The great world CT-scanning tour

2 minute read

The international version of Der Spiegel is running an English-language profile of the traveling CT-scan project from Jean-Jacques Hublin and the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology: “German Scientists Bring Fossils into the Computer Age”

To show just what the future holds for his field, Hublin crossed the back courtyard of the anatomy institute in Tel Aviv. There, next to the dumpsters, stands a 20-foot (6-meter) container that the Israeli technicians like to smoke behind. The box's exterior gives no hint that it holds a laboratory on prehistoric man unlike any other one in the world.

This is a topic that should be followed closely by anyone interested in paleoanthropology’s future. The article seems to imply that the data are being made freely available, but of course they are not. I am confident that, in the future, all data like these will be openly available, as they are now made routinely available in other fields of science. But for the time being, our field is one of the exceptions - and the closed nature of the data is a serious impediment given the great challenges we face educating the public about human evolution.

The Spiegel article sets up the politics as a confrontation between Hublin and museum curators:

Until now, Hublin says, it was usual to handle fossils from the dawn of mankind "like relics or national treasures." Under these circumstances, curators assumed the role of keepers of the Grail.
In this way, curators were holding on the reins of scientific power. After all, it is vital for researchers to have access to the fossils. "Whoever is denied (this access) will never get anywhere," Hublin says.
A New Era for Research
Indeed, Hublin believes having a virtual fossil archive could herald the end of this system. He sees his work as boosting accessibility to the objects and says curators "are afraid of losing control."

In my experience, the article’s frame is overly simplistic. Scans aren’t open unless the people who have them make them open. Believe me, if there were a lot of open scans out there, I’d be posting visualizations here on the weblog. Obviously people use funding and position to compete for prestige and control, and their strategies depend on the resources under their charge. When curators or institutions give permission to scan, it becomes a contractual matter. A foreign researcher coming to scan may demand a period of exclusivity, an institution might demand some meaningful local involvement in the research. The ultimate disposition of the data may be of little importance to either party relative to their more immediate needs. I am familiar with cases where scan data were never returned to the institution, despite promises of access, and other cases where institutions have refused to allow scanning because they objected to a long exclusivity period for the scanning team.

Fossil remains of our ancestors and relatives are national treasures — indeed, even more broadly, they are pieces of world heritage. We have the technology today to bring those extraordinary objects to everyone in the world. So I think its a great shame that the politics of science continues to obscure our fossil record.