Geobiology: Funding Strategies

C. G. Maples (National Science Foundation, Division E. S. Room 785. 4201 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22230 USA ).


By its very nature, funding for research in any area of science is linked inextricably with justification for those funds. Why is a project important? What will we have at the end? More specifically, why fund geobiology at all? What does geobiology deliver of value to science and society? If we cannot address these questions in very plain, direct terms, then we certainly don’t deserve federal funding, nor can we expect funds from industrial or private sources. I suspect that funding levels in most areas that are strictly geobiological will be level at best, and declining at worst in the foreseeable future. So the best answer for funding strategies and most likely insurance for future funding success is relevance.

Much of the challenge that we face as a discipline is one of perception. Like many of our colleagues in the geosciences, geobiologists have been seen as splendid isolationists—alone on an outcrop or in a lab. And, like many of the other areas of geoscience, this may have been true at one time, but such is no longer the case. In fact, it is geobiology’s richness and diversity that has its practitioners poised to lead the charge of interdisciplinary research in the geosciences. As I see it, this perception of solitary science stands as one of our most significant obstacles to funding success in the future.

The rest of our challenge is to elevate our science to one that is process oriented and hypothesis testing. We have to assume that understanding the basic taxonomic composition of various biotas or parts of biotas is part of the initial data-gathering phase of any research. Our research cannot stop with the old (and incorrect, I might add) adage ‘to name it is to know it’. Sure, we get headlines for the biggest, or the oldest, or the youngest, but significant discoveries deserve significant questions. Perhaps, then, one of our most fundamental challenges is to improve on those basic data (what is it; where is it found; when did it live; etc.), and then apply what we learn to questions of broad relevance. Although we have learned much from pattern, and no doubt will continue to do so, we have only begun to scratch the surface of process—the dynamics of complex multivariate interactions, what they tell us about Earth’s past, and what they indicate about our future.


  • Geobiology is vital to a broad spectrum of questions in geosciences and biosciences. Many of the interdisciplinary research topics being advanced today depend on those who understand the critical biotic contributions to those multivariate systems. The key for geobiologists here is relevance. As with any interdisciplinary endeavor, few researchers involved in a large-scale, interdisciplinary project understand all aspects of the project. In order to be part of a team, geobiologists need to convince others that the information they bring to the table is relevant and important.

  • During the past decade a new framework for geobiological pursuits has emerged as a result of technological advances. Increases and advances in data volume, acquisition, quality, and manipulation (e.g., ODP data; satellite-derived data; increased age-dating acuity; increased stable-isotopic sensitivity; metadata manipulation and assimilation techniques; etc.) have resulted in geobiologists asking more questions about processes and dynamics of biological interactions through Earth’s history.

  • Geobiologists must recognize opportunities in which they can use the latest techniques, along with the most (and most diverse) data available to address questions that others miss. Although this could devolve into more of a supporting or technical role, I don’t think this will help our profession. We need to recognize opportunities to seize intellectual leadership of interdisciplinary research projects. New questions remain to be asked and we have an excellent opportunity in the near future to lead rather than follow.

  • We must find ways to break the paradigm of ‘splendid isolation’ and become more team players. We must link our records to other groups. Taking an interest in the research of colleagues in our various departments and agencies is an excellent start. We need to talk to people about their research and tell them about ours; then look for ways in which we can help them and vice versa. The key here is to show a willingness to play well with others. Having our own separate societal meetings, or never meeting simultaneously with others in the geosciences or biosciences, only exacerbates our isolationist reputation! But talking with our colleagues is just a start. We need to talk to students, the general public, the press, and representatives of the numerous agencies and societies that fund geobiology.

  • We must also write about our successes and ideas. Given the competition for level or dwindling funding in the future, we must effectively communicate our needs (and relevance) for research funds on national and international levels to government, industry, and private sources. We must make funding sources aware of the value we deliver with our research. Geobiologists need to show that money spent for our research will reflect favorably on the funding source and be an excellent value (i.e., lots of bang for the buck).

  • New questions demand new alliances! By recognizing opportunities for interaction with others, talking to anyone who will listen, and writing about who we are and what we offer, we enter into the world of self-promotion. Those with money understand that they get value, and we get funding. But we have to do this as a collective whole. We cannot remove ourselves as a science from other disciplines, nor can we denigrate those in our profession who have moved on to new alliances and new questions. After all, success for us as geobiologists lies in the success of our discipline as a whole and in science in general, not the other way around.

  • One way to command attention of those in funding circles is to write a white paper in which we highlight the promise and potential of geobiology. Such a document should emphasize that we are more than an historical science. We need to enlighten our colleagues about the dynamics of the multivariate system in which geobiologists work. One way to do this is to identify several grand challenges and bring the resources of diverse parts of the geological community to bear on those grand challenges (with geobiology leading the way, of course).

  • We also need to demonstrate to funding agencies a truism about our science that we already know: our science costs more than it did before. As we address new questions, form new partnerships, generate new data, and grapple with an ever-expanding volume of old data, we incur more costs than ever. Geobiology has a reputation for low-budget, solid science. I would argue that we have that reputation because we do low-budget, solid science. Perhaps it is time to become part of higher budget, spectacular science.

  • Finally, whatever we do, we must do it with as unified a voice as possible. We cannot come across to funding agencies as a cacophony of individuals in an historical only science. Because if that is the perception of us, then we surely will become marginalized and suffer the consequences of diminished funding. We can do better, but we must do it together!


I wish to acknowledge the National Science Foundation for support to attend the Paleo21 Meeting in Frankfurt. Special thanks go to those who participated in discussions about funding: Don Canfield, Christian Dullo, Erik Flügel, Franz Fürsich, Robert Gastaldo, Jim Kennett, Andrew Knoll, Dave Lazarus, Ian MacGregor, Björn Malmgren, Dietrich Maronde, and Judy Parrish. I have attempted to convey the essence of our discussion, however none of these participants has had an opportunity to review this chapter.

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