Researchers put brakes on work at Gray Fossil site until new funding can be found
Grant funding for excavations at the Gray Fossil Site expires today, prompting researchers to reduce exploration until new funding materializes. “It’s just how science works,” said Dr. Steven Wallace, East Tennessee State University’s lead paleontologist at the site. “You live from one grant to the next. For five years, ETSU’s digs at the site have been funded from a pool of money that includes an $8 million federal transportation grant and $2 million in matching money from the university and benefactors. That same funding built the site’s Natural History Museum, which opened to the public Aug. 31. Since the grant’s scope concludes today, Wallace and other researchers in ETSU’s Sundquist Center of Excellence in Paleontology will have to scale back the digs for the time being. But Wallace emphasized that exploration would not stop. “We’ll still have digs and things going on,” he said. “It will just be smaller scale.” The grant funded some field positions, including a surveyor and field technicians, as well as supplies and materials for the field work. Wallace said the museum’s operating budget would pick up the technicians, moving them from full-time to part-time positions, and the site’s student surveyor planned to concentrate on his studies in geomatics at ETSU. The site will continue to rely on its cadre of trained volunteers, Wallace said. Plus, ETSU’s geology classes will generate a new crop of students to help on the site every semester. Because Wallace had concentrated much of his efforts on completing and opening the visitors center and moving the Sundquist Center’s paleontology labs and collections on site in recent months, he said, he had not had the time necessary to seek new grants. Now that the facility is open, however, he expects to devote his energies to grant writing. “It just puts the ball in my court to look for money,” Wallace said. For a field crew to dig in test pits, Wallace said he would like to maintain between $50,000 to $100,000 per year, providing the resources for ETSU to extract finds as they are unearthed.Pits are often so rich with specimens, excavations sometimes take months and even cross over between field seasons. As operations scale back for the time being, Wallace said he thought ETSU would have the necessary funds to cover materials for extraction and preservation. With additional personnel, however, would come a need for more materials funding, which he would include in grant proposals, to keep up with the digs. Recent discoveries at the site could help with Wallace’s search. Last week, excavations brought forth more fragmented remains of a shovel-tusked elephant specimen that was originally found shortly after the fossil site’s discovery seven years earlier. The prospect of finding the whole, massive specimen would add significantly to the museum’s collections, as well as to science, potentially attracting interest from funding agencies. “That’s exactly why we are poking around down there,” Wallace said. “Something that big is more likely to get attention.” ETSU Vice President for Finance and Administration David Collins said the university’s operations at the site come from a mixture of sources, including the university’s general fund through the geology program, the museum’s income from tour admissions and the grant funding. Along with the original $10 million pool from the grant and matching funds, ETSU also received a second transportation grant for additional site facilities and upgrades at the museum. Collins said the state had not yet released the $1.8 million for the university to spend.