The Image of Paleontology and Public Outreach: Panpaleontological Issues

Jeff Thomason, 2601 OVC Biomedical Sciences, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, CANADA, N1G-2W1

Lourdes Lubas, Department of Energy, Merritt Road, Fort Bonifacio, Metro Manila, PHILIPPINES

Paul Koch, Earth Sciences EMS Building, University of California, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, USA

Rashel Rosen, 2719 S. Southern Oaks Drive, Houston, TX 77608, USA

Gail Ashley, Rutgers University, Dept. of Geological Sciences, Piscataway, NJ 08855-1179, USA

J. Whitey Hagadorn, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90089-0740, USA

Daniel Goujet, Mus. National d'Histoire Naturelle, 8, rue de Buffon, 757005 Paris, FRANCE

Cathleen May, Geological Society of America, P. O. Box 9140, Boulder, CO 80301-9140, USA

Judy Scotchmoor, Museum Relations, Museum of Paleontology, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-4780 USA



All paleontologists must work individually and in concert to improve the public image of paleontology, using as many outreach avenues as possible. We make four recommendations here to enhance and coordinate the efforts of individuals and societies, while providing a focal point for media interaction and capitalizing on available technology. Action on all but one of the recommendations requires champions from within the discipline. To echo an old military recruiting slogan: your science needs you.



Public support is necessary for reinforcing and developing paleontology as a science in the 21st century. We need to promulgate the message that came across loud and clear at Paleo21: paleontology has valuable knowledge to offer humanity for the future health of the planet. In this report we list the issues that currently prevent the world at large from being aware of this message. We then make four recommendations, each of which addresses more than one of the issues, and give specific plans of action for each recommendation.

We cannot mandate the actions of the people and organizations necessary to make the recommendations work, so the action plans first call for champions and then suggest some outreach initiatives. Champions are people who say, "I really like the look of that recommendation, and I'm going to act to enlist other people to make sure it is carried out."

The outreach activities we suggest are variants of those used by museums and societies but at a wider level. It is important that all levels of outreach flourish-grassroots, institutional, societal, and international. Otherwise the paleontologists of the next century might exist only on display in museums next to other relics of extinct life.




1. Paleontology as soft science. Among our peers, paleontology is regarded as soft science, with very little in the way of testable hypotheses and experimental falsification.

2. Too little attention to image. As for public perception, paleontology, along with most sciences, has not put forth enough effort into informing and educating the public about what it does and what it contributes.


Public outreach.

Several of these issues have a good news-bad news format: a negative issue is accompanied by a positive aspect, which indicates that some outreach opportunities are waiting for us to take advantage of them.

3. Outreach too parochial. Outreach is too localized in individual efforts by a few paleontologists and the efforts of museums and similar institutions with education and outreach programs. These efforts are extremely worthwhile, are expanding, and should be given every encouragement and support from all paleontologists. The fact remains that they are not yet of sufficient extent to convince the public of the value of our science.

4. High profile not well exploited. Paleontology has a disproportionately favorable public profile for the size of our discipline, and that is good. The general level of public interest, however, is vastly underexploited in our outreach. Many aspects of paleontology are very visual and visceral-dinosaurs, particularly, capture public imagination-but we have not capitalized on this interest.

5. Public awareness not broad enough. Public awareness of paleontology is extremely focused-dinosaurs again for the most part-while the larger part of the discipline goes unheralded and unknown.

6. The Carl Sagan syndrome. Too often, public outreach by individuals undermines their scientific credibility with peers. This stigma certainly must be addressed if there is any hope of wide participation in outreach among the scientific professions.

7. Lack of media savvy. Scientists, in general, do not know how to use the news media to best effect. The news media can be a great ally, but we have to know how to communicate with them using their own rules. The reality is that you have to talk to them like politicians, not scientists, and that is a learned skill that most of us are neither possess nor of which we are particularly concerned or well aware.

8. No common front. Paleontology does not have a unified front; there is little academic interaction among the disciplines and certainly no public perception of paleontology as a diverse but unified whole. This is a major issue for other reasons than just image and outreach, but it is one that appropriate outreach vehicles can help to address.



We make four recommendations which each address more than one issue.

1. Form an international committee to coordinate widespread outreach activities

The committee's mandate will be to coordinate and facilitate the organization of public outreach at national and international levels, over and above initiatives undertaken by individuals or societies. It could operate at two levels: in full as a truly international body or as national subsets.

Action has to come from two sources: the professional societies and a small initiating group of champions. If societies accept the recommendation, they can each elect a representative. Champions are necessary to follow up on this information to encourage societies to participate, to make contact with the representatives, and to draft the mandate and set up the mode of operation of the committee. The committee could operate largely by e-mail conferencing, although societies might collectively sponsor occasional physical meetings.


2. Present all interested parties with suggestions for methods to achieve goals of public outreach

We suggest four methods that will help achieve the goal of public outreach.

Informative web sites. This suggestion is aimed at the expanding global electronic audience and is potentially an extremely high-impact approach. Many methods of implementation are possible. We propose the development of information-rich, attention-holding web sites for the major subdisciplines of paleontology (perhaps four in total) at appropriate universities (i.e., where a specific discipline is strong). The sites would be endorsed by societies for enhanced accreditation and linked to each other and to the societies' web pages. After development and troubleshooting, long-term maintenance could be handed over to the universities' science education departments.

Establishing effective web pages would be costly to do well-US$100K or more per site during the two- or three-year development time, with smaller ensuing maintenance costs. A collaborative grant proposal is needed to initiate this suggestion. We discussed less expensive options but decided that this approach would provide impact, educational value, and interdisciplinary content.

We need champions to begin the process of identifying and contacting appropriate universities and coordinating the development of funding proposals. Alternatively, we need advocates in societies to present this plan for discussion and perhaps for the identification of champions from that source.

A panpaleontology spokesperson or representative. A national or international spokesperson would give the news media a visible contact to ask about emerging paleontological issues and would actively promote paleontology to them.

To implement this suggestion we would need to solicit funding to set up at least one prestigious position, similar to a writer-in-residence, but on a national or international basis. A high profile and articulate paleontologist would be chosen and funded to hold each position for 12- to 24-month periods. During that time the person would be a spokesperson for paleontology, would actively promote paleontology by way of press releases and pursuing television interviews, and would be available to the news media to comment on breaking paleontological news. Prestige and intellectual cover would be accorded the incumbent by the endowment and elective nature of the position.

This is a costly option-the sum of US$2 million has been mentioned-but it is the sort of thing that an appropriate industrial sponsor might readily pick up to bask in the reflected glory: the BP Amoco [Disney, Microsoft, Time-Warner, etc.] Endowed Chair in Paleontology for the News Media. We need champions representing a variety of societies, who have contacts with potential sponsors.

Speakers bureau. Talks should be targeted at the general public including and especially, schoolchildren. Many societies already have lists of speakers, but a cooperative venture among societies or nations would introduce an interdisciplinary dimension to give a unified-front approach. There are several ways of getting the message out.

a. Regional volunteer speakers list. Local ad hoc committees solicit members in participating societies who are willing to speak to local public groups. The committees distribute lists to target organizations, e.g. schools and school boards. Costs would be moderate: travel, accommodation, and a nominal honorarium. Funding could be by a combination of a speaker's fee and a subsidy from professional societies.

b. National or international distinguished speaker series. High-profile speakers are invited and paid to present talks in specific places, booked in advance and for which the audience buys tickets. This is a higher cost venture because of higher fees and perhaps longer travel distances and definitely needs sponsorship.

c. Attendees at annual society meetings participate in a public lecture series during the meeting (perhaps one every evening of the meeting). There will be extra work for the local host committee and one evening of work for each participant, but no extra cost will be involved, and perhaps even a modicum of revenue would accrue to the society and host institution.

Guided tour series This is a variant on a theme already in use by many institutions. The difference is in the inclusion of teachers and advocates, subsidized by paying customers, to enhance the outreach potential of the tours.

Professional paleontologists are remunerated to lead guided tours (not necessarily field collecting trips) to world famous localities. The tour groups would be mainly of wealthy travelers who subsidize the inclusion of a number of teachers and advocates. The outreach benefits would come from the advocates in their various fields of operation (media and civil service) and the teachers as they make use of their experience. Through such a program we would be training and inspiring the trainers.

In one scenario, interested paleontologists organize trips in coordination with appropriate society or institutional representatives and travel agents. Alternatively, institutional outreach programs might invite appropriate paleontologists and organize the trips. Contact Gail Ashley for information on how the GSA conducts tours.


3. Encourage individual paleontologists to participate in available local and interdisciplinary outreach activities

The aims are to broaden the base of outreach, to generate outreach from a grassroots level (meet a real live paleontologist), and to get a sufficient number of professionals involved to give the program credibility.

Every paleontologist who reads this is a potential champion. All you have to do, for example, is contact your local high school and visit a class or have them visit your museum or laboratory. A minimal effort such as this takes very little individual time or organization, but if every reader did this for one class a year, the base of grassroots outreach would be expanded probably a thousandfold or more. Of course, there is nothing to stop your doing a little more. We applaud those actual champions who already participate in these or similar activities and encourage their efforts.

There is also another level of champion: one who actively encourages colleagues to pick up the outreach ball and run with it.


4. Devise and promulgate ways of dealing with the communications media

The aim is to teach all paleontologists how to communicate with the media effectively.

One method is to have short courses at society meetings on how to present information to the media. Contact Cathleen May for information on a course offered by the people who do the media training for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Another possibility is to prepare a widely available brochure listing the most important points. Paul Koch has found an existing brochure, and this report will soon be updated with the necessary information on how to obtain it.



Image and outreach should be acted on at all levels. Individuals, institutions, and societies are already gearing up their activities. Some higher-level coordination is necessary to maximize the impact and to present a unified front. The past is already ours; we need to look to the future.

  • Understand the effects of evolutionary innovations on biological systems and earth dynamics.
  • Develop integrated models of biosphere-geosphere interactions at the molecular, organismal, ecological, and planetary levels.
  • Understand the biological influence on the formation of, search for, and development of natural resources.

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