Paleontology in Government in the 21st Century

Lucy E. Edwards (United States Geological Survey, 926A National Center, Reston, VA 22092 USA ).

Robert S. Nicoll (Australian Geological Survey Organisation, GPT Box 378, Canberra, ACT 2601, AUSTRALIA ).

Igor Bardashev (Geol. Inst. Acad. of Science, Ajini Str. 267, Dushanbe, TADJIKISTAN).

Figure 5


Paleontology in government will be different in the 21st century from what it has been in the 20th century. Change is inevitable. In many government organizations, there have been calls for restructuring of the organizations and redefining of the roles of its employees. Organizations are being asked to do more with less. In other government organizations, there is a struggle for existence, as countries are torn by war and government salaries do not put enough food on the table. In some government organizations, regulation of resources is the primary function. In others, the function is basic or applied research. The replacement of government functions by the private sector is considered a threat by some; to others it is already reality. Government paleontology is certainly a diverse topic.


The Government discussion group identified a single issue and several points of discussion that arose from it:

Many of the problems facing society today are interdisciplinary in nature and challenge the structure of existing organizations to solve them.

The first point of discussion is that of „societal relevance." We agreed that government organizations have an obligation to deal with problems that face society. In the final analysis, the taxpayers pay for the science and have a right to expect value for their money. Government scientists who cannot justify their science to the taxpayers, or to the government leaders who decide how tax dollars are spent, face extinction.

The next point of discussion is that of the „role" of government paleontology. Government paleontology differs from government to government and differs within different parts of the same government. There is no single role for paleontologists worldwide. However, within each government entity, paleontologists need to define, and achieve acceptance of, the roles they play.

Figure 6. Studies of past environmental changes will be used to predict possible future changes.

Figure 7. High-resolution geochronology will be important in the 21st Century. Here, a paleontological technician from the Geological Survey of Canada extracts conodonts from the rocks

In short, government paleontologists need to ask themselves: what can we do that those outside of government cannot? What can we do more effectively or more efficiently than others can? These answers will be different in different organizations and at different times within the same organization. For some organizations, the answer is that government paleontologists have access to industry data that others do not. They are the only ones who can put together regional syntheses. For other organizations, the answer is that the government paleontologists can act as catalysts for broad interdisciplinary coalitions across academic, industrial, and government boundaries. For others, government paleontologists can participate in exploratory studies that may or may not have immediate economic return. Governments, in general, are a good place to start for the development and maintenance of large databases. Government paleontology, in some instances, may not have the „sizzle" (this word was heard often in Frankfurt) of some high-visibility academic pursuits, but it provides valuable information to the land-use planners, and ultimately the taxpayers, in evaluating ground water, resources, and environment.

There was total agreement that the future of paleontology is interdisciplinary and integrative. Government paleontologists should be ready and able to be so.


  • Paleontologists need to have a vision.
  • Paleontologists need to improve their image.

Figure 8. Inter-agency cooperation and public outreach will become increasingly important in the 21st century. Here, a continuously cored stratigraphic and hydrologic test hole is part of a framework study by the U.S. Geological Survey and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. The test hole site is Clark Middle School in Orangeburg, South Carolina, where a two-day Science Fair was held. Students, faculty, and visitors had the opportunity to observe the core samples, a fossil display, the geophysical well logger, a display of water-well technology, and, of course, the drill rig.


The Government discussion group identified two action items. These items both became parts of larger discussions and additional working groups at the Frankfurt meeting.

Vision statement.

  • The group agreed to help produce a vision statement for the future of paleontology. Key concepts to be included are:
  • Paleontologists control the concept of geologic time.
  • The past is the key to the future.
  • Paleontologic information is a resource and should be preserved, maintained, and available to all that need it.
  • Government paleontologists have an important role to play in all of the above.

The General Assembly agreed that a vision statement should be a product of the meeting and much time was devoted to this task. The Mission and Vision statement was written by a Committee headed by Andy Knoll and ratified by the General Assembly. It is given under the heading Preamble [wherever it will be in the final product].


The group referred concrete suggestions to the later discussions on image:

  • At all levels of discussion, paleontologists should take care to emphasize positive aspects.
  • Individual paleontologists should seek ways to influence K-12 education.
  • Government paleontologists may be restricted in their contacts (for example, may not be allowed to contact the media except through officially sanctioned channels). „Friends" outside of government can help by speaking out.

Public Outreach was identified as a „pan-paleontological issue" and a working group was created (Issue 1, report).

Discussion group attendees:

    Lucy E. Edwards (delegate)
    Robert S. Nicoll (delegate)
    Igor Bardashev (delegate)
    Fernando Alvarez
    L. Sherry Cady
    David J. Des Marais
    Lourdes Lubas
    Jeffrey Thomason
    Eberhard Schindler
    Shen Yanan


We thank Nikolai Aladin, Elisabeth Brouwers, Yoram Eshet, Rob Fensome, Ted Fremd, Chris Maples, Cathleen May, Tonu Meidla, Doug Nichols, Henrik Nøhr-Hansen, Niels Poulsen, Terry Poulton, Andy Rindsberg, and the late Bill Sliter for contributing their ideas to us in our preparation of this article. Pictures are from Greg Gohn, Terry Poulton, and Deb Williard.

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