Yesterday, Alex Holcome’s tweet drew my attention to Shahar Avin’s paper “Centralised Funding and Epistemic Exploration”, currently in press at The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. You can read the accepted manuscript on PhilSci Archive.

My colleague Filip Jakobsen asked me to explain in layman’s terms what the paper was saying. Here’s what I told him.

The way our academic system works means that some people spend loads of their time — literally, like half of their work time, in many cases — writing grant applications, so they can get the equipment, reagents and other resources that they need for their actual research. There are of course many more applications for grants than can be funded. So applications get competitively reviewed, and only the “best” get funded.

There is growing evidence that this means money keeps getting funneled to the same people — because they have a “track record” — who do more experiments along the same lines they’ve done before, with the danger that it all gets very stagnant.

What the new paper found, by running simulations, is that in terms of advancing science, you actually get better results if you just choose which grants to fund at random. I guess some of the grants then go to no-hopers who waste them, but others go to teams no-one’s heard of who go on to do great and unexpected things — much more interesting new discoveries than those that might arise from the incremental experiements that the established groups would go on to do given the same funds.

It’s like the way venture capitalists throw money at lots of startups, knowing full well that most will fail, but that some will succeed wildly; and that overall they’ll get a better return than if they invested their money in, say IBM stock. IBM will grow, sure, and they’ll get a safe dividend. But only a small one.

It looks like granting bodies like to play it safe and invest in the science equivalent of IBM. Maybe they need to behave more like venture capitalists.


The opening remarks by the hosts of conferences are usually highly forgettable, a courtesy platform offered to a high-ranking academic who has nothing to say about the conference’s subject. NOT THIS TIME!

This is the opening address of APE 2018, the Academic Publishing in Europe conference. The remarks are by Martin Grötschel, who as well as being president of the host institution, the Berlin Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, is a 25-year veteran of open-access campaigning. and a member of the German DEAL negotiating team.

Here are some choice quotes:

1m50s: “I have always been aware of the significant imbalance and the fundamental divisions of the academic publication market. Being in the DEAL negotiation team, this became even more apparent …”

2m04s: “On the side of the scientists there is an atomistic market where, up to now and unfortunately, many of the actors play without having any clue about the economic consequences of their activities.”

2m22s: “In Germany and a few other countries where buyer alliances have been organised, they are, as expected, immediately accused of forming monopolies and they are taken to court — fortunately, without success, and with the result of strengthening the alliances.”

2m38s: “On the publishers’ side there is a very small number of huge publication enterprises with very smart marketing people. They totally dominate the market, produce grotesque profits, and amazingly manage to pretend to be the Good Samaritans of the sciences.”

2m27s: “And there are the tiny [publishers …] tentatively observed by many delegates of the big players, who are letting them play the game, ready to swallow them if an opportunity comes up.”

3m18s: “When you, the small publishers, discuss with the representatives of the big guys, these are most likely very friendly to you. But […] when it comes to discussing system changes, when the arguments get tight, the smiles disappear and the greed begins to gleam.”

3m42s: “You will hear in words, and not implicitly, that the small academic publishers are considered to be just round-off errors, tolerated for another while, irrelevant for the world-wide scientific publishing market, and having no influence at all.”

4m00s: “One big publisher stated: if your country stops subscribing to our journals, science in your country will be set back significantly. I responded […] it is interesting to hear such a threat from a producer of envelopes who does not have any idea of the contents.”

4m39s: “Will the small publishers side with the intentions of the scholars? Or will you try to copy the move towards becoming a packaging industry that exploits the volunteer work of scientists and results financed by public funding?”

5m55: “I do know, though, that the major publishers are verbally agreeing [to low-cost Gold #OpenAccess] , but not acting in this direction all, simply to maintain their huge profit margins.”

6m06s: “In a market economy, no-one can argue against profit maximisation [of barrier-based scholarly publishers]. But one is also allowed to act against it. The danger may be really disruptive, instead of smooth moves in the development of the academic publishing market.”

6:42: “You may not have enjoyed my somewhat unusual words of welcome, but I do hope that you enjoy this year’s APE conference.”

It’s just beautiful to hear someone in such a senior position, given such a platform, using it say so very clearly what we’re all thinking. (And as a side-note: I’m constantly amazed that so many advocates are so clear, emphatic and rhetorically powerful in their second, or sometimes third, language. Humbling.)

As RLUK’s David Prosser noted: “I bet this wasn’t what the conference organisers were expecting. A fabulous, hard-hitting polemic on big publishers #OA.”



Note. This post is adapted from a thread of tweets that I posted excerpting the video.

On Thursday an animatronic T. rex at the Royal Gorge Dinosaur Experience in Colorado caught fire and burned down to a stark metal endoskeleton. The story is all over the place – here’s the version from the Washington Post, with a couple of videos. Naturally people started making memes out of this arresting image. Andy Farke put me on to the “Hot T. rex” meme generator, and that led to some late-night meme-ing and now to this post. These are old news if you follow me on Facebook, btw.

Speaking of Any Farke, here’s something he wrote about this issue a few years ago (trying to offer some actual added value with this post).

Support original paleoart!

Heh. This one’s for Mike, who has long argued for a moratorium on “place-saurus” names.

Just gonna leave this one here without further comment…

Maybe I shouldn’t complain, since it keeps me in blog fodder.

Just sayin’.

I ended with this one because it is basically my scientific autobiography – I’m hard-pressed to think of a time this hasn’t happened. I mean, I do usually get my target, but there’s a lot of collateral data collection in the attention fallout zone.

Someone on Facebook asked whether sauropods had subcutaneous fat, and by the time my answer hit five paragraphs I thought, “The merciful thing to do here is blog this and link to it.” So here are some things to keep in mind regarding the integumentary systems of sauropods.

Emu dissection at UC Santa Cruz back in 2004. Note the fat pad on the chest and how it abruptly comes to an end.

Sauropods may have had some subcutaneous fat – we can’t rule it out – but it probably wasn’t broadly distributed as it is in mammals. In the interaction of their air sac systems with connective tissue, sauropods were probably a lot like birds. Most birds don’t have subcutaneous fat all over their bodies. Instead, they have subcutaneous air sacs (or pneumatic diverticula) over parts or all of their bodies – in pelicans these are like bubble wrap under the skin, presumably for impact padding and insulation (Richardson 1939, 1943). The diverticula go everywhere and most places they go, they replace adipose tissue, even the harmless bits of fat between muscles that are basically the body’s packing peanuts (broiler chickens don’t count here, they’ve been artificially selected to be radically unhealthy). We suspect that sauropods had subcutaneous diverticula because so many other aspects of their pneumatic systems correspond to those of living birds (see the discussion in Wedel and Taylor 2013b for more on that).

Contrast the narrow line of adipose tissue down the ventral midline with the almost-completely-lean hindlimb.

That’s not to say that birds don’t have subcutaneous fat, just that it tends to be highly localized. Back in grad school I got to help dissect an emu (link) and a rhea (one, two), and in both cases the fat was concentrated in two places: huge paired fat pads over the pelvis, like big lozenges, and a concentration over the sternum with extensions along the ventral midline from the base of the neck to the cloaca. It was weird, the fat would be present and then it would just stop, like somebody flipped a switch. We pulled 18 lbs of fat off a 102-lb emu, so it wasn’t a trivial part of the body composition. IME, even relatively fatty birds like ducks tend to have the fat start and stop abruptly, and again, the fat deposits tend to be concentrated on the breast and tummy and over the hips.

Fat-tailed gecko, borrowed from here.

A lot of lizards and crocs and even some turtles carry fat deposits in their tails, and that is one aspect of sauropod anatomy that is definitely un-bird-like. So some sauropods might have had fat tails.

We can be pretty sure that at least some sauropods had thick skin. Osteoderms (armor plates) from Madagascar show that the bits that were embedded in the skin could be up to 7cm thick, so the surrounding skin was at least that thick and possibly even thicker (Dodson et al. 1998). And that was most likely on Rapetosaurus, which was not a huge sauropod. So giant sauropods might have had even thicker skin. Maybe. Remember that big-ass-ness (here arbitrarily defined as 40+ metric tons) evolved independently in:

They probably didn’t all get there looking the same way, beyond sharing the basic sauropod bauplan.

I’m too lazy to write about the fossil evidence for scaly skin and keratinous spines in sauropods – see this post and the references therein.

One final thing to think about is scar tissue. The scar tissue on the chest of a male elephant seal can be up to 5cm thick. Some sauropods might have had calluses or patches of scar tissue in predictable places, from combat, or habitually pushing down trees with their chests or tails, or doing whatever weird things real animals do when we’re not looking.

So in the toolbox of things to play with in reconstructing the integument of sauropods, we have thick skin, keratinous spines, osteoderms, fat pads (possibly concentrated over the hips and shoulders or on the tail), subcutaneous diverticula, calluses, and scar tissue. And that’s just the stuff we have found or reasonably inferred so far, barely 150 years into our exploration of animals we know mostly from bits and bobs, whose size means they mostly got buried in big sediment-dumping events that would not preserve delicate integumentary structures. Give us a millennium of Yixian Formations and Mahajanga Basins and Howe Quarries and the picture will probably change, and the arrow of history dictates that it will change for the weirder.

Likely? Probably not. But roll the evolutionary dice for 160 million years and you’ll get stranger things than this. Recycled from this post.

Finally, and related to my observation about big-ass-ness: sauropods were a globally-distributed radiation of animals from horse-sized to whale-sized that existed from the Late Triassic to the end of the Cretaceous. The chances that all of them had the same integumentary specializations, for display or combat or insulation or camouflage or whatever, are pretty darned low. Support weird sauropods – and vanilla ones, too.

Almost immediate update: I’ve just been reminded about Mark Witton’s excellent post on dinosaur fat from a couple of years ago. Go read that, and the rest of his blog. I’m sure I missed other relevant posts at other excellent blogs – feel free to remind me in the comments.


I was in Philadelphia and New York last week, visiting colleagues on the East Coast and getting in some collaborative research. Much more to say about that in the future – even just the touristy stuff will fill several posts.

One highlight of the trip was visiting the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia last Friday. Ted Daeschler (of Tiktaalik fame) and Jason Poole (who illustrated this sweet book) were my generous hosts and I got to see a ton of cool stuff both out on exhibit and behind the scenes. Seriously, I could post for a month just on the Academy visit.

A personal highlight for me was seeing the cervical vertebrae of the sauropod dinosaur Suuwassea on exhibit. They are in a glass case and you can get around them pretty well to see a lot of anatomy. At first I was pumped to get nice color photos of all the vertebrae from up close and from multiple angles. Then I thought, “Huh, maybe I should just shoot a video.” So I did. Here you go, four minutes of hot sauropod vertebra action:

By contrast to the very delicate pelican humerus and ulna in the previous post, here is the left femur of Aepyornis OUMNH 4950 — an “elephant bird” from Antolanbiby, Madagascar. It’s just a couple of meters away from the pelican, in the same Oxford gallery:

This is of course a ludicrously robust bone, as befits a gigantic ground-dwelling bird. But the fun thing is that it, too, is very pneumatic. You can see this in lots of ways: the foramina up at the top, the little patch of stretched texture at mid-length, and most of all in the honeycomb structure of the inside of the bone, which we can see where the cortex has broken off at both proximal and distal ends.

Birds: they’re made of air.

Here are the humerus and ulna of a pelican, bisected:

What we’re seeing here is the top third of each bone: humerus halves on the left, ulna halves on the right, in a photo taken at the 2012 SVPCA in one of our favourite museums.

The hot news here is of course the extreme pneumaticity: the very thin bone walls, reinforced only at the proximal extremely by thin struts. Here’s the middle third, where as you can see there is essentially no reinforcement: just a hollow tube, that’s all:

And then at the distal ends, we see the struts return:

Here’s the whole thing in a single photo, though unfortunately marred by a reflection (and obviously at much lower resolution):

We’ve mentioned before that pelicans are crazy pneumatic, even by the standards of other birds: as Matt said about a pelican vertebra (skip to 58 seconds in the linked video), “the neural spine is sort of a fiction, almost like a tent of bone propped up”.

Honestly. Pelican skeletons hardly even exist.