Funding Scenarios for International Research Initiatives in Paleontology

Karl W. Flessa (Dept. of Geosciences, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721 USA )


Paleontology is not accustomed to participating in the "big science" enterprise, but the time now seems appropriate to join the game.  How might a large national funding agency respond to a proposal for a focused, international research initiative in paleontology?  One response could be to assert that the current levels and schemes of funding are adequate.  More positive responses might include support for international conferences, a postdoctoral program, and the infrastructure of museums and databases.  The most positive outcome would be a five- to ten-year program in which increased funding encouraged multiinvestigator, multinational and multidisciplinary research efforts.  Many difficulties lie ahead for such a proposal: the problems of international co-ordination, the involvement of scientists from developing countries, the development of a consensus among paleontologists, and, not the least, the competition for funds from other scientific interests.  Nevertheless, the effort is not only worthwhile; it is necessary.


 I am not familiar with the intricacies of all the national funding agencies that might support an international research initiative in paleontology.  Most of my knowledge is based on a temporary appointment (1988 to 1990) as a program director with the U.S. National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Division of Earth Sciences (Flessa, 1990a, 1990b).  I have been lucky to receive research support from other US and German funding agencies, but I do not claim any special insight into how their funding policies are established.  So, as if predicting the future were not sufficiently presumptuous, I must here pretend that I know how major research initiatives would be funded in the 21st century.  What follows, therefore, is a very personal perspective on how major funding agencies might respond to a major research initiative from paleontology.  While my colleagues in Frankfurt informed my views, the views expressed herein are mine.  To the extent that my colleagues agree with me, this is a group effort; to the extent that they disagree, the perspectives are my responsibility alone.

I suggest that no matter how successful we are at improving our image or convincing our colleagues of the value of paleontology, we will not cause a really significant increase in the amount of research funding for paleontology.  There may be some small improvements here and there, and those will certainly be welcome.  Nevertheless, economic factors, the political climate, and competition for funds with other scientists are likely to keep government funding levels similar to those that are in force today.   Funds raised from private sources may become somewhat more important, but they are unlikely to provide a significantly larger fraction of the total funding in the near future.

 What this means to me is that if we want to have a significant increase in government or private funding, we need to make a significant change in the way in which we do research in the 21st century.  We may not need to change the techniques that we use in our work or the intellectual questions that we ask, but we must change our strategy for conducting research and for obtaining research funds.


Like it or not, the amounts of support for relatively small, individual, or multiinvestigator projects are not likely to increase.  These are the sorts of proposals that most of us currently submit to our funding agencies.  While such support is likely to remain the heart of funding for basic research, NSF and other agencies are increasingly characterized by research initiatives that seek to stimulate research in areas that are judged to be particularly important—focused efforts in global change and the environmental sciences are two obvious examples.  Such efforts typically have duration's of five to ten years or their research constituencies are successful at reinventing them when their first term of funding comes to an end—consider for example the various incarnations of programs organized around deep-sea drilling.

This pattern of funding long-term, coordinated research initiatives results in periodic opportunities: as one initiative comes to the end of its life, funds become available to support another, perhaps different, initiative.  Paleontology, with the exception of paleoceanography, has not yet participated in large, multiyear, and coordinated initiatives with a base of multinational funding.  We should do so.

We must learn from our colleagues in other disciplines that large, ambitious, multinational projects are effective vehicles for increasing overall funding levels and increasing both the quality and quantity of research.  Again, like it or not, big science is here to stay: the only question is whether or not we participate.  Not participating ensures us that our funding in the 21st century will be no better than our funding has been in the 20th century.  Getting into the big science game at least gives us the chance to increase our funding.

As must be obvious by this point, I strongly support the formulation of one or more large, focused, multinational research initiatives of the type described elsewhere in this volume.  How might a large funding agency respond?


 Research support might range across a spectrum from no new money all the way to a major funding initiative.  I will illustrate this range by starting at the no-new-money end, outline three intermediate levels of support, and end with the really big money.

1.  Business as usual (no new money).

If the priorities of the funding agency were elsewhere, then funding in support of a community-wide initiative would occur only in response to routine, individual, or small collaborative proposals.  Policy makers might not agree that a focused initiative is necessary.  The existing system of providing relatively small grants to individual investigators would be allowed to respond to the needs expressed in a proposed research initiative from paleontology.  This scenario describes business as usual.  No additional funds would be forthcoming.

2.  International conference support.

Funding agencies might see an initiative as useful but not really requiring any new funds other than the support of periodic international conferences to coordinate individual efforts and foster collaborations.  Support might also be designated to facilitate the participation of scientists from developing countries.  Seed money for pilot projects or for support of international communication might also fall under such an effort.  Such support would probably be at the same scale as that allocated to the International Geological Correlation Program or the Global Sedimentary Geology Program.  These two programs received annual funding of approximately $120,000.

3.  An international, postdoctoral program in paleontology.

A postdoctoral program could be seen as a cost-effective and inexpensive mechanism to address research needs, shape the future of the discipline, support international collaboration, and address human-resource needs.  A postdoctoral program might take many shapes, but consider one that provides two years of funding for new paleontology Ph.D.s to support interdisciplinary training in museums or universities in a country different from their own.  Such postdoctoral associates could provide education in the systematics of critical fossil groups, encourage academic paleontologists to learn industry techniques, further international collaboration, and provide education in related geological or biological disciplines.  Such a postdoctoral program would certainly enhance the employment prospects of its participants by providing advanced research experience.  A key element in such a program should be the inclusion of individuals from countries with developing economies.  Although their national funding agencies might not be able to afford a financial contribution comparable to that of developed countries, participation of their young scientists would be of great benefit to the global paleontological community.

Ample models exist for such a program—and some, like those sponsored by NATO, the European Community, and the Humboldt Foundation are deliberately international in scope.  The demand, however, far outstrips these resources, and none is focused on paleontology. 

A single postdoctoral fellowship is likely to cost approximately $50,000 per year, including the stipend, travel costs, modest research support, and limited reimbursement of indirect costs to the host institution.  Supporting 20 such postdoctoral fellows would cost only $1 million per year.  The contribution of each participating country would be even smaller.  A ten-year initiative would educate 100 of the next generation of paleontologists and have a major impact on paleontology in the 21st century.

4.  Infrastructure support: collections and databases.

Rather than funding traditional research projects or multiinvestigator efforts, agencies might chose to support the storage and dissemination of paleontological information, leaving its specific use up to the individual investigators.

Museums provide an essential and often under-used resource for paleontological research and public education.  Research in systematics often depends on the availability of museum specimens; and many collections include materials that have yet to be studied.  In addition, television, web pages, and publications notwithstanding, much of the public’s knowledge of paleontology comes from museum exhibits.  For every student enrolled in a paleontology course, perhaps one thousand or more visit a natural history museum.  Despite all this, museums and their collections often have difficulty competing for funds with glamorous, high-tech research initiatives.  Funds that would improve the curation and accessibility of collections would have a multiplier effect by improving the quantity and quality of paleontological research that depended on collections.

Databases are analogous to collections in that they are a source of information that can be used to answer research questions.  The technology to facilitate the use of databases is rapidly advancing (see elsewhere in this volume) and a relatively small infusion of support is likely to reap great benefits for future research.

Although support for collections and databases will be a vital part of research support for paleontology in the 21st century, such support is most likely to be a part of a larger initiative. This is because infrastructure support alone simply lacks the glamour of grand, focused questions on aspects of the history of life.

 Estimating existing support for paleontological collections is difficult.  At present, support for collections includes support for biological and geological collections as well as paleontological collections.  In addition, some museums are completely or privately funded or receive their funding from agencies other than those that fund basic research.

5.  Major research initiative

 A large, international research initiative in paleontology could include support for all the previous items and funding to enable projects not possible under existing funding schemes.  Such new projects might include multiinvestigator, multidisciplinary projects whose budgets were outside the scope of normal funding programs; international efforts requiring multinational funding and co-ordination among several governments; and projects requiring the use of land- or ship-based drilling equipment.  Major research initiatives often both stimulate research in critical topics and enable large projects. 

Perhaps the key element of a major research initiative is its focus.  Proposals for major research initiatives that simply call for more money for the same range of research topics are not likely to be funded.  Proposals that establish research priorities, set clear, attainable goals, and have the broad support of the paleontological community are the proposals most likely to receive funding.

I can only guess (or perhaps dream) about the level of support that a major initiative might receive.  Summing the possible support that all the previous items might receive plus doubling the current level of research support for paleontology results in a guess:  $15 million annually.

One frequently voiced concern about major research initiatives is that they can divert the funding that would go to smaller, individual-investigator projects.  While this is a legitimate concern, little can be done about it.  Like it or not, the funding rules have changed.  Funding for paleontology—or any other discipline—is in no way protected from diversion.  A major research initiative in paleontology could divert funding from small geochemistry projects as well as small paleontology projects.  Likewise, a major research initiative in geochemistry could divert funds from paleontology.  Indeed, the lack of a focused effort to secure major support for paleontological research could be easily interpreted as evidence that paleontology has no major questions to ask.  It is time to demonstrate that this is not true.


 The objective of Paleo21 was to provide a vision for paleontology in the 21st century.  While some might contend that the scenarios described above are insufficiently visionary, recall that most funding agencies are firmly established government bureaucracies.  Their natural inertia ensures that the funding schemes of tomorrow are likely to be similar to the funding schemes of today.  In addition, the intense competition for government funds among legitimate interests makes wholesale shifts in funding unlikely.  Barring major national or international crises, the level of research funding changes remarkably little from year to year.

A major challenge in developing a truly international effort lies in devising mechanisms that foster collaborations with scientists from countries with developing economies.  The scientists, students, collections, and field areas in such countries are resources that are more important than money.  We cannot do what we need to do without their participation.

Developing a major research effort within a single country is difficult enough; an international effort is even more formidable.  The policies, practices, and budgets of funding agencies differ from country to country.  Research is conducted in settings (universities, museums, national institutes, and private laboratories) that differ from country to country.  Nevertheless, the success of such international enterprises as JOIDES and its successors shows that it can be done.


Flessa, K. W.  1990a.  NSF funding for paleontology and sedimentary geology.  Palaios 

Flessa, K. W.  1990b.  All generalizations about NSF are false.  Including this one.  Palaios 5:489-495.

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