Not many research labs have an actual mission statement, but we kinda came up with one when we first launched our Facebook page: “WitmerLab: 21st century approaches to fleshing out the past. — Our mission is to use the structure of extinct and modern-day animals to interpret evolutionary history…and to share that history with the broader community.” This is the first of a two-part post devoted to the last part of that statement. Here we look at why we jumped into the public arena, and the next post will explore what we’ve been doing. We recently returned from the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology where we presented a poster entitled “Promoting a culture of outreach within an active university research lab setting: WitmerLab at Ohio University,” as part of the SVP Education & Outreach special poster session, and so the topic is fresh.
NSF, Broader Impacts, and the Dear Colleague letter
In 1997, the National Science Foundation distilled the review criteria for grant proposals down to just two: Intellectual Merit (the normal science-y stuff of whether a project is well designed, has testable hypotheses, etc.) and Broader Impacts, which intends “to get scientists out of their ivory towers and connect them to society,” according to NSF Director Arden Bement (Lok 2010). Broader Impacts include things like integrating research and education, broadening participation, disseminating findings, and benefiting society. Scientific researchers understood Intellectual Merit well enough, but many scratched their heads about Broader Impacts. Many gave it, at best, passing lip service, leading to NSF issuing in 2002 a “Dear Colleague letter” on Broader Impacts . I call this the “No, really… letter”, because it asserted in no uncertain terms that Broader Impacts indeed comprised a serious review criterion. NSF felt compelled to send out a similar letter in 2008 (which I guess would be the “What-part-of-the-previous-letter-did-you-not-understand? letter”). So, as an NSF-funded lab, we have actively sought for our research to have a broader impact, in part simply because doing so is mandated by our funding agency.
Politico-cultural threats to science and evolution
Of course NSF advocates Broader Impacts and outreach for good reason. Science standards and curricula have suffered challenges throughout the US, while at the same time American students continue to drop in international rankings of science and math proficiency. These factors are all well known but hit home a number of years ago when Ohio, my adopted home state, became a battleground for evolution and the place of science in state curricula. For a while I was at a personal crossroads. Some of my colleagues took the evolution issue head on, mixing it up with creationists and getting involved in the state politics of school curricula. They have my respect and gratitude. I chose the alternate route of promoting science and evolution by reaching out with the research in our lab. The goal has been to remain hardcore in our technical research, but also to find ways to make it accessible, relevant, and engaging…and to weave evolution throughout. Ultimately, in a climate of political and cultural threats to science—coupled with ever-looming budget cuts—promoting science and evolution as broadly as possible is simply a matter of self-preservation!
Science shouldn’t just be for scientists
But self-preservation and NSF mandates aside, reaching out to the public is simply the right thing to do. Science shouldn’t just be for scientists. This point is particularly true for areas of science, such as paleontology, archeology, and astronomy, for which there is intense public interest. It’s the taxpaying public who ultimately funds my research, and they have a right to know how I’ve spent their money and what I’ve learned. We’ve had federal grants to study the evolution of noses and ears and brains and so forth in dinosaurs and their relatives, and people are legitimately interested in what we can tell them about, say, the sensory capabilities, brainpower, and behavior of dinosaurs. Moreover, folks want to know how we know. People want to know the science. We should tell them.
Dinosaurs may well represent the earliest exposure that most children have with science as an intellectual pursuit, but public fascination extends well beyond little kids. Dinosaurs are so deeply embedded in the public consciousness that many current scientific debates are basically common knowledge: warm- vs. coldblooded dinosaurs, the origin of birds, asteroids as agents of extinction. We can capitalize on this knowledge and enthusiasm to explore the science behind the headlines. In some real sense, we can exploit dinosaurs to engage people about evolution and all kinds of different scientific disciplines. Our technical articles conform to professional standards, meaning they’re generally rather tedious, jargon laden, and formalistic. But often we can find a catchy angle with which to reach out to the public…and once we have their attention, we can slip in some serious science. For example, our 2008 article on airways and paranasal air sinuses in dinosaurs hooked folks with “dinosaur airheads,” and then we talked to them about upper respiratory anatomy and its relationship to physiology, vocal resonance, and head mechanics. Likewise, our recent PLoS ONE article on terror birds had the draw of predatory behavior in gigantic extinct birds, but that allowed us to talk about cranial kinesis, finite element analysis, and evolution on isolated landmasses.
“You’ll come for the dinosaurs, but stay for the science!”
So, there are lots of compelling reasons to get out of our ivory towers and take our science to the public, and dinosaurs are excellent vehicles. Part 2 of this series will go through some of the ways we’ve gone about it, and how the whole lab gets involved.
Degrange, F. J., C. P. Tambussi, K. Moreno, L. M. Witmer, and S. Wroe. 2010. Mechanical analysis of feeding behavior in the extinct “terror bird” Andalgalornis steulleti (Gruiformes: Phorusrhacidae). PLoS ONE 5(8): e11856.
Lok, C. 2010. Science for the masses: The US National Science Foundation’s insistence that every research project addresses ‘broader impacts’ leaves many researchers baffled. Nature 465:416–418.
Witmer, L. M., and R. C. Ridgely. 2008. The paranasal air sinuses of predatory and armored dinosaurs (Archosauria: Theropoda and Ankylosauria) and their contribution to cephalic architecture. Anatomical Record 291:1362–1388.
Witmer, L. M., and R. C. Ridgely. 2008. Structure of the brain cavity and inner ear of the centrosaurine ceratopsid Pachyrhinosaurus based on CT scanning and 3D visualization. Pp. 117–144 in P. J. Currie (ed.), A New Horned Dinosaur From an Upper Cretaceous Bone Bed in Alberta. National Research Council Research Press, Ottawa.