The students of the cheerfully described “Lubmengo lab” benefited from the yin-yang qualities of their mentors. Menge was impulsive and had an open-door policy. Lubchenco was deliberate and required appointments. Today, he is laid-back and wears Hawaiian shirts; she is intense and sharp-suited. “The combination of those two was really powerful,” says Steve Gaines from the University of California, Santa Barbara, who was one of their star students. “You got an educational experience that would be hard for any individual to give you.”
Lubchenco and Menge wanted to probe other environmental impacts on coastal ecosystems, and so began a decades-long world tour that took Paine's experimental approaches to Chile, South Africa and New Zealand. Their studies showed, for example, that the intermittent upwelling of nutrient-rich water can intensify competition, predation and other interactions between marine species.
But they also moved — to Paine's disapproval — from his solitary style to large teams. Their grandest venture is the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO) — a 13-lab collaboration that began in 1999. The participants run regimented studies along a 1,900-kilometer stretch of coastline from Alaska to Mexico, including a census of local marine life and measurements of water conditions. There are some Paine-style manipulations, but PISCO is more about collecting data to reveal how the oceans are changing. When Oregon's beaches started filling with dead crabs and fish in 2002, PISCO's data quickly revealed the cause — an oxygen-deprived dead zone that had been mysteriously growing in the water off the coast (see Nature 466, 812–814; 2010). “The problems we're trying to solve in ecology are way beyond the local scale,” says Menge. “My dream is for PISCO-like entities in all the marine ecosystems around the world.”
But that is not Paine's dream: big science is an anathema to him. “He was always grousing about how this massively expensive work was really not much more than stamp-collecting,” says former student Richard Palmer, now at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Paine fears that PISCO's approach will yield broad, unclear trends rather than detailed insights. Worse, it risks robbing students of the playful creativity that he tried to instill. “They're so involved with making the same measurements up and down the same kilometers of coast,” he laments. “My loosey-goosey attitude to Tatoosh was to get brilliant people to do what they want to do.” But Lubchenco and Menge argue that ecology's challenges, from global warming to ocean acidification, are outpacing the rhythms of solo experiments. “Bob fought that a lot,” says Lubchenco. “People had to rebel against their parent.”
Lubchenco's move into policy was similarly rebellious. She served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1997 and of the Ecological Society of America between 1992 and 1993. And as administrator of NOAA from 2009, she has influenced the US government's response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and its strategy to manage the oceans sustainably. “The culture we grew up with was very anti being relevant,” says Lubchenco, who will leave NOAA at the end of February to return to research. “I knew Bob didn't approve and I did it anyhow. It was really painful to rebel.”
Any such disapproval has long since vanished, and Paine now speaks of Lubchenco's influence with deep respect. He has reluctantly become a key player in conservation himself, leading panels of scientists who have assessed the decline of the Steller's sea lion (Eumetopias jubatus) and the recovery of Alaskan waters following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. “My role was simply to oversee the mob,” he says. “I was bullied into it.”