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Honoring citizen scientists

On Saturday 14th October 2023 in Brussels, the Louis De Pauw and Palaeontologica Belgica awards were handed out for the third consecutive year. These awards were created to honor the voluntary and often unpaid palaeontological research carried out by citizen scientists. These "volunteer" scientists do not have an academic degree in the scientific field to which they are actively contributing, and are therefore often not appreciated for their research. The prizes are unique in that, to date, they are the only ones in Belgium to be awarded to non-professional researchers.

Major recognition

The event is organised by the Palaeontologica Belgica research organisation since 2021 and brings together the entire Belgian palaeontological community in advance to form a scientific jury responsible for selecting the laureates. Delegates from the major Belgian universities, the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS), industry and Belgium’s many earth science associations are represented within this advisory committee. In this way, the choice of the laureate is a democratic decision supported by the palaeontological community as a whole and does not emanate from one individual organisation. This is important to justify the legitimacy of the award for the palaeontological field as a whole.

After the many 'prizes' awarded to professional scientists on a regional, national, European and even global level, there are few, if any, prestigious prizes awarded to citizen scientists, and this is where the problem lies today. Anthonie Hellemond, President of Palaeontologica Belgica, says: "First of all, we have to recognise that to this day we still have a very conservative view upon the practice of science, reserving this function exclusively to qualified academics working within our universities and research institutes. However, we often forget that there is a large group of non-professional researchers out there who are already making significant contributions to highly unpopular or unfunded research topics that the professional world cannot address due to, for example, lack of funding, lack of interest or lack of time within the tight research plannings of academic personnel."

Ivory Towers

This kind of recognition is indeed necessary, because citizen scientists are still all too often the object of great mistrust and disdain. After all, an academic degree and corresponding title are still very important within the academic world as a means of legitimation. As a result, the contributions of researchers outside the walls of universities are often not appreciated or sometimes even completely ignored. Some editorial boards of renowned scientific journals systematically block articles written or co-authored by citizen scientists. Institutes refuse access to archives and collections for research purposes, and scientific organisations impose artificially high membership fees upon non-academics to take part in symposia or conferences. The distance between professional and non-professional scientists is so great that the step of reinforcing each other within similar research is often regarded as an insurmountable obstacle. In some countries, or in some areas of research, collaboration is non-existent or almost non-existent. However, this depends very much on the cultural mindset, as the differences between the various countries are vast. Belgium itself does not have a bad reputation compared to many other European countries, but there is a lot of catching up to do to reach the level of other countries such as Norway, Germany and Austria. However, we note that the democratisation of the academic world and inclusion in scientific research still has a long way to go. Of course, a change of culture and mindset on this subject is not something that will change overnight.

Scientific associations as possible solution

The solution to this shortcoming seems to come from civil society itself. It's true that in Belgium we have a large spectrum of organisations that devote themselves on a voluntary basis to the promotion and popularisation of various scientific fields: think of astronomy, earth sciences, archaeology and history, biological or nature protection associations, meteorology, and so on. All these fields can in turn be subdivided into numerous associations dealing with specific niches. A great source of knowledge altogether one might think and yet we find that within these organisations there is a great deal of untapped or underestimated talent. People who have devoted themselves to a subject for many years with unbridled passion and who, over time, have acquired such expertise that they can make a valuable contribution to international research. However, we find that the will to collaborate or to make the most of this talent rarely comes from professional circles.

The awards ceremony for citizen scientists and professional palaeontologists, held at the VUB in Brussels on 14 October, is already an important step towards the future. It is a valuable initiative to bring the two worlds closer together and to make the scientific world understand the benefits of collaboration. For Palaeontologica Belgica, it is an incentive to extend this concept to other scientific fields. This year, the mineralogical world will also be announcing that, starting next year, a prize will be awarded to a citizen scientist who has distinguished himself or herself in the field of mineralogy.

The Laureates

Allart Van Viersen

The first laureate to be honoured was Allart van Viersen. Allart was unanimously chosen by the jury as the winner of the Louis De Pauw award for his contributions to research on Trilobites (these are small arthropods that lived at the bottom of shallow seas 400,000,000 years ago). These animals, or rather the fossil remains of their external skeletons, are found in the rock layers of the Ardennes, Condroz , Fagne and Famenne, as well as in the Oesling region (Luxembourg) and the Rhenish Slate Massif in Germany. However, the occurrences and known species were poorly described and documented. As a citizen scientist, Allart has taken it upon himself to re-study these rare creatures and revise 200 years of chaotic and poorly documented descriptions. He is currently one of 20-25 global experts working on trilobites. Apart from describing the animals and their many complex forms and occurrences, he also studies their way of life, the ecological setting in which certain species lived, and the functionality of their exoskeletons. He combines all this with a full-time job and family life. Allart has already written more than 37 articles in leading peer-reviewed journals (and counting) and is internationally considered a reference in the field of trilobite research. Being self-taught, he has accumulated a vast knowledge within his field, which he enjoys sharing with professional and non-professional researchers.

Prof. dr. Johan Vellekoop

For the Palaeontologica Belgica Award, Dr Johan Vellekoop was elected as the 2023 laureate. He was nominated for the Paleontologica Belgica award in recognition of his many contributions and collaborations with citizen scientists. In addition to his permanent appointment as professor of palaeontology at the University of Leuven and researcher at the RBINS, Johan is also very active in his free time promoting palaeontology in Belgium and the Netherlands. Johan grew up in the village of Smilde in Drenthe, the Netherlands and after a master's degree in biogeology and a PhD at Utrecht University, Johan Vellekoop decided to come to Belgium to pursue a decade of postdoctoral research fellowships. During this period, Johan sought to enhance our understanding of the cataclysmic events dating back to 66 Million years ago, during which about 75% of all terrestrial organisms became extinct. To do this, he has studied the successive stratigraphy, palynological, geochemical and isotopic composition of this exact Cretaceous-Paleogene (called K-Pg) boundary in Belgium, the Netherlands, Tunisia, the US, Denmark, Spain and, of course, Mexico itself, the site of the impact responsible for the cataclysm. Apart from the very infamous K-Pg event, he has also contributed significantly to a better understanding of seasonal climate variations during another remarkable period in Earth's history; the much more recent Eocene greenhouse world, dated to 38 million years ago. Johan is active within the palaeontological community in various ways, both in association and on an independent basis. From organising large palaeontological fairs, managing palaeontological forums to giving lectures, his enthusiasm and passion are very contagious. This therefore ensured that the decision was unanimously taken to award him the 2023 Palaeontologica Belgica Award. A nice crown for his many years of efforts within Belgian and Dutch palaeontology. His passion lies within the Cretaceous in the Liège-Limburg region, where he researches both the geology, the palaeoclimate and the micro and macro fossils hidden in the large parcels of limestone. In doing so, he also always involves citizen scientists whom he gives the opportunity to work together within an academic setting.

Thank you to Maité Schuurmans for the pictures of the event

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