Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Hmm, that’s funny…

This is not a great time to be writing grants for palaeontology or for that matter, any other fields of science. Writing grants is something I seem to be doing plenty of these past few years. However, funding seems a tad thin on the ground currently... especially when studying things beneath it... the ground that is. In the last few years I have spent much time justifying to those who ask, the funding that I receive to support the research that we undertake. I am often asked, ‘what is the relevance of your [my] work to everyday life?’ What might surprise many of you to hear is that this is a fair question to ask for all science.

Possibly the toughest thing to explain to any potential funder or to those who ask that wonderfully simple question ‘Why?’ is the potential for discoveries that one has not yet made. While research might offer to solve a simple equation, refine our knowledge of a missing link or maybe resolve a complex interaction of an enzyme that regulates a biosynthetic pathway; we still have to 'estimate' our outcomes. Some results might be predicted correctly (but still need repeating to be considered science), whilst others may yield tangential results offering more questions than answers. In many cases these new questions had not been thought of before, until that particular new avenue, technique or result transpired. The reality of almost all research is that scientists are looking for answers, but can rarely predict the absolute final outcomes of an experiment or line of research. This is why many key areas of science still require funding, as the answers generated always breed new questions, which could not be asked without the hindsight of discovery. A line of new questions can often be worth more than a volume of elegant answers. It might be fair to say that science rarely originates from a linear process of thought and experimentation, but more from an evolutionary process of chance and dare I say...luck. As the great Isaac Asimov once said, 'The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny...'

Such serendipitous science is difficult for funding agencies to predict, evaluate and judge… the same could be said for the scientists who seek the funding. The assessment of an application for funds can only be based upon the scientific merit of a proposed research programme, this supported by the track record and/or prior outputs of the scientists applying for funds. However, when the funding ‘pool’ becomes shallow, the criterion for assessment often tightens and then 'core' areas of science are favored above more 'blue-skies' disciplines (a term that many scientists hate!). This is usually tough on research areas close to my heart...such as palaeontology.

So, what is the point I am trying to make in this posting...well, while palaeontology is firmly anchored in the past, the outputs from such antediluvian research extends to understanding the burial of waste (both biological and nuclear) in deep time through to the internal force environment of bones (both extant and extinct), not to mention the potential for using extinct life form in future design (palaeo-biomimetics)...and there are many more outputs that are to numerous to recount. My point is simple; it was difficult to predict the tangential developments that palaeontology research has already made...let alone the future research and indirect spin-offs that might be generated from this wonderfully multidisciplinary field. One thing is very clear; the fossil record provides unique hindsight to the processes and patterns of life through deep time. Climate change, extinction events, disease and famine have left their indelible mark on the fossil record…it would be useful for science to keep unpicking such information, so we might better understand comparable events impacting life on Earth today…

…so, I had better finish writing the three grants that currently sit on my desktop.

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