Is paleontology going extinct?

The author of a new book on dinosaurs laments the demise of his discipline

By | August 14, 2009

Even before linkurl:__Jurassic Park__;http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0107290/ brought dinosaurs to cinematic life, the ancient reptiles were fascinating to most people, especially kids. These days, mountains of books, toys and other paraphernalia are marketed to kids between ages 2 and 10. Most youngsters know __Tyrannosaurus rex__ and __Triceratops__ by sight, and many have mastered hundreds of arcane paleontological names as well. People assume that with all this dinophilia, and with all the money spent on dinosaur paraphernalia, paleontology must be rolling in dough. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, paleontology in the US and in most of Europe is starved for funds and jobs, and in many places paleontology is on its way to extinction.
The best argument I've heard that explains the near unanimous childhood fascination with dinosaurs can be put in three words: "big," "real," and "extinct." Dinosaurs are like the dragons and monsters of childhood imagination. They were real, but they're not too scary, since they're now extinct. In some cases, kids who can memorize hundreds of bits of dinosaur trivia feel empowered, especially when they know something that the adults in their lives don't. Teachers know that talking about dinosaurs gets kids interested in science, and that they are an effective gateway to promote scientific thinking and literacy. Somehow, as toddlers become teens, the fascination with dinosaurs (like other childhood interests) wanes. Dinosaurs are no longer considered cool, and most American adolescents lose interest in science as well. By the time they reach their late teens, most students take chemistry or biology only because those courses are required. Most American teachers know they're fighting an uphill battle to keep students focused on science. Nonetheless, interest in dinosaurs and paleontology is still widespread, if attendance at natural history museums is any indicator. But the job market for paleontologists in most countries is abysmal and getting worse, threatening the entire field with extinction (for more details, see my new book, linkurl:__Greenhouse of the Dinonsaurs__,;http://www.amazon.com/Greenhouse-Dinosaurs-Evolution-Extinction-Future/dp/0231146604 Chapter 10). In the US, fewer than one in ten graduate students (who spend at least ten years in college getting a hard-earned PhD) find a job as a professional paleontologist, either in a museum or a teaching job that allows research. When a paleontologist retires from a university, she's typically not replaced by another paleontologist. In many cases, generations of accumulated knowledge and expertise are lost because there are no jobs and therefore no students to learn from aging mentors. In addition, there is very little grant funding available for paleontological research. There are at best only a few hundred professional paleontologists around the world, and they must scrape by on shoestring budgets. Though dinosaur merchandise undoubtedly generates piles of cash, none of it actually supports the scientists who made all those realistic toys, books and movies possible. Why is this so? The major US science funding agencies, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), tend to favor projects with big machines, big staffing requirements, and big budgets. Paleontology fits none of these descriptions. I have been on NSF panels that reviewed and ranked proposals from paleontologists, sedimentologists, and many other types of geologists. Fewer than 20% of hundreds of outstanding proposals by first-rate researchers were funded, and paleontologists got almost none of this money. And as long as paleontology cannot compete on an equal funding level, departments have little incentive to keep a paleontologist on staff. There are lots of practical reasons why paleontology remains important and merits a place at the academic "high table." For one thing, paleontology is the only direct record we have of life's history, and how evolution actually occurred. As linkurl:George Gaylord Simpson;http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library/06/2/l_062_02.html put it in 1944: "Experimental biology...may reveal what happens to a hundred rats in the course of ten years under fixed and simple conditions, but not what happened to a billion rats in the course of ten million years under the fluctuating conditions of natural history. Obviously, the latter problem is more important." Paleontology is also central to geology. There are hundreds of paleontologists in the employ of the oil industry. Without their efforts over the past century, most of our great economic boom from oil discoveries would never have happened. Despite the best efforts of geochronologists, fossils are still the only practical means of dating most stratified rocks around the world. Above all, paleontology is fascinating in its own right. Without the efforts of hard-working paleontologists, we would not have these extinct beasts to marvel at in museums. They give us a different perspective, and a more humbling and less arrogant view of our place in nature. Without paleontologists, these amazing extinct creatures would not be available to excite and stimulate the next generation of scientists we so desperately need. linkurl:__Greenhouse of the Dinosaurs: Evolution, Extinction, and the Future of Our Planet__,;http://cup.columbia.edu/book/978-0-231-14660-9/greenhouse-of-the-dinosaurs by Donald R. Prothero, Columbia University Press, New York, 2009. 288 pp. ISBN: 978-0-231-14660-9. $29.50. linkurl:__Donald R. Prothero;http://www.oxy.edu/x5054.xml is Professor of Geology at Occidental College in Los Angeles and Lecturer in Geobiology at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He is currently the author, co-author, editor, or co-editor of 25 books and over 200 scientific papers. He has also been featured on several television documentaries, including episodes of __Paleoworld__ (BBC), __Prehistoric Monsters Revealed__ (History Channel), __Entelodon and Hyaenodon__ (National Geographic Channel) and __Walking with Prehistoric Beasts__ (BBC).__
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Fossil frenzy;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/55725/
[21st May 2009]*linkurl:Earliest fossil seal found;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/55653/
[22nd April 2009]*linkurl:Is systematic biology dead?;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/55005/
[8th September 2008]

Comments

Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 16

August 14, 2009

I was surprised to see NIH lumped in with NSF as funding paleontology and only supporting big science. I think the problem is that NIH funds research related to human health. A clear stretch for paleontology. Off hand I can't imagine a connection between paleontology and human health. \n\nSo, I did a quick NIH RePort (http://projectreporter.nih.gov/reporter_SearchResults.cfm) using the keyword dinosaur or paleontology over the past five years. I got 5 hits for dinosaur (4 grants spread over 3 PIs researching the use of Dinosaur Social Skills and Problem-Solving Curriculum clearly not directly related to hard core paleontology). For Paleontology I got 9 hits. Six were for biomineralization meeting grants, the others were paleogenetic and neurophysiology grants. \n\nSo, you can't blame NIH for not funding dino digs because they prefer big science. Paleontology is simply not part of their mission.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 125

August 14, 2009

When times are tough and money is tight, then this is what happens to less popular science that could nevertheless be so enlightening or important for human intellect.
Avatar of: WILLIAM PROVINE

WILLIAM PROVINE

Posts: 3

August 14, 2009

Evolutionists have decided that molecular evolution is the key to constructing evolutionary trees. Molecular evidence is gathered from existing species, or extinct ones from which we can extract good molecular evidence. Thus for hominid molecular evidence, we have only three sources: humans, chimpanzees, and Neanderthals. The entire hominid tree must be constructed with this molecular evidence, when in fact the hominid tree, from paleontology, is horribly complex filled with excitement and what we need is more paleontological evidence to understand this tree that leads to us. The death of paleontology is the death of true understanding of evolutionary trees. By deciding that only molecular evidence is required for constructing evolutionary trees, evolutionists have sadly cut off their own ears.
Avatar of: null null

null null

Posts: 18

August 14, 2009

From Don Wolberg, a living fossil. \n\nI have admired the scientific and popular writings of Don Prothero for a very long time--he is almost but not quite a living fossil as well. But in some sense he is on the mark with his comments, but in reality all of what he writes is nothing new. In a little paper I published more than a decade ago, and in several public speeches, I noted the situation of paleontology as a profession by taking off from Dickens' "It is the best of times and the worst of times for paleontology." The "best of times" was characterized for example by our creating a series (5)exhibits of dinosaurs and other fossils, aptly named "DINOFEST" ever done anywhere (the largest 138,0000 sq.ft., and the other almost 200,000 sq. ft.are still the largest exhibits of their kind ever done), and a series of newspaper, radio and television events associated with the exhibits, and seeing crowds approaching 800,000 (paid) admissions. Other smaller exhibits remain popular at museums. We managed to find the dollars for funding these multi-million dollar efforts, reflecting not my "smarts" for accomplishing this, but more reflecting the great, great popularity for everything dinosaur and fossil. Disney, Discovery Channel, PBS, Fox, etc., did not pay attention to owr projects because of me, but because of the popularity of the subject among people of all ages. The dinosaur named "Sue" discovered by the Pete and Neal Larson of South Dakota and Susan Henderson is an icon because of this popularity.\n\nSimilalry, amazing discoveries and publications describing new fossils of all kinds has added to the richness of our understanding of the history of life on this world over more than 3.5 billion years, changing environments, discovery of significant energy resources,providing that need dimension to evolutionary studies (actual organisms)and the evolution of our own species. Fossils are also a remarkable tool for interesting people in science. I recall speaking at an inner city Philadelphia school wher it is likely more than half the kids never got through high school, and all the other horrors of our society, but there was remarkable interest by the kids, ages 10-13, in dinosaurs. One can teach astronomy to zoology using dinosaurs and fossils as the departure point.\n\nOn the other hand, it is "the worst of times" in that Prothero is correct that there are very few "paying" positions in paleontology. All of us have friends who have lived very much hand to mouth on temporary appointments, ancillary position not related to paleontology, or nothing more than voluntary, non-paying "research" appointments at museums or colleges, most of which do not even provide office space, lab facilities, or telephone.However, I suggest that this has long been the case, if not always the case, and is not much different than that found in classical archaeology or astronomy or many other areas of science. That the numbers of unempoloyed or underemployed are large, and larger today than before is certain. Prothero's 10% finding employment may be accurate or not--I suspect that it represents the 10% around at any point in time, but a more accurate number is likely to be 5% or less that will find permanent positions. That will not change. Unfortunately, there is little of no self-control by practioners of the profession, those that do have jobs, to slow the rate at which they encourage people to become graduate students or slow the rate of "production" of new people that they know will enter a market where most likely they will never be able to support themselves, never mind families, by employment in that profession.\n\nUnfortunately, Prothero is completely correct that as the seniors in the profession retire, their positions will not be filled by younger paleontologists. Colleges will go elsewhere to fill positions. In this sense, it is likely that the numbers of graduates will decline simply because there will be fewer and fewer paleontologists at colleges and universities. This is at once depressing and unfortunate. It is likely that we have discovered less than 1-5% of the fossil record of life that is available for discovery. Fewer workers mean less and less an opportunity to discover that remaining 95% or more. In the San Juan Basin, for example, in places that I roam now and then in the Upper Cretaceous and Lower Tertiary, there is more land area of rock exposures for this interval than there is land area in the state of Indiana. Thee may be only 1-3 paleontolgists walking these exposures each year. The Indiana comparison makes the point I think.\n\nThe money issue is significant. I estimate that perhaps $2.5 million dollars is directly spent on research in paleontoloy of all organisms each year for all paleontologists studying all organisms in the WORLD. By comparison, and unfortunately, the Mars program, early on an effort to discover the paleontolgy of Mars (searching for Martian life) has accomplished great things. Sadly there seems to be no life on Mars and life may well never have existed on Mars. The cost of the Mars effort to find life's origin there, amounts to "billions and billions," ala Carl Sagan. More money has been spent to show water runs (or ran) downhill on Mars and erodes rocks there as well than has ever been spent trying to discover life's origins and history in the only laboratory fo life we have anywhere in the universe, right here on Earth by all the paleontologists that have ever lived.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 12

August 14, 2009

Okay ,first a question: why titanotheres (mammals) on the cover of a "dinosaur" book? I am sure there must be a good reason, but the author has not explained it.\n\nNext, an observation: if you study fossils, then you are lucky because your study taxa are relatively immune to the ravages of humanity. In fact, road cuts and other industrial slices through the bedrock expose fossils that would otherwise be inaccessible. Such activities generally have an adverse effect on living things.\n\nSure, times are tough for scientists who want to study biodiversity (extant or not), but the unfortunate fact is that the majority of people who get a PhD in biological sciences these days, molecular and non-molecular alike, don't get a tenure-track job at all. If one wants to study paleontology (or entomology, mycology, phycology ... ) and is a clever strategist, one will become broadly-trained enough to be able to teach the courses still deemed critical to the undergraduate curriculum that the molecular people are not prepared for - such as general biology and A&P. If you can do that, then you can do research on whatever esoterica you please and still be "valuable" to your institution.
Avatar of: Edward Mikol

Edward Mikol

Posts: 8

August 14, 2009

The failure to promote the discipline among those who have profited like Midas from the groundwork done by paleontologists is a failure of imagination and enterprise by the professionals now bemoaning the lack of funding in the field (literally) and in academia.\n\nGet Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas and their buddies to cough up some cash for scholarships, contests to join working digs, etc., etc., and these cinematic Croesuses could probably make even more money by getting new attention and tie-ins for their films, toy lines, et al.\n\nLike triceratops bones, money does not dig itself up.\n\nAnd whining is never winning.\n\nA quick fund-raising example: you could get as many pre-college level schoolkids as you could reach to enter a contest ~for a buck or two~ and have the randomly-selected winner get the next new dinosaur found named after them on a dig that the contest money sponsored.\n\nWho wouldn't want to be immortalized in some new raptor's nomenclature?\n\nArcheopteranosaurus BessieJonesia anyone?\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n
Avatar of: null null

null null

Posts: 18

August 15, 2009

Don Wolberg here again--although I wish Don Prothero would comment. The comments of Mr. Mikol amd Provine amke some interesting points and I afgree with some and not others, and the same applies to another comment. Paleontology, I suggest, has marketed itself very well and mostly by intention by paleontologists. This is not very unuusual. Much is "public" science is marketing my scientists elbowing for media attention. public attention, and they hope attention from funding sources. Government science, be it the Smithsonian, publically financed museums, etc., are essentially line item institutions with recurring budgets, tat may shrink or swell, but usually can be counted on for being there. Most of the rest in sciences\nfro astronomy to zoology have to hunt and peck for scarce dollars in spite of public interest or marketing. That is just how it is, pretty much how it always has been except now there are so many more science "mouths" to be fed and a diminishing of dollars available. In my personal view, the billions spent on Mars would have been much better spent looking for the origin of life right here on earth, or in a coordinated effort to look for those hundreds of millions of fossil species yest to be discovered, or better still looking at the 6-8 million living species of organisms yet to be discovered. It is odd that we ignore the big issues in life history on the only world with clear evidence that it does exist, and expend enough money looking at a world where it does not exist and likely never existed.\n
Avatar of: PAUL STEIN

PAUL STEIN

Posts: 61

August 17, 2009

Just as some art museums are selling some of their pieces to raise money in tough economic times, paleontologists should take a lesson. Sell some items on the open market! How many of the same thing need to stay stowed away in some dusty vault, never to see the light of day? Sure, there are a few stories of new species discovered in those archives, but that's not what I'm talking about; not one-of-a-kind, but one-of-a-bunch, or chunks of bone never to be able to be put into a full specimen or display piece. Have you ever gone to a rock shop and seen pieces go for hundreds or thousands of dollars?\n\nFund yourselves! It's time to clean house and make a bundle! And, if all those kids, and those adults who never grew out of the dinosaur thing, have real fossils and not plastic toys, collecting will become popular, leading to more money, more discovery, more jobs, more fossils, more money, more discovery, more jobs...
Avatar of: null null

null null

Posts: 18

August 18, 2009

Don Wolberg here again. I am in complete agreement that there are absolutely awful prospects for scientists to be employed in many, many fields despite the broad public interest, and the fact that the need for specialized knowledge is broadly recognized. I am surprised that an entomologist would have a more difficlt time that someone who was interested in ancient clams. The notion that it is time to sell fossils is just a bit odd. If only the world were more simple. In actuality, many fossils in museums are very special specimens, types, and are of great significance. Then too, fossils are frequently from public lands and collected by permit with very strict requirements for maintaining the specimens and their sale would be a violation of law (and ethics). The primaru isses remain: funding is very limited or misdirected; fewer and fewer employment opportunities remain and there are just too many people for the available positions. This is in some sense an ethical issues as well. Advisors to students should "unencourage" them from pursuing advanced degrees unless they clearly understand there will be few if any career opportunities. Students should be advised to get the needed skills to have "day jobs."
Avatar of: Donald Prothero

Donald Prothero

Posts: 1

October 7, 2009

At the urging of Don Wolberg, I'll comment on several points raised by the post:\n\n1) Many vertebrate paleontologists work in med schools as anatomists, so the NIH is relevant--although it rarely funds them compared to molecular and cell biologists.\n\n2) As Wolberg points out, there are a LOT of reasons why selling off our collections is BAD idea. Not only is it illegal when they were collected on Federal land and are part of the public trust (as most fossils are these days), but the hot market for fossils has made the problem of poaching and falsifying data on significant specimens even more acute. Yes, there are museums with large collections, but most of those that would have some market value are also too important scientifically to sell--and additional specimens are important to understand variability of fossil population samples. Finally, if we did a "fire sale" of our collections, it would only generate a small amount of revenue over a few years--nowhere near enough to keep people in the business for the long haul.\n\n3) Yes, there have been attempts to get the Hollywood types to pony up some funds to compensate for all the free movie characters that paleontologists have discovered. Back in the 1990s there was a "Dinosaur Society" that received funds from people marketing dinosaur products in exchange for the "Dino Society Seal Of Approval" on their products. But it folded after a few years, and at best, such methods would only support dinosaur research. That does no good for the vast majority of paleontologists who study mammals, birds, fish, invertebrates, and many other groups which are NOT sexy enough to market to the public, but are scientifically far more important than dinosaurs.\n\n4) When you read my book, you will see that the theme is the greenhouse world of the dinosaurs and how it changed to our modern icehouse world in the past 65 million years. So there is a dinosaur skull in the foreground of the cover being trampled by the mammals that followed it.\n\n5) Finally, Don Wolberg is right--paleontology (especially vertebrate paleontology) has always been a small field with a best a few hundred jobs in the US for the past few decades. That number briefly expanded during the 60s and 70s when the Baby Boom generation went through college and many campuses hired more faculty, but it has been in contraction since at least the early 80s, with signs of further contraction when positions are lost, and when experts train no proteges and generations' worth of knowledge are lost.\n We can certainly take the heartless market approach to the fields of academia and weed out every field that cannot pay for itself. But that would wipe out most of the humanities, social sciences, and many of the fine arts, since very few of those fields have large funding sources or big market demand. (Look at how symphonies and art museums are going under during the current recession). Likewise, molecular biology, oil geology, and some fields of physics and chemistry can pay their way commercially, but most areas of science cannot without the support of federal grant funds and the protection of academic jobs with tenure. Paleontology has enormous practical and scientific value (in the study of evolution, the discovery of oil, the dating of rocks), but most of these uses do not translate into ready cash. Are we willing to give up on nearly all the arts and literature, just because they are not commercially viable? Are we willing to throw away what paleontology reveals about past life and environments (ncluding global climate, the theme of my book) just because it is not a money-making enterprise? It is bad enough that our culture is so relentlessly commercial and money-grubbing as it is. Don't we need to support fields of study that enhance our lives through the wonders of poetry, art, and music, or the spectacular discoveries of extinct animals and ancient climates?

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