senckenbergPaleontology in 21st Century

Whitey Hagadorn

January 1998

Author biography

An International Senckenberg Conference, September 3-9, 1997

In the heat of early September, a large group of paleontologists gathered to create and promote a long-range "plan" for paleontology. This conference, aptly entitled "Paleontology in the 21st Century", was held within the paleontologically treasure-laden walls of the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt, Germany. Although space and funding limited the number of attendees, the conference brought together participants from all over the globe and from all types of paleontologic and paleontology-related backgrounds. Attendees included commercial collectors, avocational paleontologists, funding agency administrators, magazine editors, publishers, graduate students, as well as academic, industry, government, and museum paleontologists.

To address the current and future directions of the field, participants focused on three major aspects of paleontology, including its organizational components (e.g., academics, industry, societies), scientific subdisciplines (e.g., geobiology, paleoecology, paleoclimatology), and supporting infrastructure (e.g., databases, publications, education). Participants met in small groups to identify and discuss problems within each of these areas, and formulate plans to address perceived problematic areas. Pan-paleontologic problems, symptoms, and solutions were later presented to the entire group, where all participants could discuss and/or suggest modifications to the individual committee reports.

After four days of intense discussion on these issues, participants were taken on a very well organized field trip to the Messel Quarry and Research Station, which provided not only an opportunity for participants to take a break from the regimented sessions, but to study some fossils (see Fig. 1), view the spectacular local scientific branch of the Senckenberg, have a bier in the afternoon sun, and tour some of the picturesque towns along the way.

Much refreshed after a day away from the conference sessions, participants rolled up their sleeves for a last day of work, which consisted of synthesizing and prioritizing the many pan-paleontologic issues raised in previous days’ discussions. After identifying recurrent themes in the discussion sessions, the group made plans to address these issues in the next phase of the Paleo-21 project. In particular, post-conference plans were made to: (1) develop one or more integrated research initiatives that will showcase paleontology’s relevance to the public and to the scientific community; (2) encourage more international cooperation between individual paleontologists and paleontology societies; and (3) seek and encourage ways of breaching the traditional barriers that have developed between different branches of our field. Although many other post-conference plans were made (and are posted elsewhere, the next major phase of the Paleo-21 initiative will be a month-long internet conference held on the PaleoNet listserver.

Notable themes which recurred in paleontologic discussion groups included:

1) The global nature of paleontology and paleontologic involvement. First, there was consensus that paleontology is extremely important because it is intimately enmeshed in our culture’s scientific and societal fabric. For example, paleontology enables us to better assess climate change, locate economic resources, and understand highly linked marine/terrestrial environments. It also helps satiate public interest for the past and for the unknown, by providing a backdrop for anthropologic and evolutionary history, by providing evidence of lost worlds inhabited by bizarre/large/predatory animals, or by helping to answer questions such as "Are we alone in the universe?".

Second, there was increasing awareness of paleontologic interest and research in non-North American, non-European countries. Although network and equipment access is still limiting, this multinational interest in paleontology has begun to manifest itself across the internet, as growing numbers of individuals communicate, peruse, or learn about paleontology via email and the web. It is possible that much future growth in paleontology will occur in these geographically disparate areas, and paleontologists in more fortunate political/economic climates will need to closely interact with and help to develop long-term sustainable support for paleontology in these regions. To this end, proposals were made to increase communication between international paleontologic communities, to provide aid to paleontologists in economically-distressed or developing countries, and to develop an international post-doctoral program.

2) The need for a mission statement. Because paleontology is often subtly enmeshed in many aspects of our society, it is vital that we explain to the public what exactly is it that we do, where it has an impact, and why it is important. Paleontologists need to educate the policy makers, industry, and media, as well as the general public. To accomplish this objective, it was suggested that paleontologists develop a mission statement which explains the importance of our role to society, and our objectives as "custodians" of Earth history (e.g., The Human Genome Project, NASA's Astrobiology Initiative). Although a "mission statement" may seem odd in light of paleontology's current external communication framework, many of our political and economic masters need such a mission-oriented framework to weigh and make decisions. To succeed in the 21st century, paleontologists will need to adopt such mission-oriented approaches to communicate effectively with business/political/administrative/media establishments. Lastly, in crafting such a mission statement, paleontologists also need to emphasize that paleontology is as much about people as it is about fossils and Earth history. In order to survive and prosper we must explain our utility to the general public in ways they can easily understand and appreciate. In doing so, we can move beyond the concept that paleontology is for children and illustrate that paleontologic research directly or indirectly benefits everyone's life.

3) The importance of public outreach. Among scientific disciplines, paleontology currently has a very favorable position within the public eye. To insure survival and growth in the 21st century, paleontology needs to increase and improve the quality of this image. To accomplish this objective, paleontology needs spokespersons. Every paleontologist, or friend of paleontology, should be a spokesperson. Spokespersons, broadly defined, could range from paleontologists who explain the nature of their research/avocation/occupation to the neighbors while mowing their lawn - to elected (but charismatic) paleontologic representatives who interact with the media (i.e., television, magazines, newspapers, popular books, radio, movies) and who are not ridiculed by their peers for doing so.

4) The changing scope of science funding. The recent auction of "Sue" coupled with stagnant/declining government funding remind us that the economical underpinning for our science is changing. Because of its popularity, paleontology has the opportunity to substantially broaden its funding base beyond government allocations for pure research or industrial allocations for applied research. At the same time paleontology needs to make better use of established funding resources by breaking down traditional barriers between institutional branches within our science (e.g., universities, industry, museums, government). By achieving greater efficiency and integration between our collective parts, we can continue to pursue our common goal of discovering and communicating the history of life on Earth. To accomplish these objectives, it was suggested that paleontologists create paleontology-targeted programs within their respective funding agencies (e.g., GOCI) and create strong economic links to non-traditional science supporters (e.g., corporate sponsorship, individual donors).

5) Increasing technology dependence. As one of the organizers poignantly commented, "this entire conference was practically organized and advertised via email". In addition to becoming a more quantitative and technology-dependent science, paleontologists have become increasingly dependent upon inexpensive internet communication links which allow them to collaborate and interact with colleagues from around the globe. The internet has been a blessing for paleontologists, as it has allowed them to develop multidisciplinary collaborations, to obtain archived data sets, access remote resources to perform theoretical simulations or manipulate complex data sets, and even to keep in touch with the rest of the world while in remote field settings. The successful 21st century paleontologist will not only need to have the quantitative (i.e., field, laboratory, and computational) skills necessary to test their research hypotheses, but they will need to keep abreast of rapidly changing technological advances in communication, perhaps utilizing them to attract and identify funding sources, to access educational resources, to seek advice and identify potential colleagues, to reach out to non-academic, non-institutional supporters, to disseminate their research results, and even to plot their path in the coming century.

In addition to these and many other pan-paleontological issues, there were many humorous events at the meeting, ranging from the myriad forms of pasta concocted by the friendly cafe chef, to the perplexing organizational lexicon. For example, on the first day of the conference, some of us were unsure how to "nurture our thoughts" and "capture action items"—but quickly learned that we just had to come up with ideas and write them down!

Many thanks are owed to the Senckenberg Museum, which offered much more to attendees than mere lecture halls interspersed between spectacular displays of European lagerstätten. The museum’s staff, for example, often went beyond the call of duty to provide German translations, travel aid, internet connections, phone assistance, and mailing services to participants who found themselves in need. The polite hosts at the museum cafe should also be commended for keeping participants well saturated with hot caffeinated beverages and other conversation-inspiring fare. Of course, the assembly of this multi-faceted group (including ca. 110 participants from 30 countries) was made possible by a number of generous corporate, institutional, societal, and government sponsors—to whom we are all grateful. Lastly, we are indebted to the conference organizers—who had the vision and wherewithal to insure maximum diversity at this event, while orchestrating a smooth running and well-organized conference.

What can you do to help paleontology in the 21st century? If you participated in the conference, you know that the meeting was instrumental in identifying obstacles and solutions to paleontology's progress—so concentrate on finishing your discussion group's statements and posting them to the Paleo-21 website. If weren't at the Frankfurt meeting, please participate in phase two of the Paleo-21 initiative by contributing your ideas, experience, and vision to the upcoming Paleo-21 internet conference. In doing so, help us step back from examination of the past in order to chart paleontology's future course; a course which will likely include reaching out to the young, to unconventional support networks, to non-European/North American colleagues, and most importantly, to the general public.