Interview with Scott Collins, October 28, 2014

Collection: Ecological Society of America Oral History Collection

Dublin Core


Scott Collins was the president of the Ecological Society of America from 2012-2013, and he has also been a professor at the University of New Mexico. In this interview, he talks about his involvement with the National Center of Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) and the National Science Foundation’s LTER (long-term ecological research) Program. He also discusses his thoughts regarding federally mandated open access to journals.

Interview notes

Scott grew up near Ipswich River (tidal) on the Massachusetts coast. He watched birds and other wildlife. Biology teachers influenced him and he liked biology. He took an ecology course  early in college and did an undergrad project on bird territories. He read E. Lucy Braun’s book and took field trips to the Smoky Mountains and Indiana Sand Dunes.

He became a good ornithologist but he didn’t think of himself as a good student.

Development as an ecologist

He focused mostly on plant ecology and succession and received an M.S. at Miami University of Ohio as he combined his interests in birds and plants. He didn't have an assistantship to begin with, but he worked in the student union bussing dishes. He didn’t know about grad school as an undergraduate, but things fell into place. John Vankat was very helpful. 

Fran James from Florida State was an external advisor and helped him design dissertation research on grassland birds and vegetation structure. He got his Ph.D. in plant ecology at the University of Oklahoma.

He then went to Rutgers for a post-doc and studied pine barrens and island biogeography, but was hired back at Oklahoma and continued grassland research.

His focus was on disturbance ecology in grasslands and he became involved with fire/grazing experiments at Konza Prairie starting in 1986.

His Ph.D. advisor at Oklahoma, Paul Risser, was a brilliant, kind, and a great mentor; he never meddled and was always there to help. Fran James also helped him greatly.

Development of Ecology

When he started, the trend was to become more experimental as well as plant demography, based on John Harpe’s work, competition theory, and the relevance of disturbance. He could do disturbance experiments easily in grassland, which he did.

What have been major challenges in his career?

Funding and not getting discouraged. He was thinking of going into library science before the post-doc opportunity came along at Rutgers.

He left Oklahoma to go to NSF and gave up tenure. The political climate in Oklahoma didn’t suit him well and he was ready to leave. For a while he was a bureaucrat in a permanent position. He felt good about the experience at NSF. He felt that he could influence the science that was being done, helping to make others improve and become successful. It was very satisfying, even though he did not do research himself. People at NSF now don’t seem to have that attitude, he thinks. A different philosophy now prevails.

What are major controversies in ecology that he’s been involved with?

He tries to stay out of controversies. Scale issues. He promoted grazing as beneficial to grasslands and examined distribution/abundance patterns, using Konza data.

What influence did his work have on ecology?

He promoted arid-land research. 

What is he most proud of?

He is happy with his role and general contributions. He enjoyed working with students, which was perhaps the best part of his career.

Would he do anything differently if he could repeat his career?

He wouldn’t have dabbled in so many topics as a grad student. He would have become more specialized, though he continues to dabble. He would also be more quantitative and learn programming skills.

What are your plans for future studies?

He’s not sure how much he wants to add to his agenda now. He likes working with microbial ecologists.

What was your role in the development of NCEAS?

He promoted collaboration through people sharing their data sets. He helped find UCSB as the host for the center. In the interview, he describes some of the ideas underlying NCEAS and why UCSB was selected since it already had a strong physics synthesis program. Scott thought it was good to have the center in town rather than on campus.

LTER Programs

He started at Konza before his time at NSF and then he became involved with the LTER program in general while at NSF. For six years he was LTER director at NSF and then he oversaw the development of NEON before leaving for the University of New Mexico.

What is the future of ecology?

Ecologists will, or should, have a greater impact on management; we’ve got to become part of the solution and can’t just be negative. We need to compromise, while using our science to minimize adverse effects, and we’ve got to integrate more with the social sciences. Climate change is and will drive a lot of what we do.

What should budding ecologists remember?

Develop a credible record as a scientist, but don’t think academia is the only career worth pursuing. There are other career tracks in government, consulting, and NGOs. And don't try to separate applied from basic. 

What is your philosophy about training graduate students?

Students should do as much research as possible, including collaborative research, and learn to be flexible. Appreciate that what you are doing now is going to change. Lead by example.

Anything else?

Ecology is becoming very broad. Ecologists should be quantitative, but don’t forget the biology. 

Development of ESA as a professional organization and issues he faced as president

Federally mandated open access to journals is a problem because organizations depend on income from journal subscriptions. So how can revenue be generated for the organization, not just ESA but all professional organizations? It’s a difficult time for ESA financially. He organized a workshop on the topic to consider future revenues. He describes the concept of an Open Access Fee.

He was Involved with starting Ecosphere, using PlosOne as a model. Fast reviews.

ESA is doing a complete evaluation of its publications.

Other ESA activities: He was also involved with various sections including Vegetation and LTER, and he chaired the Publications Committee. Now he is Vice President for Public Affairs, though is not yet sure what the role of the Public Affairs Committee is.

Anything more about ESA or other topics?

It is a great organization. Meetings are evolving, journals are held in high esteem, the kinds of awards are now broader, and there is work to diversify the society (SEEDS, he serves as faculty advisor).






Oral History Item Type Metadata


66 minutes


Scott Collins and Eva Dettweiler-Robinson, “Interview with Scott Collins, October 28, 2014,” UGA Special Collections Libraries Oral Histories, accessed June 12, 2024,