Scientific meetings should happen where research happens

In Nature Evolution and Ecology, Zeresenay Alemseged, Jackson Njau, Brianna Pobiner and Emmanuel Ndiema have a comment that reports on the 2017 conference of the East African Association for Palaeoanthropology and Palaeontology: “Connecting palaeoscientists in eastern Africa and the wider world”. This is a valuable essay and is accessible through the online PDF reader that the Nature journals have started using.

The commentary begins with a strong statement of the injustice of the paleoanthropological enterprise at the end of the last century:

[I]n spite of the undisputed importance of the region to the understanding of human evolution, there was no regional scientific forum that facilitated scientific discourse locally until the birth of the East African Association for Palaeoanthropology and Palaeontology (EAAPP) in 2005. As such, eastern Africa largely served as a data-mining hub in which local research, training and public education saw few of the benefits of the worldwide fame and international funding efforts that the region attracted. A very small number of senior local scholars managed to travel overseas to attend scientific meetings, but most east African scientists, especially students and early-career researchers, were scientifically isolated owing to the prohibitive costs of travel, accommodation and conference registration and cumbersome visa procurement for travel to Western countries. Moreover, there was a complete absence of a platform where international scientists undertaking research in the region could engage with local decision-makers and stakeholders managing research, conservation and curation of palaeoanthropological resources, leading to haphazard and non-strategic collaboration. The rationale behind establishing the EAAPP emanated from these realizations and aimed at addressing these issues.

I added the emphasis to the sentence that mentions “data mining”.

It is sad how little value anthropologists of the past have created for the many nations where they have collected data. The essay points to the funding efforts of the past, but even these have been anemic compared to the scientific value and future potential of fossil discoveries in Africa. The future of discoveries crucially depends on the ability of scientists and other stakeholders to translate heritage into jobs, economic value, and international prestige for nations that face enormous development challenges.

Today’s scientists have to build what the previous generations did not. Previous generations too often acted as if fossil discoveries were like diamond mining. They spoke of “fossil fields being nearly exhausted” and acted like De Beers, creating scarcity of scientific value by limiting access.

That’s a great strategy if you want to keep selling diamonds, but it is a terrible way to build science. Building science means creating value at many levels, not only traditional academic outputs, but building scientific capacity, tourism, and heritage management.

On Twitter over the last few days I have pointed out the analogous situation happening in human genomics and paleogenomics, with a number of scientific meetings this year devoted to the genetics of Africa but being hosted at research institutes in Europe. It is so short-sighted to try to organize a meeting to show an institute is “engaged in Africa” and think that the best way to show this is to pay airfare for Americans to visit Europe.