Thursday, January 13, 2005

Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences cutting back

P8121868-ViBiodiversity research relies on museums. Behind the scenes at any natural history museum – behind the mounted dinosaurs and the dioramas – are drawers upon drawers of skins and skeletons. The scientists think of the public parts of the museum as the way we pay for the real museum. Maintaining, caring for and adding to the collection is the job of a curator, and it's a job that gets harder and more important as a collection gets larger and older.

That's why it's scary to learn that the research curator for mammals and the curator for ornithology are both being let go from the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences. The only online source I can find reporting this is Science, which is subscription only.

The text of the story:

A chronic budget shortfall has forced the oldest natural history institution in the United States to lay off 5% of its staff. Outside scientists are especially concerned that the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia is losing three of its 10 curators, including the overseer of a prized, nearly 200-year-old ornithology collection. …

The academy, founded in 1812, runs a museum and research programs and houses 17 million biological specimens. Its $12 million annual budget has faced deficits of $500,000 to $1 million for a decade, …

The three curators losing their jobs are Leo Joseph, assistant curator and chair of ornithology; Richard McCourt, an associate botany curator; and Dominique Didier-Dagit, an associate curator of ichthyology. …

The academy’s ornithology collection, which now has no curator, is a paramount concern. The holdings include many of the earliest specimens collected by North American ornithologists as well as the Australia collection of British ornithologist John Gould. Baker says the academy “has made an absolute commitment to preserve” this resource, which will still have a manager to make it available to scientists. But experts worry that the absence of a curator to add specimens and conduct his or her own research could undermine it. “A collection should be part of a living and breathing community,” says A. Townsend Peterson, ornithology curator of the Natural History Museum at the University of Kansas, Lawrence.

Baker is mum on future staffing plans, saying only that “we can grow our number of curators” if the budget outlook improves. But he predicts that a focus on certain areas, such as watershed management and molecular systematics, will create “a stronger institution.”

The mammalogy department, which also houses historic collections, has been without a research curator for some time.

This is one of the great collections. It has an important history, and you know something is good when Dr. Myers likes it. He rightly says “the Academy is a world class institution that has been around for almost 200 years, is stocked with some classic specimens, and maintains a research staff that does real science.”

Unfortunately, the part of the equation being hurt here is the research staff, who are:

  • not visible to the public

  • key to identifying new species and protecting rare species

  • preserving the remains of extinct species for future generations to study

  • vital to understanding the evolutionary relationships between species

  • teaching the public about evolution

We need this. Molecular systematics are important, as is watershed management. But when West Nile started spreading, organismal biologists at museums were the ones predicting what would happen the next year. Town Peterson (quoted above, not the scientist fired) used computer models, his knowledge of migration patterns and a systematist's understanding of what birds were likely to be infected all allowed accurate predictions of the disease's spread, which improved monitoring and response planning. Lives and livestock were saved because there was a research curator with access to the data in a well curated collection.

When there was concern about mercury in diets harming predatory mammals, people came to KU and took samples from specimens to test when pollution started showing up in different areas. A specimen that is 200 years old is around now because someone spent time, money and effort to hold entropy at bay. So what if the curator of mammals didn't get enough extracurricular funding? A few years of neglect can ruin a collection.

The story notes that many collections are under financial pressure. Some of the collections at Nebraska are being closed down, as are some of the Michigan State collections. I don't have the links at hand, so the details may be off.

When a little collection shuts down, it usually languishes for a decade. Someone looks at it now and then, but doesn't know how to prevent insect damage. Specimens degrade. Routine maintenance is neglected, so the tags identifying specimens are lost, making the specimen worthless. Finally, space needs or water damage or a fire convinces an administrator to get rid of the collection, and a larger museum, like KU or the Academy, is asked to take over the material. What happens when the big collection goes down? I hate to think.

I Can Hear You” by They Might Be Giants from the album Factory Showroom (1996, 1:57).