Reaching Out to Avocational Paleontologists

Editor’s note: This essay is reprinted with permission from the Winter 2016 (Volume 23, Issue 1) issue of Priscum, Newsletter of The Paleontological Society.

by Arnie Miller, President-Elect, The Paleontological Society

Most members of the Paleontological Society would probably agree that, from a scientific and societal perspective, paleontology has never been more vital than at present. Collectively, paleontologists use an ever-expanding toolkit to collect and analyze data relevant to a spectrum of questions spanning the history of life. When coupled with the continued discovery and documentation of fossil taxa that are new to science, paleontologists routinely capture the imaginations not only of our scientific colleagues, but also broad segments of society. Paleontologists contribute to contemporary discussions about matters as far flung as the possible existence of life elsewhere in the solar system and beyond, and the assessment of anthropogenic alterations to environments and ecosystems.

Yet there is a sense that paleontology is also vulnerable at present, be it at the hands of school boards who seek to undermine the teaching of evolution in public schools, politicians looking to micromanage federal research funding to suit their own beliefs and needs, or federal offices enacting new restrictions on the collection of fossils on public lands.

Against this backdrop, I believe it is important for the Society to undertake a robust effort to recruit avocational paleontologists as members of the Society. The metaphorical fire- wall between “amateur” and “professional” paleontologists has long struck me as artificial, and the interests of the Society would be well served by a larger contingent of avocational paleontologists among its members, particularly given the efforts of avocational groups to counteract, through positive actions, issues that threaten our science.

The principal avocational group in my region, the Cincinnati Dry Dredgers, has demonstrated copiously over the years that there is nothing amateurish about its paleontological pursuits. Members of The Dry Dredgers have long partnered with students and faculty at the University of Cincinnati in scientific studies, graciously sharing their encyclopedic knowledge of the classic fossils and strata in the Cincinnati region. They have co-authored numerous scientific publications with their colleagues at the university, have financially underwritten the research of generations of graduate students at Cincinnati and elsewhere, and participate extensively in education-and-public outreach activities.

The activities of avocational organizations nationwide are summarized at the website of The Fossil Project, a very successful NSF-funded initiative to provide avocational paleontologists with enhanced networking opportunities, educational activities, and contact with professionals. I encourage readers to have a look at the map available at The Fossil Project website showing the locations of avocational paleontological organizations, and to peruse the websites of organizations linked electronically to the site. A quick look at this extensive network of organizations provides convincing evidence that avocational paleontologists throughout North America are actively serving the interests of our science, sometimes with only the limited awareness of professionals and students.

There is nothing at present to preclude anyone from becoming a member, but the Society has never actively reached out to avocational paleontologists. With this in mind, I pose the following questions:

  • Should the Paleontological Society undertake an active effort to recruit avocational paleontologists as members?
  • Should avocational paleontologists be given the option of a reduced rate for membership and/or reduced rates for attendance at our meetings?
  • Should the Society establish a position on Council for a representative from the avocational community?
  • Beyond providing opportunities to participate in the Society’s meetings, symposia, workshops, and other regular activities, should the Society undertake special programming aimed at the avocational community?
  • Should the Society establish special sections at its web- site to highlight the accomplishments and contributions of the avocational community, and to provide educational information of practical use to avocational paleontologists in their own research and outreach efforts?
  • As part of its recruiting efforts, should the Society also reach out to K-12 science teachers?

I would greatly appreciate hearing from you on this important topic. Please feel free respond to any or all of the questions, or provide additional thoughts, by emailing me at: [email protected]. Many thanks!

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