natural history writing. Short of cash too - this was intended for some essay competition or other, probably at BBC Wildlife, though it certainly didn't bring me riches, even if... Read more

The Clunky Mechanics of Collaborative Writing

Posted 19 June 2013 by Tom Webb

Forget the myth of the lone genius: science is a collaborative enterprise, requiring cooperation within large teams of people. Often, this is both a joy and a necessity: many hands make light work in the lab or the field, and collaborations massively extend the scale of research questions we’re able to address. More and more, however, writing of papers, reports and funding applications is becoming collaborative too, and that’s seldom so pleasant; the best writing is personal, and writing by... Read more