FAU researchers criticise ‘scientific colonialism’ in palaeontology

Many of the fossils found worldwide are in the possession of natural history museums in the West or kept in private collections. The data collected about fossil finds and excavations are also predominantly located in richer countries. This is the subject of criticism from a research team led by doctoral candidate Nussaibah Raja-Schoob from the Chair of Palaeobiology at FAU. An article she has published in conjunction with researchers at FAU and from the United Kingdom, South Africa, Brazil and India in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution has attracted a great deal of attention.

The article addresses the controversial topic of ‘scientific colonialism’. During its study, the research team demonstrated that 97 percent of the palaeontological data collected during the last 30 years originates from researchers in North America and Europe. This is the result of analysis conducted on the ‘Paleobiology Database’, a publicly accessible database of scientific publications and the geographic location of fossil sites, which is used by specialists to research the Earth’s history.

According to the research team’s findings, socio-economic factors such as education, gross domestic product, political stability and the ability to speak English play a decisive role in the global acquisition and distribution of fossil data. In the article, the international research team refers to an imbalance of power and demands more collaboration.

Ms. Raja-Schoob, how did a palaeontologist like yourself end up researching a political issue such as scientific colonialism?


Graphic representation of Nussaibah Raja-Schoob's article.

Image: E. Dunne

Nussaiba Raja-Schoob: I have an interdisciplinary scientific background. I completed my Bachelor’s degree in Geography at King’s College London, where natural and social sciences are already closely linked to each other. During my degree, I studied the effects of natural disasters on politics and the extent to which political decisions influence natural disasters. The combination of political and social factors on the one hand and science on the other is also evident in palaeontology. That’s where there is a great deal of inequality.

What does this inequality involve?

Raja-Schoob: Research is often structured in such a way that scientists from richer countries and institutions travel to poorer countries to carry out excavations or to gain knowledge there without the involvement of local experts or without considering the interests of the local population. This is a problem in many regions of the world outside Western Europe and North America. It’s important to know, for example, that South America or Asia are regions that are rich in fossils and that also have highly skilled palaeontologists.

Is this research even ethical?

Raja-Schoob: That’s exactly the point. It’s often not even clear from the researchers’ work if they had official approval to carry out field research in the country in question. Funding provided for scientific projects also often does not allow for collaboration between the researchers involved and local scientists, something that costs time and money. Another aspect of this inequality is the fact that most journals are published in English, which discriminates against non-native speakers, and they have a paywall, which means that many researchers who have fewer resources do not have access to them.

You have focused your current research on data sovereignty and not on who discovers or owns fossils or where they are currently located.

Raja-Schoob: Yes, this is because a lot of the work in palaeontology involves looking at the data from previous finds. At GeoZentrum Nordbayern, we also mainly carry out research based on data. Field research represents only a small proportion of what we do. However, roughly 97 percent of the knowledge we have about fossils and the insights they give us into how life has developed on Earth comes from scientists in the West. Researchers in Africa and Asia are excluded. It’s all about gaining priority for the discovery of knowledge. This problem is by no means found only in the field of geology. It’s also the case in other fields of science and research, such as biomedicine, that richer states perform the most research and thus hold a monopoly over knowledge.

You demand the increased involvement of local palaeontologists in research as well as more sustainable collaboration with them on an equal footing. Is this a realistic goal?

Raja-Schoob: Let’s take Brazil as an example. In the 1990’s, fossil-smuggling was rife. In response, laws were tightened and more funding was provided to researchers. The fact that fossils remained in the country from that point on made an enormous difference. Most South American research teams today do not have any foreign scientists. A joint expedition involving researchers from Germany and Tanzania has also now taken place. Even if many of the fossils found there are still in Germany, this joint project is a step in the right direction. Science should set itself the task of decolonising and increasing the openness of research practices.

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