Monday, 15 February 2016

Why should we fund palaeontology?

There has been a disturbing trend in the last few years by government funding organisations to both decrease the amount of funding for science, and to put more of a focus on funding science with obvious applications or money-making outcomes. Last year, the Government of Canada announced a new federal budget that emphasised science funding on projects that are joint with industry and applied research. This pulls money away from pure science and research which was already losing money over the years. There is a possibility that that may change now that Canada has a new, science-friendly government, but nothing is going to happen immediately. Moving to the US, just this week it was announced that NSF (National Science Foundation) grants would require "national interest", and they would only back things that they deemed to fit this category, mainly things like improving health or defence, or anything else that specifically and clearly benefits the people. Now I'm hearing rumblings that NERC, the Natural Environment Research Council of the UK is moving into the "applied science" category, and decreasing funding for pure science (although I haven't seen an official article saying this, just general agreement amongst scientists).

In particular, as a palaeontologist, this is problematic. Palaeontologists constantly struggle to emphasise to the public why our science is important. There are 2 aspects of palaeontology that can easily be considered 'applicable' or 'important' that first come to mind - fossil fuel exploration and climate studies, both of which use a lot of fossils, and have clear applications today. But most people don't understand why things like finding new dinosaurs or modelling pterosaur flight or understanding how feathers evolved is something they should be paying for. To the majority of these government funding agencies, palaeontology is not worth funding because they can't come up with an application for how many dinosaurs existed during the Jurassic.

However, there are several reasons why I would argue palaeontology is important. Just a few of them are discussed below:

  1. First of all, palaeontology and the study of fossils is what has led to a significant amount of modern knowledge, like understanding extinction and evolution. If scientists in the 1800's had not started to wonder about these large bones that were nothing like any modern animals that kept being found, our understanding of these may be completely different. 
  2. In terms of extinction, it's especially important in our understanding of extinction events - what animals can survive massive environmental changes like bolide impacts or significant temperature changes? How does this affect us in the future? To a non-scientist, looking at the species present in the Late Cretaceous before the bolide impact may seem useless, but to us, we see an opportunity to understand how the world change in these big events.
  3. Understanding the past helps us understand the present and maybe get an idea of the future. This may sound like complete crap to some people, but it is true. We constantly use animals and plants today to get inspiration for useful things today (e.g. gecko foot adhesion, velcro from barbs on plants, or research on spider silk properties). But modern organisms are just a small fraction of the number that have existed since the first multi-cellular organisms, and fossils provide us with a large number of features or morphologies that we can't see today. It is possible to use fossils for these kinds of applications as well, from looking at modern hydrodynamics questions by using fish and plesiosaurs, to flight questions using pterosaur wing structure
  4. Kids (and adults) love palaeontology. Some might consider this is a bit of a soft reason, but I think it's still important. Palaeontology (in particular, dinosaurs) get kids (and adults!) into science. They get people's imagination going, and they get people, especially kids thinking. It's hard to get your child to read a particle physics book, but get them to sit down with a book on dinosaurs, and they have no idea that the whole time you're teaching them science. It encourages them to understand evolution, extinction, biology, biomechanics, and a number of interesting aspects of science, while also encouraging their creative side with drawings, story-telling, etc.
There are several more we could discuss of course. A big one being that palaeontology (and all aspects of science really) are just interesting, and therefore shouldn't be any less funded than other sciences. Understanding our history and the Earth isn't any less important than detecting a Higgs boson or building a quantum computer. Primarily, I think one of the main reasons for the importance of continuing palaeontology-based research is that we can't predict what will be important. Who knows what next dinosaur find is going to be important in 20, 50, or 100 years? Some things we learned 200 years ago are still significant today. And some fossils we discovered 100 years ago are now being studied in a different light for different purposes. When you go out on a fossil dig, there is no guarantee you are going to find something at all, let alone something amazing, but if we stopped going out all together, we would certainly never find anything. If we stopped studying fossils, who knows what we would miss? As we get more sophisticated technologies, palaeontology is constantly evolving. We can now study things like the colour of fossils by looking at small cells previously undetectable, the internal structure of fossils using CT scans, and details of animal locomotion using sophisticated computer modelling techniques. Who knows what we will develop next and what we will learn from it? 

People tend to think there are no relevant applications to (especially vertebrate) palaeontology, but I completely disagree. There are several applications, and who knows what we will find later. I don't think anyone predicted 200 years ago when the first pterosaur was found that they would be look at to make flight suits one day. What's next? 

Sarah Werning did a great post on this same topic a few years ago if you want to read some more. And keep the ideas coming if you think there is something else I forgot to mention.