Later is Too Late: Paleosciences Must Be Integrated into Decision-Making for a Better Future*

by Julieta Martinelli

One of the things I’ve tried to balance as I move forward in my career is doing science I find intellectually stimulating and also useful for society. When I started working on my Ph.D., I felt my research would mostly be focused around biotic interactions in the fossil record. Three years after graduating, I still feel these questions are relevant, but over the past few years I’ve been more inclined to do science that contributes more directly to pressing issues our planet is facing today. 



Figure 1. Sampling dead shell assemblages in Patagonia, Argentina to study drilling predation (see drilled mytilid on the right image)

The most relevant and undeniable of these issues is climate change, or more accurately, the climate and ecosystems crisis our planet is facing. When the first image of a black hole was taken, I read a Twitter comment saying “We can take photos of black holes but we can’t tackle climate change?!” It resonated with me because humans are constantly pushing boundaries and overcoming challenges, specifically through cooperative work and technology. But, why are we still looking away and not seriously addressing solutions for the climate and ecosystems crisis around us?

Climate crisis, outreach and education

Since my early teens, I’ve been very aware of the negative human impacts on our planet and chose to take some action. As an undergraduate, I organized movie cycles showing documentaries about climate change and human impacts on natural environments. In graduate school, I kept my commitment to climate-related issues by organizing fundraisers for climate change organizations, even if climate change was not my direct area of research. During my first postdoc I began transitioning into Conservation Paleobiology, to tackle questions that have temporal components but are directly related to human impacts on natural ecosystems. The growing interest in this field is an indication that many other scientists have similar desires to make the world better by using our background in paleosciences. Last year, at a Conservation Paleobiology session at IPC 5 (International Paleontology Conference), Jeremy Jackson asked a very poignant question to the audience: ‘Can we produce unique and useful information to make the world a better place? Otherwise we are just refining nature’s obituary.’ As sad as this sounds, it also resonated with me because I truly feel there is no point in refining nature’s obituary as intellectually fascinating as it may be. Could we instead use our time, knowledge and skills to contribute from the paleosciences to improve the planet’s future? I am convinced the answer is yes.

Paleo to Policy

For readers outside the paleosciences perhaps it’s not clear why a temporal perspective is necessary for decisions that’ll lead to a better future. The truth is that what we see today in ‘natural’ environments is only a snapshot of the long history of that system. Most ‘natural’ ecosystems are heavily modified by humans and we lack information about prior states or baselines. Studying prior states of ecosystems through disciplines such as paleoecology and paleoclimatology allows us to understand how these environments (or organisms) were like in the past, how fast (and if) they can recover from disturbances, and how resilient they could be to changes based on what we know about their past. In a nutshell, knowing how they coped with major and minor disturbances allows us to predict how they may respond in the future. Given that changes are currently happening too fast too soon, we need to integrate this predictive capability from paleosciences to cooperate with policy makers making decisions to mitigate changes, restore and protect ecosystems today.

A few months ago, I was fortunate to be part of a Paleo to Policy workshop with other like-minded scientists that convinced me we can make the world better if we work towards the same goals with responsibility. This workshop was a fabulous team effort spearheaded by Dr. Tessa Hill from Bodega Marine Lab at UC Davis. Tessa, along with other generous leaders, dreamed up this three-day inspirational meeting that was fueled by the desire to motivate fellow paleoscientists and our communities. The workshop has been the starting point for collaborations, conference sessions, outreach projects, and blog posts (!). 


Figure 2. Sunrise in Bodega Bay, California: great time of day to reconnect with values and inspiration


During our time at the workshop, we learned from scientists who are experienced in working with policy makers, and also interacted with leaders in marine conservation. We learned about the importance of active listening and two-way communication. This is very different from the one-way communication to an audience typically used by scientists. Throughout the retreat we put these skills into practice in a group setting: we were exchanging ideas, feelings (yes, feelings!), life-changing experiences, difficulties, struggles, uncertainties, insecurities. We were a group of humans brainstorming how we could improve communication and policy issues from the paleosciences. This supportive context led to a truly constructive workshop where the soft skills that are usually undervalued in the ‘hard’ sciences were emphasized. In addition to what we learned from exposing our vulnerabilities and motivations, we also learned a great deal from the leadership team. The organizers truly blended in and that’s probably what made them successful leaders: their membership to the same team of concerned humans that also happen to be paleoscientists


Figure 3. A visual integration of our goals: to communicate and connect paleoscience with society and policy in order to contribute to a better world. Reprinted with permission from Hannah Palmer


We need to inject more paleo into climate sciences

An immediate and key outcome of the Paleo to Policy workshop was finding a community that allowed us to feel empowered to express our voices. We might have initially felt our voices were isolated, but in reality, they are part of a stronger, joint voice yearning for the same: to have paleosciences strongly integrated into climate and ecosystem sciences and to be heard! As Peter Roopnarine, one of our workshop leaders put it, ‘We need to inject more paleo into climate science.’ As paleoscientists, we document change using a sometimes patchy (data gaps between time periods), uncertain and incomplete record of the history of life. Despite its challenges, we manage to estimate errors and get valuable quantitative data from it. Based on this knowledge, we want to make a clear point to the rest of the science community and the world: we are very rapidly being ejected from the comfort zone in which humanity developed. In order to move forward, paleoscientists must be integrated into decision making… but where do we start? Some ideas:

  • Learn how to actively listen 
  • Practice communicating science in two-way interactions
  • Be open and seek to learn from people outside science and your field
  • Engage and establish bonds with organizations working in problems you can contribute to
  • Reach out to state and/or federal agencies to start building contacts
  • Provide clear examples of how your research can be used to achieve a particular outcome
  • Check in with your values and motivation for doing this work
  • Practice optimism
  • Break barriers, be willing to compromise and put yourself out there!

I’m excited to have found a community of colleagues that share the same core values as me. I know there are many more scientists that were not part of the workshop that share this sentiment as strongly as we do. This is the time for concerned paleoscientists to find our group voice and inspire others and inspire policy. Let’s lead together and act while we still have a wonderful planet with committed people who can create a new storytelling. The previous story we’ve been telling ourselves has reached its limit, we need to use science to inform how to change our actions if we want to move forward as a society and take care of the home we are lucky to enjoy today.


Articles that inspired some of my thinking:
  • Dietl GP & Flessa KW (2018) Should conservation paleobiologists save the world on their own time? In: Marine Conservation Paleobiology (Eds. Carrie Tyler & Chris Schneider), pp 11-22.
  • Dietl GP, Smith JA & Durham SR (2019) Discounting the past: the undervaluing of paleontological data in conservation science. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, v7, article 108.
  • Kearns FR (2012) From science communication to relationship-building: contemplative practice and community engagement in the environmental sciences. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, 2: 275-277.
  • Marvel K (2019) Deep Time. Dead things, bubbles in ice cores, layers of sediment: together, they testify to the power of the atmosphere to change Earth. Scientific American: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/hot-planet/deep-time/
  • Moldoveanu M & Narayandas D (2019) The future of leadership development. Harvard Business Review, pp 42-48.
  • Peters K & Haslam SA (2018) I follow, therefore I lead: a longitudinal study of leader and follower identity and leadership in the marines. British Journal


Julieta Martinelli, PhD
Postdoctoral researcher, School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington, Washington, USA


If you have questions or comments concerning Julieta's post, please leave a comment below, or send her an email. You can also connect with her on Twitter.


*Title inspired by the “Later is too late” subheading in the book chapter by Dietl & Flessa (2018) in references

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