Famed scientist Richard Leakey warned that the worldwide credit crisis will be "just devastating" to scientific research in coming years, as endowment interest income drops and companies cut donations.
Leakey, who once served on a government economic team in his native Kenya, said much of the support for science comes from wealthy philanthropists, foundations and companies. All those groups likely will be affected by lowered interest rates and the squeeze of credit not being available to fund their operations, he said.
"With the investment portfolios being hit as hard as they've been hit in the last few weeks, particularly the last few days, I would have thought there would be a very dramatic reduction in available funds for research in all sorts of countries," Leakey told reporters Wednesday. "Unless they bring it under control, I think it's going to spread. I think it's extremely worrying for science."
Leakey became famous after making a number of fossil discoveries in East Africa. His team unearthed the bones of the most complete skeleton of a prehistoric human ever found in the desolate, far northern reaches of Kenya in 1984.
The effect of the credit crisis on science likely will begin to be felt as organizations begin planning their budgets for 2009, Leakey said. The paleontologist said donations will be "hugely hit," affecting what research and exploration can be done next year and into the future.
"This has spread right across the world and there's quite a lot of science to be supported," Leakey said. "I think it is just devastating.
"It's more worryful for people who are losing their homes, it's more worryful for people who are losing investments for their children's futures, but we're also very worried as scientists," he said.
Leakey was in Little Rock to speak at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
In a new book, Leakey offers a stark warning for the planet, saying global warming could wipe out endangered species living in national parks and refuges throughout the world. He said the extinction of a few species could destroy food chains supporting many other animals — including humans.
"I think the end of the Ice Age was a quite a massive change and I think this will be ... almost as big of a change in the way we live," Leakey said.