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See Inside September 2009

Fossils for All: Science Suffers by Hoarding

Paleontologists are overly possessive of human fossils. Science--and the public--suffers as a result



Matt Collins

In June the famed Lucy fossil arrived in New York City. The 3.2-million-year-old partial skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis could attract hundreds of thousands of visitors over the course of her four-month engagement—part of a six-year tour that began in 2007.

Before this tour, Lucy had never been on public display outside of Ethiopia. One might expect scholars of human evolution to be delighted by the opportunity to share the discipline’s crown jewel with so many members of the science-interested public. But news reports announcing her New York debut included the same objections that aired when she first landed in the U.S.: namely, that the bones could sustain damage and that the tour takes a key specimen out of scientific circulation for too long. Indeed, some major museums turned the exhibit away in part for those reasons.

The objections reflect a larger problem of possessiveness in the field of human origins, which seems appropriate to mention in this single-topic issue. Indeed, fossil hunters often block other scientists from studying their treasures, fearing assessments that could scoop or disagree with their own. In so doing, they are taking the science out of paleoanthropology.

Critics of such secrecy commonly point to the case of Ardi­pithecus ramidus, a 4.4-million-year-old human ancestor discovered by Tim White of the University of California, Berkeley. Fifteen years after White announced the first fossils of A. ramidus and touted the importance of this species for understanding human origins, access to the specimens remains highly restricted, prompting outsiders to term the endeavor paleoanthropology’s Manhattan Project.

White, for his part, has said that he published only an initial report and that normal practice is to limit access until publication of a full assessment. And he has noted that the condition of a key specimen—a badly crushed skeleton—has slowed the release of the team’s detailed report.

The scientists who expend the blood, sweat and tears to unearth the remnants of humanity’s past deserve first crack at describing and analyzing them. But there should be clear limits on this period of exclusivity. Otherwise, the self-correcting aspect of science is impeded: outside researchers can neither reproduce the discovery team’s findings nor test new hypotheses.

In 2005 the National Science Foundation took steps toward setting limits, requiring grant applicants to include a plan for making specimens and data collected using NSF money available to other researchers within a specified time frame. But paleoanthropologists assert that nothing has really changed. And according to Leslie Aiello of the Wenner-Gren Foundation, a major source of private funding for anthropological research, both public and private funding agencies typically lack the resources to enforce access policies, if they have them at all.

Ultimately, the adoption of open-access practices will depend in large part on paleoanthropologists themselves and the institutions that store human fossils—most of which originate outside the U.S.—doing the right thing. But the NSF, which currently considers failure to make data accessible just one factor in deciding whether to fund a researcher again, should take a firmer stance on the issue and reject without exception those repeat applicants who do not follow the access rules. The agency could also create a centralized database to which researchers could contribute measurements, observations, high-resolution photographs and CT scans—a GenBank for paleoanthropology. And journals could require that authors submit their data prior to publication, as they do with authors of papers containing new genetic sequences.

As for the public display of these fragments of our shared heritage, surely taxpayers, who finance much of this research, deserve an occasional glimpse of them. Irreplaceable objects are routinely transported and displayed. And in countries such as the U.S., where a staggering proportion of the population does not believe in evolution, scientists should embrace the opportunity to share with laypeople the hard evidence for humankind’s ancient roots. The future of science education may depend on it.

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