Saturday, 20 June 2020

Funding finding fossils

A popular trope is the image of the palaeontologist bestriding the badlands, hammer in hand, ready to hunker down and excavate the perfectly preserved fossil that they've just found. This is, of course, the way in which we gather our primary data – fieldwork is essential in providing the fossils that we use as the basis for determining the relationships, distributions and biology of all extinct organisms and for placing them in their correct temporal and environmental context. Finding funding for fieldwork can be surprisingly hard, however, which explains why Jurassic Park's rather staid Dr Grant had to cozy up to big money in the form of the shady John Hammond.

This may surprise people who are used to hearing about the daring-do of colleagues in my own field (dinosaurs) who regularly head off to remote (and no-so remote) areas of the globe in search of new material. In the UK, however, fieldwork has a checkered history. Early dinosaur specialists, such as Richard Owen and Harry Seeley, generally worked on a flow of material brought to them by quarry workers, commercial collectors and interested land owners - they rarely strayed from their offices to dirty their hands in brick-pits or mines. Even where trips were made, they were usually day trips to consolidate relationships forged on correspondence. Buckland was a notable exception, as a field geologist first and palaeontologist second, although he had no hand in excavating the Oxfordshire dinosaurs. This situation continued through the early 20th century, with most of the material acquired by the Natural History Museum at this time arriving through donation or purchase, rather than field collection by scientists (although this period was marked by either the absence of a dinosaur specialist on the staff - with either fish specialist Arthur Smith Woodward occasionally publishing on dinosaurs or the unproductive William Elgin Swinton occupying this position). However, expeditions were made in the 1960s through 1980s, with the NHM sending teams to Lesotho, Australia and Niger to collect dinosaurs (and to Zambia and Tanzania to collect other tetrapods). As far as I'm aware, there was no other large-scale dinosaur collecting by other UK institutions at this point, although other colleagues were making collections of fish, marine reptiles, small herps and Pleistocene mammals. Also, a trickle of important UK material continued to make its way into local museums as well as the NHM, largely due to the work of tireless amateur collectors. Nevertheless, in almost all of these cases, fieldwork was not a regular part of most research programmes, but was something that was dipped in and out of as circumstance and chance dictated. This could be due, in part, to the fact that most of the vertebrate palaeontologists in the UK at this point were zoologists by training, with limited geological interest or expertise. However, a more important factor was money.

Collecting large vertebrates is difficult for numerous reasons: it is time consuming (extracting a single individual can take multiple trips over many field seasons); discoveries of informative large vertebrate fossils are relatively infrequent, even in 'productive' areas; it is logistically difficult and requires large numbers of people and many other resources; there are numerous on-costs in terms of specialist lab staff, equipment and consumables for preparation; and transport and field consumables are costly. From a UK perspective, the rarity of specimens clearly limits the development of research programmes based exclusively on new UK material; travel overseas is expensive (for kit and consumables, as well as people); and UK-based work is expensive (the UK has a high cost of living). So, reasonable amounts of money are always needed. Nevertheless, these amounts are not nearly as great as the costs of new analytical equipment or running a state-of-the-art lab, so they translate into new science (and sometimes very high profile new science) at a very reasonable rate.

So, where has the money come from? Historically, funds for collections enhancement fieldwork in the UK have come from museum collections budgets, grants (to either universities or museums) or various forms of sponsorship or donation. Museum acquisition budgets have dwindled over the past few decades as resources were retrenched for other programmes or vital maintenance, so now provide limited support for fieldwork. Sponsorship and donations vary depending on the prevailing financial climate and on finding individuals with the right specific interests, so this source has been sporadic and infrequent. Also, it may be surprising to some that dinosaur fieldwork isn't attractive to corporate sponsors due to the negative association that the word 'dinosaur' has in popular culture. Grant funding has also come under pressure as few agencies now support the 'blue-skies' research that would encompass the discovery of large vertebrate fossils. UKRI grants, for example, require that projects are hypothesis-driven: but although large vertebrate fossils can obviously be used test hypotheses, finding them in the first place is serendipitous and it is likely to take longer to nuture the project from discovery through to publication than allowed by the length of a standard grant programme. Hence, most of the burden for large vertebrate fieldwork funding falls on a small number of agencies that will support fieldwork with an element of risk or no objective beyond the possibility of new discovery, such as the National Geographic Society or funds administered by professional societies. However, as other sources have evaporated, these small pots are under greater and greater pressure to support more and more of the good science that could be taking place.

This contrasts with the situation faced by many of my colleagues working on invertebrates, microfossils or plants. In these cases, fossils are much more abundant and usually easier to transport and prepare, so field collections conducted within a time-limited grant programme can generate enough new material to test hypotheses, meaning that projects on conodonts, bryozoans, brachiopods, corals, forams and spores are much more likely to attract UKRI fieldwork funding than any project aiming to dig up large vertebrates (a quick look at successful NERC grants will reveal that none of the grants awarded for work on dinosaurs include fieldwork, whereas many of those awarded to invertebrate workers do). In addition, for obvious reasons, many countries now (rightly) prohibit the permanent export of large fossil vertebrate remains as they are relatively rare and are regarded as patrimony and an integral part of their scientific and cultural capital, whereas the abundance of other fossils means that they are rarely regulated in this way. Consequently, budgets allocated for improving UK collections are not available for funding UK research overseas if it does not bring material back.

As a result these factors, research programmes that incorporate regular large vertebrate fieldwork in the UK have been rare over the past 30 years. After all – in terms of training – you can't base on a PhD project on fieldwork if there's a high chance you won't find anything new. Similarly, funding the medium- to long-term efforts required to test hypotheses with this kind of material requires cobbling together resources over extended periods from numerous sources (the failure of which at any stage could lead to the collapse of the project overall). Consequently, it has been very hard for UK-based vertebrate palaeontologists to gain fieldwork experience as: 1) their own projects can't really incorporate it at PhD or postdoc level (too risky in the time available); and 2) as their supervisors might only have intermittent access to fieldwork funds (if at all) and so lack the resources to offer this opportunity. Those dinosaur-based students that I am aware of who did gain field experience have usually done so by joining projects based in other countries (most frequently the USA or Canada), often by to using their own resources (and there are obvious issues here in terms of equity and opportunity).

More recently, there have been several large vertebrate-based field programmes run by UK PIs, all of which have been conducted with close overseas collaborators, which have enabled students to gain this additional training as a complement to their regular research work. However, even in these cases, at least some of the students attending had to use their own funds to join these trips, as sufficient cash was not available. In the case of my own field programme, I've been able to get some support for my travel from small grants (e.g. Royal Society) or from internal research funds, which have enabled me to join larger crews led by overseas partners (and I've also been lucky enough to be in a position to use my own resources where other sources weren't available). However, in most cases, student support from these sources was not possible. Indeed, much of the funding for these trips (in terms of internal travel, accommodation, preparation) has come from overseas collaborators, who work in granting systems that have been more generous with respect to blue-skies research. I'm grateful to those colleagues for inviting us to join them as, otherwise, fieldwork for me would simply not have been possible.

There are definitely advantages to these approaches, as they do enable fieldwork to take place, which leads to strong collaborations, the generation of new knowledge, the cementing of international ties, the building of new collections for institutions in their countries of origin, and in providing much needed training for early career researchers in the UK and elsewhere. However, if UK palaeontologists are to continue collaborating in the finding of new material and in the training of their students to do the same, funding has to be available for these trips to take place. This means providing funds through training programmes (e.g. via UKRI DTPs) and/or for granting agencies to reevaluate the importance of conducting discovery-led, rather than hypothesis-driven, research. Above all, it needs to be recognized that just because dinosaur research generates high impact publications and headlines, it doesn't mean that getting the money to do this research is easy.

Monday, 20 April 2020

Diversity in palaeo - a hard look at my own stats

There has been a welcome increase in sensitivity to the diverse community that works within palaeontology. This is evidenced by more open discussions on social media and the responses of professional societies, such as the establishment of a Diversity Committee by the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. The Palaeontological Association has been particularly proactive in this respect, instituting a survey of its membership to gauge the different issues faced and to inform its policies in future. All of these initiatives are welcome and, as an openly gay man, I'm pleased to see that some progress is being made in a profession that has historically been almost exclusively male, white and straight. This initiative, in combination with frequent posts from other friends and colleagues online, has made me think more about my own track record in this regard. Just how diverse is my cohort of coauthors and collaborators? I start with one major advantage of course - 100% of my output has strong LGBTQ+ representation - but how have I performed in other areas?

So, I've been through my publications list and broken it down in various respects - and I challenge my colleagues to do the same to see how they fare also. 

The data

I've looked at gender, LGBTQ+ representation and disability, but in most of the following lists and statistics people are not mentioned by name as I've not received their explicit permission to publish these personal details in this context. For the same reason, I am not making the full version of my data set publicly available, although I would be willing to share it for academic studies with sufficient personal data safeguards. There are some areas where the numbers will not be entirely accurate: my LGBTQ+ and disability figures include only those people where I know personally that they identify in this way and so I could be under-counting in these categories. Also, there are some coauthors whose sex/gender is unknown as I've never met them and whom I can't easily find online (mainly some East Asian coauthors on very large multi-authored papers). Similar comments also apply to BAME authors, where I am unaware of how some mixed heritage colleagues self-identify. In all of the theses cases, where the answer isn't clear I have either not included the name or erred on the most conservative view of assuming that they are white, straight, etc. in order to give the most critical view of the data. Finally, this data set draws on a subset of my total publications list: it includes all papers in peer-reviewed international journals, those in edited books and those in conference proceedings volumes. It excludes books that I have edited/authored, abstracts, popular articles, commentaries, web publications, encyclopedia articles, etc. It also includes three papers with >20 authors. Initially, I considered excluding these in case they introduced major biases, but in the in end I included them, again to stack the odds for the least diverse scenario (and also many of these papers include coauthors that were already included in my dataset for other reasons).

The breakdown

The dataset includes 199 published papers (1994–2020), of which 183 were coauthored with at least one other author (average number of coauthors 3.21). Of these I am first or senior author of 116 publications, for which I should assume the majority of responsibility for the composition of the group forming the collaboration. I had a total number of 341 coauthors (only six of whom lack gender information).

In terms of male/female balance (including at least one trans man who identifies as male):
Number of male coauthors = 255
Number of female coauthors = 81
So, a 76% to 24% male to female bias (similar to the overall results from the Pal Ass survey)

Taking a view of all authors has the following results for other categories of individuals:
BAME coauthors = 47 (14% of total)
LGBTQ+ coauthors = 10 (3% of total)
Disabled coauthors = 2 (0.5% of total)

Of the 199 papers, 88 had female coauthors (44% of total) of which 39 had female senior or first authors (20% of total).

Many of my papers have been published with a relatively small number of individuals:

>10 papers coauthored - six people
5-8 papers coauthored - 14 people
2-4 papers coauthored - 69 people
1 paper coauthored - 252 people (skewed by several mega-authored papers)

Delving into this reveals some good news in terms of balance as two of my top five coauthors are female:

1.         Richard Butler (29; M; UK)
2.         Paul Upchurch (27; M; UK)
3.         Susannah Maidment (22; F; UK)
4.         Roger Benson (16; M; UK)
5.         Emily Rayfield (13; F; UK)

However, only two other female coauthors currently fall into the 5+ category (Angela Milner  [6, UK] and Kimi Chapelle [5, South Africa]). Also, it should be noted that all of my top 5 coauthors were either former students, postdocs or close contemporaries (and were all based at Cambridge, although most of the papers have been produced while we've held posts elsewhere). The majority of other 5+ authors are not from the UK and include representatives from South Africa, China, Canada, Switzerland and USA.

In terms of other diversity, I also tabulated the countries where I have coauthors (though note this is generally based on country where they are based, not country of origin, and for simplicity some international moves have been ignored in favour of the country where most of this work was carried out.

By country:

Argentina: 4
Australia: 11
Austria: 1
Brazil: 1
Canada: 13
China: 16
Finland: 2
France: 11
Germany: 3
Hungary: 3
India: 3
Japan: 12
Malawi: 1
Morocco: 1
Netherlands: 1
Poland: 1
Russia: 2
South Africa: 16
Spain: 1
Sweden: 2
Switzerland: 4
UK: 134
USA: 91
Zimbabwe: 7
Finally, although not publication related, it's also possible to look at these issues with respect to students and postdocs. In my case, I've had seven postdocs (4 M, 3F) and 24 PhD students that I've advised or co-advised (16 M, 9 F, 1 trans).

So, what next? I'm glad to see that my stats do reflect at least some diversity (in terms of top coauthors, lab membership, geographic diversity), but can see many other areas where it would be open to criticism. I think, at least, this has given me a clearer idea of some of the issues that are being highlighted by broader studies and the stream of comments I see, though I would be most interested in seeing comparative data from other colleagues at similar career stages. Also, I can see definite trends in my own data towards greater inclusion, largely as my own networks have grown (for example, the majority of my South African collaborators are female) and as projects have become more multidisciplinary (rather than narrowly focused). Having data in hand makes me more aware of the issue from a very personal perspective and is certainly making me think more about how future networks might be opened up.

Sunday, 12 April 2020

Obituary: Professor Jennifer A. Clack FRS (1947–2020)

A close friend and colleague to many at the NHM and elsewhere, Jenny Clack, passed away after a long, brave battle with cancer in the early hours of Thursday 26th March 2020. Jenny would have been a familiar figure to many of you, not least in her roles in the NHM as an Honorary Research Fellow, a Scientific Associate and a member of the NHM's Science Advisory Board. She was a confidant and collaborator of many in the Fossil Vertebrates team and had long friendships stretching back over decades with several current and former members of staff.

Jenny was at the cutting edge of palaeontological research for nearly four decades. She was, without doubt, the world’s leading expert on the fish-tetrapod transition and made numerous seminal contributions that significantly advanced our knowledge of this critical event in the history of life. This work set new benchmarks that have enabled the field to progress in new and unexpected directions and she has had a far-reaching influence on the subject.

Her interest began with detailed studies of Coal Measure amphibians from the UK (an interest she maintained throughout her career), which also led to important new insights into the evolution of tetrapod ears. Indeed, the evolution of hearing, as revealed by changes in braincase and stapedial anatomy, unravelling the various transformations that occurred in the evolution of the impedance-matching ear, was a major passion, as also displayed through her wide assortment of tetrapod-based, homemade jewellery.

However, Jenny is most famous for her exquisitely detailed anatomical work on the earliest tetrapods and, in particular, on Acanthostega. Following suggestions that East Greenland would be a rich hunting ground, she led several expeditions there to collect important new material of these animals and spent many years documenting the fundamental changes that occurred to jaws, ears, braincases and limbs across the fish-tetrapod transition. This relied on exceptional anatomical skills and Jenny also went on to integrate this morphological work with information from evo-devo to reveal the processes by which these changes took place.

Jenny & Rob Clack, pictured after Jenny was admitted as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2009. Photograph courtesy of Andrew & Angela Milner, close friends of Jenny & Rob, who’ve both been working with Jenny since the 1980s. All were graduates of Alec Panchen’s group based at the University of Newcastle.

In addition to this work, Jenny continued detailed studies of the taxonomy and biology of a range of other Palaeozoic tetrapod groups (notably anthracosaurs and baphetids) and occasionally ventured into the world of sarcopterygian fish. Latterly, she had been doing important work to close ‘Romer’s Gap’ a mysterious period in tetrapod evolution with few fossils. Her last major project (nicknamed TWEED) found numerous new tetrapod localities in the Scottish Borders and placed them within rigorous chronostratigraphic and environmental contexts: work that is currently ongoing thanks to the extended team that she built.

Many of Jenny’s most impactful papers appeared in Nature, but these were only the tip of a productive iceberg and were accompanied by numerous other papers in more specialist venues, dealing with subjects ranging from taxonomy to evo-devo to biomechanics. Her book on tetrapod origins – Gaining Ground – has been translated into many languages and offers the broadest introduction to the subject available.

In addition to her academic contributions, Jenny mentored a large number of undergraduate and graduate students while she taught at Cambridge (me included). Although she did not produce many MSc/PhD students (a constraint of her curatorial, rather than academic, position) several went on to become leaders in the field (Per Ahlberg, Paul Upchurch, Michael Lee, Matthew Friedman), with others continuing work in either the museum sector or academic publishing.

Jenny’s achievements were recognized during her lifetime by the award of an honorary DSc from Cambridge, the Lapworth Medal of the Palaeontological Association and by election to the Royal Society. Indeed, Jenny was one of only two vertebrate palaeontologists to receive the latter honour over the past 20 years, confirming her preeminent international status.

Jenny is survived by her husband Rob, who is also well-known to many in the Department as a frequent presence on field trips and at conferences. Given current circumstances, the funeral will be small and private but a memorial service and celebration of her life is already being planned for a later date in Cambridge: more details will follow as they become available in future. Jenny will be greatly missed by all who worked with and knew her and we are all sending our collective sympathy to Rob at this difficult time.