An Open Letter to the Trustees of the University of Wyoming
On behalf of the Executive Committee of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology—an international scientific organization with more than 2,300 members, I am writing to express our alarm and dismay at the closing of the display galleries at the University of Wyoming Geological Museum and the loss of staff lines responsible for its maintenance.
Wyoming figures highly in the minds of vertebrate paleontologists from around the country and the world. The exhibits at the UWGM reflect the fabulous wealth of fossil vertebrates found in Wyoming. People, especially children, are fascinated by dinosaurs and other fossil animals, and paleontological displays are a wonderful way to both engage young people in science and promote scientific literacy. The UWGM exhibits go beyond static mounts of dinosaur skeletons by allowing visitors to see scientists in action as they prepare fossils from rock, and the exhibits themselves are a reflection of the research undertaken by the world-renowned vertebrate paleontology program at the University of Wyoming. This research is crucial for understanding how life responds to changes in climate over time, something of grave concern to everyone. Furthermore, a functioning museum needs an active director. Dr. Brent Breithaupt has served the research and public interests of the UWGM exceptionally well for almost 30 years, and this abrupt termination of his position is an affront to his accomplishments.
We understand the budgetary limitations faced by the University of Wyoming. Most of us work for universities facing similar financial problems. However, we believe the decisions to close the museum and terminate exhibit staff are financially shortsighted for several reasons. First, exhibits like those in Laramie require constant upkeep, and the modest savings created by eliminating the persons responsible for this upkeep will generate greater long-term costs in the repair and restoration of these displays.
Second, and more crucially, the exhibits are a reflection of the research currently underway at the University of Wyoming. This is important because scientists seeking federal research support (which benefits the whole institution through the generation of overhead) are required to describe the broader impacts of their research on society as a whole. Vertebrate paleontologists at institutions like the University of Wyoming are at an advantage because the museum displays provide a natural conduit for dissemination of their work. Through the generation of high-quality exhibits, like those formerly on display in Laramie, the results of paleontological research are made available to everyone. This increases the chances of having highly competitive research funds awarded to UW faculty. The modest costs of maintaining a display gallery can have a significant financial payoff in the long term.
Third, the University has indicated its willingness to initiate a fund-raising campaign to reopen the museum at some point in the future. This is commendable but we strongly feel that the campaign may not succeed unless potential donors can see a viable, working museum, filled with excited children learning about the past through 3-dimensional displays and fossils of the ancient plants and animals of Wyoming. We urge you to consider reopening the museum as soon as possible, if not full-time, then part-time, to allow it to continue to serve the people of Wyoming and elsewhere.
Blaire Van Valkenburgh, PhD
President, Society of Vertebrate Paleontology and
Professor, University of California, Los Angeles