Even though I come from the commercial side of the paleontological aisle, I love going to academic conferences. It's a great way to stay current on the latest scientific research, rub elbows with some of the top paleontologists and make new friends and contacts. This past month (February, 2014), the Paleontological Society, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, the University of Florida and others, sponsored the 10th North American Paleontological Convention (NAPC) in Gainesville, Florida. This convention is held every four years, at different locations, and brings together some of the top minds in both invertebrate and vertebrate paleontology for a week-long series of lectures, seminars and programs. Since the conference was so close to my winter home in Florida, I was very eager to attend.
As luck would have it, a friend of mine, the president of my local fossil club, was invited to join the conference as a special ambassador. He and representatives from over 30 fossil clubs across the country were invited to attend the regular lectures, given VIP treatment, and asked to participate in a new academic undertaking called, "The Fossil Project". Since I was a member of the fossil club and none of the other board members could attend, my friend invited me to tag along as his guest. I was very glad that I did.
Overall the conference itself was excellent, with many great presentations. The UF staff did an excellent job organizing the convention and I was very impressed with the entire format and execution. Sessions included topics on the digitization of vertebrate collections, stratigraphic paleobiology, paleoecological patterns, taphonomic research, the Ediacaran environment, conservation paleobiology, educational outreach, and many others.
The most interesting of these sessions however, and the most important from an AAPS standpoint, was called "Celebrating Public Participation in Paleontology". Over 20 speakers, including Jack Horner, J.P. Cavigelli, Glenn Storrs, Bruce McFadden and many folks from the avocational clubs, provided a great many examples of how academics and avocationalists are currently working together on various projects across the country. All of the invited, paid for, and well fed VIP fossil club reps were required to attend.
This would have all been fantastic, except for that 500 lb. gorilla in the room: Commercialism. You see, many avocational fossil clubs also have fossil shows with fossil dealers who sell fossils on the side. Many of their members purchase specimens and have very large private collections. Many go on pay-to-digs. Many in the avocational (do-it-just-for-fun) world are sympathetic to the legal commercial collection and private ownership of fossils and do not want excessive laws regarding fossil collecting any more than us. In many ways, they support much of what AAPS supports. They are our friends, neighbors and devoted customers. Like most academic conferences I have attended over the years, there was an air of pro-avocational, but anti- commercialism in many of the regular lectures.
This was not lost on the sponsors of the conference, as there was what appeared to be a great effort to not mention the contributions or collaborations of the commercial world or the positive relationship many avocationalists have with commercial collectors. Few of the avocational presenters wanted to broach the topic either and those that did tried very hard to distance themselves and their clubs from commerciality of any sort. The tension underlying this academic-avocational Kumbaya-like display was clearly there, simmering under the surface. The lone mention of a commercial contribution was by Jack Horner (surprisingly), who pointed out that the discovery of Egg Mountain was actually by an "avocational collector" (these are his words and by most accounts incorrect), Marion Brandvold. He did mention that she had a fossil rock shop and that she was selling the bones, but failed to mention how their relationship had rapidly gone south as he schemed to steal the site from her and the land owner. As I listened to this happy-fest, a dozen antagonistic questions ran through my mind, but I decided to remain silent. I was, after all, there as a guest and out of respect for him and the professed spirit of the conference I kept my mouth shut.
The positive, work-together mindset continued throughout the day and into the next, culminating in one of the best speeches I think I have ever heard. The plenary speaker of the conference was the Sant Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Kirk Johnson. I disagreed with quite a few of his "call to arms" issues (aka the ever present Global Warming hot potato), but his overall message was positive, powerful and unifying. He directly came out against many aspects of the new Fossil Preservation Act, including the unintended requirement to get a permit for fossil plants and invertebrates on BLM. He talked at length about the incredible power of fossils to inspire kids, their commonality in many places, and acknowledged that the small number of professionals can't be everywhere and do everything. At one point regarding dialog with others in the community, he said "Go down to Tucson and actually talk to the dealers there." During the Q and A, one brave sole spoke up and asked if Kirk thought there was a way to "award or compensate private fossil collectors/commercial folks who get fossils into public hands?" Kirk replied without much hesitation, "Absolutely. We need to figure out a way to work this out. We need to build bridges and try not to demonize the other side. We can't keep pretending that the other side does not exist." Kirk left with a thunderous applause and I sincerely hope that those present will decide to heed his words of compromise.
As I mentioned above, my fossil club friends were not just there for the conference. This was also the official birth of what is called, "The Fossil Project." This extensive undertaking attempts to increase cooperation and dialog between members of the avocational community and the academic community. It is a noble effort and a brilliant way to unite the groups. Their main tool will be a new website, called "Myfossil." where members can post discoveries, press releases, club news, museum and project volunteer opportunities, and other forms of cooperation. It will work in conjunction with another high profile project, called the "IDigBio" online database, where museums are being encouraged to digitize their collections. The sponsors of this project, the University of Florida, hope that this new dialog will fix some of the strained relationships academics and avocationalists have had over the years. It's also a great way to build a fully networked community. And they are not playing around either. The Fossil Project is funded by a 4 year, $1.97 million dollar NSF grant. This effort is not just a token gesture. It's serious and coordinated.
On Wednesday, February 19th, 2014 the 60-some guests of the MyFossil Project and the dozen or so coordinators of the project met in a large conference room at the Florida Museum of Natural History to brainstorm ideas for the website. We discussed the needs of both the academic community and the fossil club community. We were encouraged to come up with creative ways to share information, run tours, build newsletters, build databases, broaden participation in volunteer activities, increase citizen science, increase recognition for donations and volunteer work, increase communication, how to use social media to get their messages out there, and all aspects of the new website . I was able to meet with many new contacts from all across the country, many of whom shared my same hope for a united paleo-community. Overall it was a very positive and productive experience.
So why should you, as an AAPS member, care? Well, it's simple really. Avocational folks are the heart and soul of the paleontology community. As stated before, they are our friends, our neighbors, and our clients. They buy our products, visit our sites, and stand shoulder to shoulder with us when the left side of the academic wing tries to make collecting fossils illegal. Imagine what happens to the chess board, if these supportive folks all decide that the left-wing academics were right all these years. What happens when the only voice they hear on these matters is that academic, now influencing the debate from the inside- the only ones who did reach out? More importantly, what happens to the field of paleontology, to science, and to personal property rights if we lose this argument?
Without avocationalists on our side, or at least sympathetic to the shared belief that collecting fossils for profit or fun should be legal, this war, if we insist that it is one, is lost. If this is a war, it is a battle for the hearts and minds of the masses and we are losing. Badly. And I'm sorry to say folks, we have no one but ourselves to blame. We fail to police ourselves. We fail to call out illegal specimens when we see them on the table at shows. We fail when we dig at sites shared by avocationalists and mine them out without abandon leaving them nothing but scraps. We fail when we cannot logically and passionately defend our good names and good ideas in the press. We fail to work together with avocationalists and more importantly, we often fail to even work with one another. Lastly, we fail to work with many academics that would support us otherwise, by not documenting our finds, sharing information, giving access, or negotiating prices in a reasonable manner. Some may be doing all of these things the right way, but as a group, we are failing.
In informal discussions after the meetings I spoke with many of the fossil club ambassadors. Most had never even heard of the AAPS. They did not know who we were, what we stood for, or what we did. They had never heard of the AAPS Journal of Paleontological Sciences. They did not know that we allowed publication on private specimens. They knew very little if anything about us. If we cannot reach out, market ourselves, defend our ideas, admit our faults and get down to the business of uniting our entire community (academic-avocational AND commercial), our days are numbered. We better start getting serious, because with the "Fossil Project" the other side already has.