March 18, 2010
It is not easy being a paleontologist. Even though innumerable museums have dinosaur exhibits and filmmakers are almost constantly calling paleontologists to appear on television documentaries, it is extremely difficult for researchers to find jobs and secure funding for their research. Indeed, there is much more to paleontology than simply finding fossils, and in the latest issue of American Paleontologist, Peter Dodson asks the question “Who pays for dino research?”
As Dodson notes, the post of “academic paleontologist” is a relatively new thing. Prior to the beginning of the 20th century most paleontologists were self-funded enthusiasts who either used their family fortunes (O.C. Marsh and E.D. Cope, for example) or sold fossils (the Sternberg family, for example) to underwrite their work. Studies of dinosaurs became institutionalized in museums and colleges, but like other scientists, paleontologists still struggle to bring in enough money to support their studies. Now and then a wealthy benefactor might provide some funding, and some foundations set aside money for exciting dinosaur research, but for most paleontologists most of the time, research funding comes in the form of grants.
Securing a grant can be a trying task. Paleontologists continually write to different foundations and societies in the hopes of winning some of the more prestigious grants (which, Dodson says, are typically those that bring in the most funding to the paleontologist’s home institution). Among the biggest pools to which researchers apply is the government agency the National Science Foundation. The overall budget of the agency is over $6 billion, but a relatively tiny slice of that pie goes to paleontologists in a given year. As calculated by Dodson, between 1983 and 2009 the NSF awarded 88 grants to carry out research on dinosaurs and their close relatives, totaling a relatively modest $11 million in funds. Most dinosaur specialists rely on funding from other sources for most of their careers.
For paleontologists, Dodson concludes, funding research is catch-as-catch-can. Scientists are continually submitting and resubmitting proposals to foundations like the NSF in the hopes of receiving large grants that will allow them to comfortably carry out their work, yet most of the time dinosaur specialists must rely on a collection of smaller grants, the patronage of private donors, partnerships with television companies, and other opportunities in order to keep working. These days being a successful paleontologist requires business acumen as well as intellectual creativity. While it can be difficult to find funding, the rewards of such efforts—a better understanding of ancient life—are well worth the struggle.
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