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.

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