Jacqueline Gill reports on a conference with a provocative organization: "Crowd-sourcing the 50 most pressing questions in paleoecology".
Conference attendees (of which I believe were around 60) were emailed the questions in advance, and asked to narrow them down to each of our own individual top fifty, as well as rank which subgroups we were most interested in– I ended up in Biodiversity Through Time. Every subgroup had a scribe (to record information about which questions were particularly contentious, or when concerns or points were raised), a chair, and a co-chair (for organizational and time-keeping purposes). Each subgroup was given dozens of questions, organized into loose themes, that we had to narrow down to twenty in the first day. This process was much more complex that it initially sounds– after an initial round of voting, there was a considerable amount of discussion, word-smithing, and merging of questions.
What a neat idea -- a conference with a real agenda and public product at the end of it. Like paleoanthropology, paleoecology is a field where data are hard to obtain and require very specialized analytical methods. Getting the public involved in the science means finding ways to get people engaged in the questions and hypothesis formation. A ranking of important questions is a great idea, and may help to shape granting priorities.