The state of palaeontology survey

This post is a combination of several from the Mk.1 version of the musings. The theme of ‘the state of palaeontology’ ran over a couple of weeks and ultimately ran to eight posts. The main body of the survey I will simply link to in the middle of this post and leave you here with the introduction and summary.

Introduction:
This survey started as a vague idea about issues in palaeontology that crystallised and resulted in me sending out an e-mail to a whole raft of friends and colleagues in palaeontology. Although I only mailed a couple of dozen people it included everyone from undergrads to senior professors, postdocs and lecturers, as well as ‘additional’ people like the odd working amateur and lab tech. I asked people from most continents, those who are working abroad and at home, and in all kinds of fields. It includes those from Asia, an American working in England, a Hungarian working in Germany, an American professor or two and more. Obviously there is a bias towards dinosaur / reptile research (but not exclusively – there are invert and mammal workers) as those are the people I know best and was prepared to ask the to give me their time, still given the nature of the questions, I don’t think it will have a big impact, especially given the sheer variety of the answers I got.

I only asked 5 questions and tried to tailor them to be ‘big’ but hopefully relatively simple to answer. However, I was surprised at the complexity of some answers and especially the diversity of responses. I expected at least a vague consensus on some areas and found nothing of the sort (which is in itself very interesting). This might in part be explained by the discrepancies between the ages and experiences of the various people polled, and the different research environments (and countries) they work in – what frustrates a teenage undergraduate is unlikely to be the same as a 60 year old professor, but still one would expect some consensus – apparently not.

I had intended to create more or less a mini-poll of each questions most popular answers and then perhaps add a little discussion of my own, and perhaps a few choice quotes from the answers I got. However, with the way things panned out, it is probably easier to list the answers and expand on the more interesting ones. In order to make a nice series of this, I’ll post the full list of questions here and then do one question per day in a new post. Mat Wedel (or Dr Vector fame) and I are also intending to start a new blog meme based on it at the end of the week, so hopefully this will spread and expand further with new answers, new ideas and new discussions. Some people asked to remain anonymous and so I will include their answers, but without any references to them (obviously) bar the country they work in, but most were happy to be identified and so I have given their names and where they are working with the relevant quotes.

The answers here are genuinely fascinating, and I was bowled over by some of them, if only because of the contrasts with others. For anyone working in palaeo, I think the answers show just what kind of things interest and affect us at all kinds of levels, and for those who are just interested, it gives a real insight into what is going on in palaeo at the moment, what it means to us, and why.

For now I’ll just try to whet your appetites with the list of questions I posed. I had to keep the number short so it would not take too long to answer and encourage responses, and keep it general enough to be relevant to a general readership (and of course a fair variety of people being quizzed – 20 in total). So if you want to see what Thomas Holtz, Jerry Harris, Robert Reisz, Dave Martill, Liu Jun, Martin Lockley, Matt Wedel and more think about palaeontology, then come back soon.

1. What do you think is the great unsolved mystery of palaeontology?

2. What do you think is the most exciting topic / area of research in palaeontology right now?


3. What do you consider to be the biggest problem with palaeontology?

4. What area of palaeontology do you think is most neglected?

5. How do you think the general public view science / palaeontology in your country?

Summary:
Well, if nothing else I have certainly found this review informative and interesting. Of course almost everyone I surveyed is a friend and / or colleague and of course at various times I have talked over many of these issues with them in the past, but still to have them laid out in this manner (and of course with so many opinions form so many people) makes for fascinating reading. None of the general consensus that I expected appeared for many subjects (though certainly evo-devo is a favourite for excitement, a lack of funding a perennial issue, and the need for better taxonomy paramount) with instead typically a wide variety of answers, opinions and experiences coming out. Partly this must reflect the various backgrounds in research, ages, experiences and nationalities of those being questioned, but the questions themselves were intended to circumvent much of that by being so general that answers would not be dependent on those factors. Instead we see an exact consensus between a British invertebrate worker and American dinosaur researcher, which contrasts sharply with another American dinosaur guy.

The upshot of course is that it does indeed show that there is (perhaps unsurprisingly in hindsight) a huge variety of interests and concerns among palaeontologists. It sounds corny and silly, but there really *is* a huge amount to be excited about, and a huge amount still to be investigated. What is potentially very promising is the increasing links being forged between countries, researchers and disciplines. Palaeontologists are working with engineers on mechanics problems, with behavioural biologists on palaeoecology, with chemists on taphonomy, climate scientists on extinction and more. The changing political landscape (and more flights, even with rising costs) is allowing for better access for researchers to reach each other and also collections of fossils.

By far and away though the internet much be considered a prime mover in all this. For me palaeontolgoy has always been an area of science that demands collaboration with other fields – we are fundamentally a mixture of biology and geology already. Previously if you wanted help with taphonomy you would have to hunt for some hints in the archives of libraries, ask around in your departments and hope someone would help, collar a taphonomist at a meeting and try and arrange a face-to-face at some point in the next 6 months to discuss things, or send a letter and hope you got a reply. Potential collaborators or help would come from a limited circle of researchers in your institute or country. Now you can search for thousands of papers and even books freely online, find possible collaborators in Australia or Brazil in seconds who have an exact interest in your problem and then chat to them in person with a video call an hour from the time you realized you had a problem with your work. Increasingly people are taking advantage of this access and information and it allows work to be better researched, better reviewed and to be better available to others than ever before. I can only see good things to come of this trend and with the advent of open access journals, it is set to increase.

It is easy to say, but despite the pressures and problems in modern palaeontology, it is in rude health. We are constantly finding new and important fossils and indeed localities and horizons – even in areas that have been well studied in the past. New techniques continue to be created and refined, new collaborations are occurring, and as our knowledge and understanding of previous ages increases s too does our ability to investigate it further, resolve outstanding debates, and enters new areas of research. There is much to do, but we will enjoy doing it and there will be more than few surprises along the way – who knows what still remains buried?


And the meme:

When I sent out the initial request for answers to my survey I got an almost immediate (and as you will have read, thorough) set of responses from Matt Wedel (aka Dr Vector). He immediately suggested that in addition to my posts we use the set of questions to generate a blog meme and I readily agreed. This would allow others to voice their opinions in a more systematic manner (that just adding comments to my posts) and to spread the idea to a wider audience which is good for all concerned given some of the issues being highlighted – it should be of real interest to palaeontologists, professional and amateur, other academics and the public as a whole. Spreading it around and inciting new ideas and opinions if of course therefore key.

Despite my commentary on the posts however, I wanted to have my say too, and I had found it especially interesting to comment of the thoughts of others – whether they matched or were completely at odds with my own. As a result I suggested a simple shift in the concept – I have sent my answers to the questions to Matt, he will add his comments and then send his answers onto the next target and so on. Obviously this process has already started, so to catch this at the start and see what *I* think about all of this, you can start on Ask Dr Vector here.

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