The delicate relationship between paleontology and poor countries

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W.HAT YOU see depends on where you are at. The indisputable fact that most paleontologists live in the rich world means two things. One is that the fossils of these places are much better studied than those of the poorer countries, which scientifically is a shame. The other is that knowledge of the paleontology of poor countries is often the result of visits from paleontologists to rich countries.

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All of this was known, if not quantified, before Nussaibah Raja put numbers on it in a paper published in Natural ecology and evolution. Ms. Raja not only sees an unfortunate historical bias that should certainly be addressed in the future, but also an ongoing plundering of poor countries by the scientific institutions of rich countries that are more powerful than them.

Possibly. But an alternative view is possible. This is because many of the world’s poor countries have higher priorities than studying their fossils, that it is not wrong to leave foreign researchers to them as long as laws are not broken, and that it is condescending to suggest otherwise. In addition, as Ms. Raja notes, several not yet really rich places, in particular China, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and India, are actually developing into paleontological powers of their own. And, as she further emphasizes, Chinese paleontologists are increasingly interested in the fossil amber beds of neighboring Myanmar, which a cynic might view as at least as predatory as any Western fossil hunter.

Ms. Raja rightly notes that scientists from rich countries could do more to help their hosts in the poor world, particularly by recruiting local researchers into their teams to transfer expertise – something they are currently bad at. But it takes two to tango. And the political will, the institutional depth or even the money to dance along is not yet everywhere. â– 

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This article appeared in the Science & Technology section of the print edition under the heading “Dig deep”


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