Indigenous Rights in Science

Most readers will have heard of the fights for the rights of indigenous people, but what about people born in the country, whose ancestors have been there for a long period? What rights to they have? Should they have rights to the resources of their own country? You will have heard about animal poaching, where endangered species are smuggled out of the country, and will have a view on that. However, there is a new argument coming in the scientific community, reported in Nature (605, 18 – 19) and it came from an article in the journal Cretaceous Research. The article described Ubirajara jubatus, a 110-million-year-old fossil of a dinosaur that appeared to display the precursors to feathers. The fossil had been collected in Brazil decades earlier but no Brazilian had heard of it. The authors claimed the fossil had been exported with a permit signed by some official, and the skeptic might suspect corruption here.

The publication sparked a revolution. A massive Twitter campaign was launched, and eventually the paper was withdrawn, although how you withdraw a printed paper is another matter. The specimen is in the State Museum of Natural History in Karlesruhe, and apparently the museum is engaged in negotiations to return it.

This practice, called by some colonial palaeontology, has caused a storm across south America. A report that analysed 200 studies published between 1990 and 2021 found that more than half did not involve local researchers, and of the Brazilian fossils used, 88% of them were kept outside Brazil. One of the authors of the Ubirajara paper protested that the study cherry-picked data, and omitted a whole lot of earlier American practices. The author of the report states it picked on starting at 1990 because that was when Brazil introduced laws preventing the export of such fossils, and it would be wrong to criticise a practice that was perfectly legal before then. He also noted it was a curious defence to state that others were doing it, so why not him, despite the law?

Now the South Americans are attempting to persuade scientific journals to act to stop such colonial practices. They noted that none of the 200 studies published an acknowledgement of the permit they should have had to take the specimen out of the country. If you read scientific papers, you often see a remarkable list of acknowledgements, such a X made helpful comments. Acknowledging that you followed the law might seem to be a useful step.

Apparently, this “revolution” had some less that satisfactory behaviour. Members of the public began visibly harassing scientists involved in the Ubirajara research, while the Karlsruhe Museum had to close its Instagram account due to the flood of negative comments.

There followed a spat about how researchers local to where the fossil was found should be involved when the fossil has been in a foreign museum for ages. Our author who protested (above) then continued to protest that this would involve tokenism if they had to include a scientist from the region on the paper. Of course, a way out of that would be to return the fossil. Two other countries particularly affected are the Dominican Republic and Myanmar, both of which have significant fossilized amber, of Jurassic Park fame. What happens next is unclear, although it appears the move to return fossils is growing.

That thought leads to another. Scientific publication involves peer review. It would be interesting to compare the fraction of rejections from third world countries with those from major US/European Universities. Does the address “Harvard” give a serious advantage over some town in Myanmar? Or is it done truly on content?

On a completely different matter, a huge fang of an ichthyosaur has been found from the Swiss alps. From the size of the tooth, the reptile would have measured about 21 meters in length. You might have heard that ichthyosaurs were somewhat vulnerable and only lived in shallow waters. Not this beast. A carnivore the size of a sperm whale would not be a pleasant thing to encounter. However, it died out at the end of the Triassic so no current danger.