The end of an era

This weekend I am at the 18th Meeting of the Research Unit (Forschergruppe – FOR) 533 “Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs: The Evolution of Gigantism” of the German Science Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft – DFG). It will be the last meeting, three funding periods and slightly over 8 1/2 years after the Research Unit was established.

The FOR was a tremendous success – I simply can’t state it any other way. Led by Martin Sander of Bonn University, we have by now produced the stunning number of 136 publications (No. 136 is in print), and more are to come. The total funding for the first two funding periods was 3.4 million Euros (I do not know the exact numbers for the third funding period). That’s a lot of papers for comparatively very little money spent!

In addition to our regular meetings we had two International Workshops in 2008 and 2011, where sauropod researchers and scientists from other disciplines with implications for sauropod research were invited. You can read an account of the 2011 one at SVPOW!, tellingly titles “Best. Conference- Ever.” The 2008 one is briefly mentioned on SVPOW! here. Then, there is our synthesis paper in Biology Reviews – open access thanks to the funding agency! – Martin Sander has made it a point of presenting us with slides at each meeting that show the Biology Reviews homepage like the one below. It is kinda weird to see that 18 months after it was published online the paper still holds the top spot in the “Top papers” list. :) This paper thus goes a long way to show what high quality science a well-run research unit can produce!

Then, there is our Indiana University Press book

Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs

Golly – that title came as a surprise to you I bet! Thanks to funding by you-know-who the prize is really affordable. The DFG is quite good at making results available, and often willing to bend its own rules a bit to make it happen.

And if you believe that this is the whole list of achievements, let me tell you that over the course of the FOR’s existence a total of 14 people have received PhDs – and that’s only counting those who were fully funded as members, not part-timers or associates, or those who haven’t finished yet – and four people completed their Habilitation (a qualification you need in Germany to become a full professor). In fact, four members managed to land five professorships, too! That’s not your US assistant professor – we’d call that a lecturer – that’s full professorships. One of them was Martin Sander himself, another Jürgen Hummerl who just landed a professor’s job at Göttingen University. Ulrich Witzel even landed two professorships, one in Hull and one in Bochum. Engineers always seem to get the better end of the stick ;) Hanns-Christian Gunga completes the list, but Holger Preuschoft, who has been a professor of functional morphology was bestowed with an honorary professorship, too.

FOR 533 meeting in Bonn at the Argentinian Dinosaur exhibition, at the feet of Argentinosaurus.

I was a full member of the Research Unit for the first two funding periods, and now am an associate member – but maybe I should use this opportunity to explain how German Science Foundation funded Research Units work. A FOR is basically a way of getting researchers from different disciplines at different research institutes to work together on one major topic for three years, or six if a second funding period is granted. The organization is fairly straightforward: there is a central project, which is headed by the FOR’s speaker (Martin Sander in our case), which has money for the meetings and runs things. That includes funding for a secretary, for publication costs, for international meetings and so on. And then there are a number of projects – up to ten, we were always pushing the limit by submitting 13 grant proposals – which each have a Principal Investigator and may have one or several other people working in it. These can be located at other research institutes, in fact that is encouraged. Overall, the aim should be to study a current topic with a coherent, interdisciplinary approach. The DFG’s page on this is here. While the statement I linked to sounds simple, the details are in the guides for applicants.

A great thing is the way the review happens. Basically, you send in your applications, and a team of reviewers is selected. At the end of the review period they are flown in, and you get to give a presentation, after which they can slowly roast you in a Q&A. Then, they are locked in until they have reached a decision, which you get told right away. A key point here is that there is no other board or so that can kill the decision – if you have a GO! you get the money :)

Doing science at a FOR meeting – the unstructured talk over dinner and beer is very often one of the best catalysts for project ideas and interdisciplinary exchange. Here, you see Martin Sander (his back, to be exact), Kristian Remes (now with the DFG), Jürgen Hummel and (hidden behind Martin’s curls) Thomas Tütken waiting for dinner and debating, IIRC, isotope compositions in sauropod bones and how to turn them into a tool for aging dinosaurs.

Our research unit was special by having three funding periods granted. I won’t go into the somewhat convoluted history of how this came to be – let’s just say that we’re glad we got it, and that the DFG will very likely consider it money well-spent.

Oh, and I almost forgot the most impressive and visible result of FOR 533: The AMNH’s 2011 special exhibit The World’s Largest Dinosaurs. Curated by the peerless Marn Norell and co-curated by Martin Sander it incorporated a lot of our results, explaining how sauropods got so darn big. I wrote a guest post at SVPOW! back when, describing the exhibit. After a stint in Columbia with the co-funders it has now made its way to Europe, and has opened in Paris at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle with the title Dinosaure – la vie en grand!

Food for Argentinosaurus – enough for one day! From the AMNH special exhibit.

I’ll be missing the half-yearly opportunity to meet with my colleagues, spy on their research, pick their brains, and simply shoot the shit with them. Some will stay close to dinosaurs in their research, others will drift away – but one thing is for sure: FOR 533 was the best thing that ever happened to us, career-wise and scientifically. Many thanks to all, especially to Martin Sander!

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About Heinrich Mallison

I'm a dinosaur biomech guy working at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin.
This entry was posted in Conferences, Dinosauria, FOR 533, Plateosaurus, Sauropoda, Sauropodomorpha. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The end of an era

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    I am sorry to hear that this project is coming to an end, but it’s been a privilege to have been involved in a tiny way, at the two international conferences that were run in 2008 and 2011. The passage of time has not dimmed their awesomeness: I do not exaggerate when I say that they are the best and second best I have ever been to — not only because of the subject matter but also the excellent collegial spirit and genuine sense of shared discovery.

    My delighted congratulations to everyone who was involved, and specially to Martin Sander for making it all happen.

  2. Jerrold Alpern says:

    I was an explainer in WLD when it was at AMNH. Visitors, and there were hordes, loved it. They marveled at the exhibits, read the labels and were eager to learn more. For me, it was a fantastic experience and the IUP book remains a well-thumbed, frequently-consulted reference since we still have our own in-house sauropods to talk about! A thousand thanks to Martin Sander and everyone in FOR 533.

  3. steve cohen says:

    I was a volunteer “explainer” at the AMNH exhibit.

    It was extremely well-attended and provided learning opportunities at multiple levels of sophistication.

    I used to lead a 1/2 hour highlights walk-through that always provoked extensive Q&A, the surest sign that an exhibit was a hit.

    Heinrich, did you have any involvement in the format or structure of the exhibition; I thought it was great?

  4. Alexandre FABRE says:

    I think the project fulfils his objectives, and the review paper (Biology of sauropod) is well written and one of the best I’ve read. It’s a bit sad, it end, but we can hope of project with similar scope for others dinosaurs.
    Alexandre FABRE

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