Another UW Skeleton

A whistle-blower casts a lurid light on the Burke Museums fossil collections.

When it comes to scientists in trouble at the University of Washington, the medical school on south campus has been copping the headlines recently, with professors pleading guilty to improper billing practices and signing six-figure settlement agreements to close their cases. Now charges have begun to fly on the north campus, involving the collection, labeling, and scientific integrity of the fossil collections of the UWs Burke Museum. But unlike the widely reported med school cases, UW officials have so far managed to avoid embarrassment about the Burkes bones, even though charges brought by a Burke employee call into question the scientific credibility of the collection.

The story began in earnest last summer, when Bruce Crowley, a preparator at the museum, got an invitation to go bone collecting with the curator of the Burkes vertebrate fossil collection, geology professor John Rensberger. Most people who devote their lives to the discovery and care of fossils would be delighted to be asked to spend three weeks digging for dinosaurs, but Crowleys pleasure was tinged with alarm. In all his years working at the Burke, Rensberger had never before asked him to join a dig, and Crowley had heard some disturbing rumors about Rensbergers conduct in the field from others who had.

But it was too good a chance to miss, so on July 2, 2002, Crowley and a former student of the 70-year-old UW geology prof piled into a clapped-out, graffiti-scrawled, bald-tired university-owned van and headed east on I-90 toward a destination that Rensberger refused to disclose.

Crowley feared he knew only too well what the destination would turn out to be. The so-called Hell Creek Formation, exposed on the southwest side of the Fort Peck Reservoir in eastern Montana, has provided some of the worlds finest specimens of these extinct giant reptiles, including Sue, one of the most complete skeletons of Tyrannosaurus rex ever found.

Dinosaur bones are not just Big Science; they are also Big Money, so its not surprising that the lands where remains are found are closely supervised. Anyone who wants even to walk across, let alone collect specimens from the patchwork of federal, state, and private land that comprises the Hell Creek Formation has to have a permit to do so. Crowley suspected that his boss didnt have one.

He had reason to. More than a year before, he and a friend had visited the area and run into Dr. Jack Horner, paleontologist at Montanas Museum of the Rockies and one of the worlds greatest experts in T. rex. Horner flatly told Crowley that he suspected Rensberger of unpermitted, illegal collecting in the area. He heard the same thing from ranchers in the area and from one of the managers of the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge, who voiced suspicion that someone from the Burke Museum . . . may have been collecting at Hell Creek in years past, and expressed a desire to catch us at it.

Nobody got caught last July. After four wild days of van breakdowns, camping out in a lightning storm, harvesting roadkill, mysterious midnight maneuvering, and tailgate meals of cold canned tamales, Crowley dug in his heels and insisted on seeing Rensbergers permit to collect before going one mile father. Instead the professor dropped him off at the Billings, Mont., Greyhound station and drove away alone. (The student had already departed after an argument over her refusal to sleep outside during the previous nights storm.)

Soon after returning to Seattle, Crowley and the student filed statements with the universitys Office of Scholarly Integrity, which is charged under federal law with investigating and resolving allegations of scientific and scholarly misconduct by faculty, students, and staff.

The authorities concentrated attention at first on the poorly maintained condition of the university vehicle, but by the end of July, Rensbergers colleagues at the Burke were growing increasingly concerned about the numerous allegations of secretiveness, high-handedness, and bizarre behavior in Crowleys eight-page single-spaced narrative of the aborted journey. (This articles account of the trip is drawn from that narrative; Crowley says he was instructed by his employers not to respond to requests for clarification; Rensberger did not respond to several requests for an interview.)

A week after Rensberger returned to Seattle with a vanload of specimens, Burke Museum director George MacDonald and associate director Denis Martynowych met with him and laid down a series of demands in a letter obtained by Seattle Weekly: that the rickety van be turned in and sold and the abandoned student recompensed for her bus ticket home. Rensberger was told to make no more field trips without written approval of their purpose, destination, itinerary, logistics, personnel, and budget. Finally, Rensbergers superiors issued an ultimatum: All collect material [from the July field trip] will be accessioned within 8 weeks. . . . Please provide the registrar with collecting permits at that time [Sept. 24].

Weeks passed. On Oct. 8, MacDonald e-mailed Rensberger to remind him that documentation of his summers collecting was overdue. Another month passed. Finally, on Nov. 6, Rensberger handed in a single accession form listing more than 300 fossils from various geological periods collected in Hells Canyon [sic] region with his signature at the bottom, according to an e-mail from Martynowych to MacDonald. No detail, no permits, no specific locations.

Field investigators like Rensberger are often secretive about revealing exactly where they find their specimens, for fear that amateurs, for-profit excavators, or professional rivals may raid the site and carry off priceless material. Nevertheless, a fossil collected without precise notation of the spot where it was found is virtually useless except as a collectors curiosity; its scientific value lies in its relationship to particular geological strata and other fossils in its vicinity.

Is it possible that a scientist with 40 years experience in the field could be so careless of the material he collects? At least one of Rensbergers Burke colleagues thinks not. When asked in a July e-mail by Martynowych to suggest questions to be put to him to elicit a rationale for his odd conduct, curator of invertebrate fossils Elizabeth Nesbitts e-mail response specifically counseled against asking any questions about the way Rensberger keeps track of the specimens he collects. When John is asked if his locality data is in code, he will assure you . . . that it is not. . . . I believe we should deal with . . . his curatorial obfuscation laterhe has the ability to recode everything if he feels threatened in that direction.

The implication of Nesbitts carefully chosen words is devastating. The scientific value of a collection is heavily dependent on how much confidence can be placed in the accuracy of its documentation. If Rensberger has in fact been coding location and other information about his finds over the last 30 years, the Burke isnt just holding the bag for 300-odd bits of bone collected last summer; uncertainty about the accuracy of information in its register renders the entire collection of over 42,000 vertebrate fossils suspect. As curator, Rensberger oversees the entire vertebrate collection and all information entered into the database that documents it.

In early January, the paper trail obtained from the UW by Seattle Weekly under state public-record and open-meetings laws abruptly breaks off, as the university instituted a formal investigation into the affair.

Three months later, in late March, investigators of the Office of Scholarly Integrity submitted their report on the Rensberger affair to the UWs chief enforcement officer, Vice-Provost Steven G. Olswang. Olswang, unfortunately, says that the case is still under consideration, so the information embargo continues. But to judge by events outside the Us administration building on Red Square, Prof. Rensberger doesnt have much cause for concern about the final disposition of Crowleys complaint. At the Burkes annual public Dinosaur Day on March 1, Rensberger was actively recruiting volunteers for his summer 2003 field trip. And his name also appears in the Us instructional calendar for fall 2003, teaching the popular undergraduate course ESS 100Dinosaurs: Biology, behavior, ecology, evolution, and extinction of dinosaurs, and a history of their exploration.

rdowney@seattleweekly.com

 
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