(An International Senckenberg Conference and Workshop)
Reports and Recommendations
Sergio Archangelsky (Urquiza 1132, 1638 Vicente Lopez, Buenos Aires, ARGENTINA).
Dianne Edwards (Dept. of Geology, University of Wales, College of Cardiff, P. O. Box 914, Cardiff, UK CF1 3YE, UNITED KINGDOM).
Jean-Claude Gall (Inst. Geologie, Univ. Louis Pasteur, 1 Rue Blessig, F-67084 Stasbourg Cedex, FRANCE).
Jere H. Lipps (Department of Integrative Biology and, Museum of Paleontology, University of California, Berkeley, California, USA).
Gail M. Ashley (Rutgers University, Dept. of Geological Sciences, Piscataway, NJ 08855-1179, USA).
Every scientific community needs an organization that allows its members to meet, communicate, and cooperate. For paleontology, this requirement is met by societies that hold meetings, organize field trips, and publish journals, memoirs, and newsletters. These activities are without exception designed to permit society members to learn about the science, to communicate the results of their research to the paleontological community, to attract new members, including students, to provide continuity in the society, and ensure continued intellectual vitality.
Paleontological societies exist in most large countries and some smaller ones, as well as in a number of regions. Many countries or regions support more than one society, but these are dedicated typically too different aspects or taxa of fossils. In particular, the United Kingdom, United States, Germany, France, India, China, Russia, Argentina, Australia, and some other countries each have several professional societies dedicated to general paleontology, micropaleontology, paleobotany or other special topics. Societies also have been organized by amateur paleontologists. Usually a society has been formed when a number of people decide that mutual benefit would accrue from a society. Most paleontologists are associated with at least one society.
Originally paleontologists were part of the geological community. Progressively they have asserted the specificity of their discipline in forming paleontological societies. Presently, there may be more than 100 societies worldwide that are dedicated to some aspects of paleontology. There is little communication between them, however.
Membership in paleontological societies consists of professional paleontologists, who make a living at the science, and amateurs, who do it for pleasure. Perhaps 10,000 people worldwide are employed as paleontologists. More and more nonprofessional colleagues join the professional paleontological community as their interests develop beyond the accumulation of fossils.
Opportunities for academic, industrial, and museum paleontological employment have generally decreased in the last decade or so. The decline is economically based as employers seek to cut costs by decreasing employees deemed to be least useful. In most of these situations, paleontologists appear to be dispensable because other disciplines produce more visible, more technique-oriented, or more applied science, making paleontology seem to be less useful. Likewise, funding for paleontological research has become increasingly difficult to acquire. Paleontology is not generally perceived as serving societal needs, having great relevance, or contributing to a sustainable earth. In contrast, however, there is a tremendous popular interest in paleontology through collecting fossils, visiting paleontological exhibitions, attending lectures, and reading books dealing with fossils. The public fascination with fossils has promoted blockbuster movies, cover stories in national magazines, and, negatively, resurgence in fossil-based pseudoscientific TV programs, magazine pieces, and books. Paleontological societies thus have their work cut out for them if they are concerned about the survival of their discipline.
The mission of paleontological societies in general must expand beyond their traditional roles. The nature of the expansion will depend on the goals of the society, its location, the public community in which it resides, and the national or regional situation. Thus identification of societies and development of a database is needed, including both international and regional groups and professional and amateur paleontologists.
We have identified several possible missions that paleontological societies may consider.
- Paleontological societies must take an aggressive stance against the elimination of paleontology jobs in industry, academia, and museums. It is a fact that to get a job as a paleontologist is becoming more and more difficult in our society. This serious situation will affect the development that should be expected for the next century. These efforts must be carefully crafted for specific instances or classes of instances. Improved communication between societies is needed to fill gaps and to aid in the interaction with other disciplines, for example biology. Paleontological societies can do this through their publications, by sponsoring symposia at meetings of geological and biological societies, and by direct influence with their colleagues in the other sciences. Action should be taken to strengthen the International Palaeontological Association to: a) produce a new directory of individuals and fields of interest, b) create a list of societies of both professional and amateur paleontologists, c) compile a directory of institutions granting degrees in paleontology, and d) lobby state, national, and international organizations to restore funding.
- Paleontological societies must play a larger role in education. While public outreach helps enormously, teacher training that emphasizes paleontology and its connection with other sciences is essential. Indeed, children already enthusiastically embrace paleontology; hence the step to more formal science education should be relatively easy. Also societies should continue the education of professional paleontologists and be guardians of professional guidelines dealing with pseudoscience.
Societies should take the lead in educating and motivating the public to pressure school boards and universities to retain paleontology in the curriculum. Fossils provide the unique record of the evolution of life and are a measuring stick of biological and geological processes through deep time.
Professional societies need to educate the amateur paleontologists about the various goals of the science, and the societies of amateurs need to educate the professionals about their goals. The best way to do this is to accept amateurs, at least serious ones, as members of the societies. In addition, societies might award outstanding contributions by amateurs. A certain standard of scientific caliber may be needed in some societies, however, to maintain the quality of membership.
- Paleontological societies should play an influential role in the regulation of fossil collecting on a regional, national, and international basis. Regulation is an issue in many countries and is of direct to concern to the paleontological community. Fossil sites are a resource belonging to all inhabitants of earth. They are our main source of basic information and need to be protected as long as possible. Lists and information on endangered fossil localities need to be provided to decision-makers. In particular, societies must take an active role in communicating to politicians the importance of stewardship of fossil sites for future generations.
- Societies should, continue their traditional activities of organizing meetings and publishing journals and monographs in addition to exploiting electronic communications to maximum effect. Indeed, the publication of monographs is becoming increasingly difficult as the costs of production rise and the sources of income dwindle, and societies may well be the only remaining hope for publication of specialized works.
The societies must continue to operate in a businesslike manner that makes most of their resources available for other, primary missions including providing advice to governmental departments and funding agencies.
In a shrinking world where communication can be instantaneous, languages have emerged as a major barrier to the exchange of ideas. Societies can help overcome these linguistic barriers until the time when electronic translations will be available globally. All publications might have abstracts in a second language, seeking improvement in communication between different language groups.
- Societies can play an essential role in outreach by popularizing paleontology among the general public. Exhibitions, publications and lectures are different ways of establishing a dialogue between paleontologists and the public. Some of the things societies can do are listed here.
- Societies can issue news releases and arrange press conferences that deal with such significant or popular results as dinosaurs, Martian fossils, or specific ancient events in a region.
- Members of societies can organize to interact with the news media, television in particular, by encouraging meetings and workshops for writers, producers, and actors.
- Societies can coordinate efforts to educate amateurs.
- Some societies can promote interdisciplinary relationships with biology and the physical sciences.
To accomplish these goals, paleontological societies could organize themselves into overarching organizations that would coordinate activities. The International Palaeontological Association can build an umbrella over all worldwide paleontological societies. The rapid development of communication through electronic media can speed the exchange of information. Websites, e-mail, and multimedia means of communication are weapons that societies should use persistently in the future to expand information to their members. In times of decreasing resources and the need for public and political outreach, activities of many societies in single regions could be coordinated. Lobbying the regional and national political structures, coediting or publishing journals or monographs, coordinating outreach and similar activities most effectively can be done through the efforts of a single organization made up of the officers and members of a group of societies.
Societies are registered as charities (nonprofit organizations) and thus cannot make a substantial profit. Financing even the traditional missions of paleontological societies has become difficult. Membership fees usually are not enough to support paleontological societies, especially when they publish regularly. Alternative sources of funding are always needed but seldom available consistently through industry, foundations, or governmental agencies. Endowments and investments in paleontological societies are important to keep activity levels high while keeping individual membership costs down and to provide insurance against possible future decreases in membership.
Each society is embedded in its own social and political situation. Thus, the summary of activities underway or suggested for the future given here must be tailored to each society. Largely, these activities must be initiated or continued by the officers of the societies. The societies function differently in each country, however, and they vary regionally and with specialty, size, and scope. In this modern world they face strong challenges, although not challenges that are impossible to overcome. In general, the members of nearly all societies are content simply to reap the traditional benefits, and they commonly see no need to be involved personally or even that their society should be involved in any other activities beyond the traditional ones. None of the actions suggested herein can be accomplished by a passive membership. It is the duty of society officers to search for and to use all possible means to promote interest in paleontology, to communicate with other societies, and to build an international strong organization that may help small groups during difficult times. The members must know what their society does and intends to do. At least some members must take an active role in pursuing those activities in which their societies engage, and it is important that most of the remaining members support those who take part in nontraditional activities.
What is clear to us is that paleontological societies worldwide can do more than they have to promote paleontology, paleontology's image, and their own well being.
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