Sunday, April 5, 2015

Why Big Museums Aren't Going to Save Us

On April 3rd, the Chicago Tribune breathlessly reported the creation of a new group whose aim is improved management of natural history collections. In the words of the group's convener, Field Museum president Richard Lariviere, these six North American and six European museums are working to create"a unified global collection," with "a digital backbone, a digital record, and shared responsibility for filling gaps."

According to the Tribune, Lariviere - along with Kirk Johnson of the National Museum of Natural History - invited his peers to meet in Chicago after learning there was no such gathering of the institutions with major biological collections. Apparently the group even has a name,"Natural History Museum Leaders Group, chosen, [Lariviere] said, because that's what his assistant had been calling the group in setting up the first meeting."

After giving you a moment or two to mull over quite how perfect that last quote is, and to consider whether this institution has anything to teach the world about how to create better managed collections, let's take a step back and ask the wider question that this article (indirectly) raises - what are big museums good for?

The twelve that make up the Natural History Museum Leaders Group (I guess we'll have to call it the NHMLG for now) are, unarguably, some of the largest of their type in the world. Big museums like this do a lot of good. In addition to the wealth of their collections, they are also generously endowed, can attract high quality staff, and because of their high visitor numbers they offer matchless opportunities for public education and outreach. So when big museums talk, people listen.

And this, of course, is also the problem with big museums. They are attention and resource hogs. There are many great museums in the United Kingdom, but you'd be hard-pressed to realize this in the face of the remorseless flood of slick publicity that emerges from South Kensington. Not for nothing did people bridle when the British Museum (Natural History) changed its name to The Natural History Museum. A large, high profile institution of this sort can act like a financial black hole within its national museum community, sucking in funding from donors, foundations, and government agencies, and leaving smaller institutions fighting over the scraps.

The U.S., by and large, has avoided this problem. Yes, there are massive institutions like the Smithsonian, AMNH, and Field Museum. But there are also a whole raft of small, medium, and large collections below this. Their absence from the membership of the NHMLG may be justified on the basis of size, but it's still a glaring omission.

It's also unfortunate because - again, by and large - big stand-alone institutions tend not to be great innovators.  I mean this as no disrespect to my many talented friends and colleagues in these museums, but there are good reasons why this is the case. When I think about who is making the running in, for example, collections digitization, it's places like Florida, Kansas, Berkeley, Colorado, the Illinois Natural History Survey, Yale, and Tulane, to name just a few. They tend to be medium-sized museums, often associated with universities, and featuring a mix of tenured academics and professional staff.

These museums are rooted in a culture where risk-taking and innovation is valued; where there is easy on-site access to expertise in other disciplines (computing, imaging, material science, etc); where collections are not so large that the task of operations and maintenance eats 100% of staff time; and where the collection staff is not so big that they can afford to develop all-consuming disciplinary specializations.

We also tend to collaborate a lot. Of the last five grant proposals I submitted, four were multi-institutional projects. Participation in these projects, in the national digitization activities of iDigBio, and in professional societies like SPNHC and NSCA, weaves together collaborative networks that are, I would argue, a lot more effective and sustainable than a top-down initiative like NHMLG.

And there are many organizations in the natural history collections community, tackling biocollections digitization (iDigBio, B-CON/NIBA), improving collections care (NatSCA, SPNHC), fostering international cooperation (SCICOLL, ICOM-Nathist), setting standards for data and data delivery (TDWG, GBIF), addressing the needs of small collections (SCNET), and lobbying for increased collection funding (NSCA); most of these are linked by shared membership and both formal and informal collaborations. There are organizations for museum directors (ASMD), registrars (ARCS), and conservators (AIC) and there are informal communities devoted to natural history collections connected by social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook. It's true that there is no organization specifically for heads of very large natural history museums, but that might be because the museum community does't really need one.

If big museums choose to participate in existing efforts, they can have a truly empowering effect. If they develop their own, competing programs then they run the risk of distracting attention and diverting resources away from established efforts. Rather than reinventing the wheel, big museums should be encouraging their staff to participate in these programs (as many already are) and taking onboard the lessons learned.

Initially I thought I was going to finish there, but on reflection there is one last thing that needs saying. In this day and age, creating an organization of major museums whose membership is limited to institutions from North America and Europe sends the worst possible message. Where are the Chinese? Where are the Brazilians? Are there no major museums in Africa whose leaders are worth listening too? It's not much of a "unified global collection" and for all of its talk of digital backbones and digital records, NHMLG looks more nineteenth than twenty first century.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

More Hot Air

In the New York Times this morning, John Schwartz reports that a group of prominent scientists are calling for museums of science and natural history to “cut all ties” with fossil fuel companies and philanthropists like the Koch brothers. He also quotes my opinion as to why this might be a bad thing, and very nicely refers to me as a "prominent" blogger. Since I've been a little quiet of late (grant proposals, editing a book, blah, blah, blah - all the usual excuses) I figured this might be a good time to provide a little background as to why I find myself in the unlikely position of defending David Koch.

Let's get the obvious stuff out of the way first. There's an overwhelming weight of evidence that supports the theory that global warming is real and that human activities are contributing significantly to this. This position is supported by the vast majority of the scientific community, and I agree with it too.

Obviously there are many people in politics and industry that don't agree with this. Because the weight of evidence is so conclusive, one of the few routes they have available to them is to challenge the integrity of the scientific process. This is what some people in Congress are trying to do at the moment, by critiquing the process of peer review.

Climate change deniers (for want of a better term) like to argue that the scientific community is not neutral - that it is an advocate for the theory of anthropogenic climate change and that scientists have slanted the peer review process to ensure that anyone who supports a different model for climate cannot get funded or published.

For anyone that knows scientists, or works in science, the idea that they could actually create and maintain a conspiracy of this sort is laughable - it's hard to find a more fractious, less-organized group of people. Nonetheless, the idea of a conspiracy has a lot of traction in the mind of the public.

Museums have many different roles in science - as research institutions in their own right; as sources of data for other people's research; and as vehicles for bringing science to the public. Museums play an important role in explaining the science of climate change and the implications of what we're discovering for people's life and well-being.

 All of the survey data that we have seems to show that the public really values museums as authoritative and accurate sources of information (see here for an example). They trust us in a way that they don't trust "scientists," even though many of us are scientists and our collections are one of the many resources used to model the effects of climate change.

If we shift our position from education to outright advocacy, then we risk damaging that trust. There is a world of difference between educating people about the effects of climate change versus telling them not to buy products from company X because it's causing climate change. Once we start doing that, we lay ourselves open to the charge that we are no better than the climate change deniers - that we are just pushing our own agenda.

 The mission statement of the Yale Peabody Museum is:

 "to serve Yale University by advancing our understanding of earth’s history through geological, biological, and anthropological research, and by communicating the results of this research to the widest possible audience through publication, exhibition, and educational programs."

And, just for kicks n' grins, the mission statement of the AMNH is: 

"To discover, interpret, and disseminate—through scientific research and education—knowledge about human cultures, the natural world, and the universe."

These are pretty typical mission statements for a natural history museum and you'll note that neither says anything about fighting to defend the natural world or campaigning against the fossil fuel industry. There are other organizations that do have that in their missions, but by and large museums do not.

Museums need money to perform their mission of research and education, and for that they need donors and investments. Board members are responsible for helping museums realize that mission, through advice on finance and investments, by soliciting support from donors, and by providing support themselves. If you, as a board member, were to do something that interfered with the museum's pursuit of that mission - such as actively lobbying for reductions in funding for science education, or for research in museums - then that would be a problem that would likely result in your being asked to leave the Board. So if anything, being a board member might actually tie your hands.

Ah, but what about "covert" influence, as Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University and signer of the letter calls it? Well, that can cut both ways. Consider a point made later in the NYT article. Referencing a 2010 New Yorker piece, it says:

"an underlying message of exhibits in the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is that humans 'evolved in response to a changing world.' The article said that such language suggests that climate change has been a feature of the planet since prehistoric times, which plays down human contributions to climate change."

Outrageous. Except that climate change has been a feature of the planet for the last 4 billion- plus years, life on Earth has evolved (and continues to evolve) in response to the changing climate, and we use those historical data to model the impacts of the current, anthropogenic changes. Tricky, right? So perhaps the signatories of the letter think museums should be modifying their message to de-emphasize past climate change? You see where that might lead...

Faced with similar pressure from campaigners to disinvest from the fossil fuel industry, the President of Harvard, Drew Faust, provided a very clear statement of why Harvard was disinclined to do so. In essence, it boiled down to one main point:

"We should.... be very wary of steps intended to instrumentalize our endowment in ways that would appear to position the University as a political actor rather than an academic institution.  Conceiving of the endowment not as an economic resource, but as a tool to inject the University into the political process or as a lever to exert economic pressure for social purposes, can entail serious risks to the independence of the academic enterprise.  The endowment is a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change."

From her lips to my blog. Museums are not responsible for campaigning to protect the natural world; they are responsible for generating and supporting the science that underpins those efforts and for educating the public about both the science and what it means for them, their communities, and the planet. When they shift into the role of advocacy - disinvesting from this industry, turning down that donation, or removing those board members - they risk damaging their ability to fulfill that mission and enabling others to argue that the information they provide is partisan and not to be trusted.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Treasure

At its eastern extremity, the state of Tennessee comes to an end in a point, sandwiched between Virginia and North Carolina, and right in the tip of that point are the towns of Johnson City, Bristol, and Kingsport. Around 200,000 people live in this area, but flying into the Tri-Cities Regional Airport they're not much in evidence. Instead, the overwhelming impression from the window of the plane was one of bucolic pastoralism - rolling hills and fields, the occasional barn, cows, and scattered wooded Appalachian peaks and ridges. I don't know whether Tolkien ever visited eastern Tennessee, but it looks as close to the Shire as anywhere I've ever been.

As it turns out, one of those rolling hills was hiding something very special, which was why I was in the Tri-Cities region. The hill in question - which is, in truth, more of a bump than a hill - lies just outside the town of Gray. It used to be crested by Fulkerson Road, a rural byway that connects with TN 75, and was a notorious accident blackspot; traffic coming over the brow of the hill had little or no time to slow down if the lights at the intersection with 75 had turned red, leading to collisions. So in the spring of 2000 the Tennessee Department of Transport decided to remove the hill, or rather make a cutting through it.

Initially the road crew were cutting their way through the red soil that is typical of the region, the eroded remains of limestone. But they hadn't gone far before they encountered something that was a lot less familiar - a dense, black clay. Because they weren't expecting this, the crew stopped digging and called in a geologist. Which is where things started to get interesting, because closer inspection revealed that the clay contained bones.

Before we get to what they found, we need to take a couple of steps back. If you've been reading this blog for a while (and yes, there are one of two of you that have) you'll know that one of the most frustrating things about being a paleontologist is the limitations of the fossil record. It's one of the most powerful pieces of evidence for evolution, but as a record of life on Earth it's annoyingly incomplete. The chances of any particular animal of plant being fossilized are infinitesimally small, the chances of it being discovered are even smaller. Multiply those two probabilities together and you have… well, a much, much smaller number.

Even when you do find a fossil, the amount that you can learn about what it was, and where it lived, is often very limited. Not all of the animals in a habitat, or even all of the parts of one animal, get preserved. It's a tribute to the diligence of paleontological researchers that we know as much as we do, but even that isn't very much. Every now and then, however, we discover fossil sites that deviate from this norm, because they preserve and unusually rich diversity of animals and plants, or because they preserve parts of the organisms that don't usually fossilize.

Paleontologists call these sites Lagerst├Ątte," which means "storage places" in German, and they are very, very rare. Worldwide, there are probably less than sixty of these sites known. And it just so happened that, with the pure, dumb luck that accompanies many great scientific discoveries, the Tennessee DOT had driven their bulldozers right into one.

Between 5 and 7 million years ago, around the same time as our earliest ancestors were parting company (in evolutionary terms) from the ancestors of chimps, a cave system formed in the limestone just outside what is now Gray, Tennessee. The roof of that cave system collapsed, creating a sinkhole that filled with water. Many types of animal, both big and small, lived around and in the sinkhole, and when they died, their bodies sometimes ended up in the water, where they sank to the bottom and joined the remains of the various types of plant that grew there too.

Over many thousands of years all of that organic material got compressed down to form a dense black clay, that eventually filled the sinkhole like a plug. As it turns out, this plug was more resistant to the forces of erosion than the limestone that surrounded it. When the limestone weathered away, the clay was left. Over millions of years, the hole became a hill. And the descendants of those ancient African apes evolved into humans, invented the pick-up truck, and took to driving too fast over the crest of that hill.

Of course, back in 2000, no-one realized this yet - all they had was a layer of strange black clay and some bones. The State Archaeologist was called in, along with researchers from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Their preliminary investigations revealed that the bones were fossils and that the site was a rich one. The problem was that it was still in the way of the road.

At this point, however, the story gets a hero, in the form of the then Governor of Tennessee, Don Sundquist. Some politicians might have struggled to grasp the importance of the discovery. Sundquist did not. He decreed that the site was to be preserved for research and education. TN 75 was moved, Fulkerson Road was closed, houses were relocated and, most remarkably, an $8 million Federal Highways Administration grant was made to the nearby East Tennessee State University to develop a museum at the site. 

Fast-forward 14 years and here I am, standing on top of what was once the bottom of that Miocene sinkhole; reverse topography is a mind-bender. At first sight, it doesn't seem like a hive of scientific activity. The remains of the cutting started by the DTOT crew are still there, forming a shallow trough through the top of the hill. Grass has grown back, and the only signs of excavation are some small pits, covered by temporary shelters; spoil heaps, and a large stack of yellow plastic bags filled with dirt.

But turn around, and the fruits of that $8 million grant come into site - two modern buildings that cradle the hillside, connected to the dig site by a bridge that allows fossils to be wheeled directly into the Museum prep lab. Those few small pits, a tiny fraction of the 5 acre site, have already yielded 18,000 fossils. Pause and consider that number for a moment. 18,000 fossils. Included in that total is what is now the world's largest collection of fossil tapirs; remains of nearly 80 individuals of the extinct species Tapirus polkensis, including many complete skeletons. It also includes 4 rhino skeletons, a camel, an early relative of elephants, a horse, peccaries, a ground sloth, rodents, rabbits, shrews, turtles, alligators, snakes, lizards, fish, birds, salamanders, frogs, plants, and even insects.

And then, there are the pandas. Yeah, that's right. Pandas. Not the giant, black and white bear, but the smaller, red panda, or rather an extinct relative of that animal. The red panda is not a bear and is only distantly related to them - it sits within a large group of carnivores, including raccoons, weasels, otters, and skunks. Today, you'd have to go to the temperate forests of the Himalayas, in China, India, or Nepal to see one. But 5 million years ago, they were quite at home in the ancient Appalachians, and their fossilized bones, including an almost complete skeleton, are there in the pit at the Gray Fossil Site to prove it.

The pandas are a strong indicator that there was something odd about the Appalachians at the end of the Miocene. For most of the continent, this was a time of global cooling, increasing aridity, and the relentless expansion of grasslands. But the fossils at the Gray site are evidence of a different kind of Miocene habitat - a remnant of the forested environments that once covered North America.

On every side, the Gray fauna is full of surprises. The Miocene fossil record of America is dominated by horses, but at Gray they've found only one horse and unlike today's horses it's a browser, not a grazer. The rhinos are from the extinct genus Teleoceras, a relatively common and familiar animal (at least to paleontologists). But rather than the barrel shaped, short-legged rhino seen in locations from Nebraska to Florida, the species at Gray is slimmer and longer legged.

It would be easy to get distracted by the megafauna at the Gray Fossil Site, but what makes it so unique, and so rich, is the care being taken in retrieving the smaller fossils. Every shovelful of dirt that comes out of the out gets run through a series of sieves of ever decreasing mesh size, before being transported into the adjacent lab where a small army of volunteers (at times more than 50 strong) picks through the resulting fragments for isolated bones and teeth. It's painstaking work, and it means that exploration of the site is proceeding slowly. But the picture of late Miocene Tennessee that is emerging is astonishingly rich. And with every single object collected being mapped digitally in three dimensions, it's possible to focus in on the most promising areas for new discoveries.

So by now I hope that I've convinced you that the the Gray Fossil Site is a paleontological treasure, but what makes it really unique, in my opinion, is having research, collections, and exhibit facilities immediately next to the site. As I mentioned above, material leaving the excavation goes directly from the pit to the prep lab and from there to the collections and, for some of the material, into the exhibits. The research program itself is on exhibit, with a viewing platform overlooking the pit and windows from the galleries into the prep lab and the collection storage space. I'd seen all of these things at other institutions, but I'd never seen anywhere where they were integrated so well.

Which brings us to the back to something I talked about in an earlier post. One of the big challenges facing museums is how we center our programs more effectively on the collections that form the core of our museums. In many cases we're working in institutions that have accumulated a mass of programmatic baggage over a long history. Focusing can be difficult. But in the case of the East Tennessee State University Natural History Museum, the focal point is clear and present. You can see how all the pieces come together - collections, research, exhibition - to make the magic.

The ETSU Natural History Museum is still at a relatively early stage in its development, building programs off the incredible resource that was discovered 14 years ago. The trick will be one of balance - how can they build public programs that truly do justice to the extraordinary resources at their disposal; how they will develop the strongest possible public programming without detracting from the care of their growing collections; and how they will find the time with the growth of both collections and public programs to develop a research program that feeds both. How they meet this challenge of balance will be fascinating to watch.

One thing that they will not be short of is work The pit at the Gray Fossil Site is 100 feet deep in places and with the current rate of excavation it will take hundreds of years - at least - to get to the bottom. Who knows what's down there?

I actually wrote this post several months ago and it's been stuck in limbo since then. Fortunately I don't think it's aged much, but just in case you were wondering why I'm not complaining about leadership summits and valuing collections… those are coming. Once I finish writing a bunch of grant proposals. Sigh.


Monday, October 27, 2014

The Five Ages of Collection Management

When I rebooted this blog back in July I promised that now I was no longer SPNHC president, I would be able to tell it like it is. I’ve spent quite a few years thinking about the profession of collections care, but I’ve always had to temper what I really felt against my desire to attract new, talented people into museums. But now I feel the need to balance that with a healthy dose of reality, and so I present for your attention The Five Ages of Collection Management.

The twenties. Freshly minted from your undergraduate degree or from grad school, you secure a job working with museum collections. Your knowledge is pitifully deficient, but you are confident and energetic and eager to learn. You are genuinely baffled by the negativity of your more experienced colleagues, because this is the best job in the world!

The thirties. This is when you hit your stride, the combination of energy and a few years’ experience making for a killer one-two punch that will allow you to remorselessly drive through almost any obstacle placed in your way. You will reorganize, re-curate, and upgrade collections and revel in the belief that you are genuinely making a difference. You are a collections warrior. Nothing can stop you.

The forties. By now you’re starting to look for new challenges and potentially new positions. Strangely, most of these opportunities, if they exist at all, seem to involve lateral moves to similar jobs in different institutions. Your contemporaries in other professions have passed you by, and you start to get a nagging sensation that you may be in this job for a long time.

The fifties. Oh dear. You may have moved institutions one or more times, and maybe got an ad hominem promotion, but you’re still doing more-or-less the same job you did in your thirties. You now work for a curator who’s younger than you are, who’s looking to “shake things up a bit.” She’s eager to see you “grow” in your job. After more than twenty years, you’re wondering what’s left to grow.

The sixties. With retirement beckoning, you’re still there. That world-conquering enthusiasm has atrophied; you still love the collections, but now you’re only interested in being left alone to research the history of some of your more obscure collectors. Your supervisors are comparing you unfavorably to the younger generation of collection managers and wondering whether you could be persuaded to take early retirement to make room for someone younger. Where did it all go wrong?

Well first up, it’s possible that it may not have gone wrong at all. There are some people out there who enjoy their job so much that the thought of doing the same thing for forty years holds no qualms at all. If you’re fortunate enough to be one of those people, good luck to you and you probably don’t need to read the rest of this post.

For everyone else, there are some solid reasons why collection management isn’t much of a “career” in the sense that this word is usually understood. There are a very small number of jobs worldwide, and those jobs are fairly specialized. Perversely, this means that they’re not particularly valued, because there’s no job market – it’s not like your employer has to be aggressive with salary and other benefits, either to recruit you or to stop you moving on.

Once you’ve got a job, you’re likely to find yourself in a fairly “flat” (i.e. non hierarchical) management structure. Most collection managers (at least in the American system) report to a curator and if they’re lucky they’ll have a collections assistant working for them; many don’t. For a collections assistant, there is at least the possibility of promotion to collections manager, but if curators are tenured, academic positions in your institution then that’s probably as far as promotion in-house will go.

Some institutions recognize this and have mechanisms to reward staff in post, by giving them additional salary and responsibilities. Unfortunately, the reality of a flat management system is that someone always has to do the basic work, and if there’s no one below you, that person is you. So your career development is less like climbing a ladder, and more like doing a reverse bungee jump; however high you climb, you’re still going to have to pack those loans.

At the same time, paradoxically, our jobs are both highly sought-after and technically challenging. They tend to attract smart, well-qualified people. So the potential for frustration is high. There is also – as Beth Merritt recently pointed out in an excellent CFM blog post – the problem of entitlement; smart, talented people working for poor wages in a structure that has no potential for promotion often end up thinking that merely by turning up every day they are doing their museum a favor, because they could be earning more elsewhere. This is a particularly toxic situation and lies at the root of many of the personnel problems that affect museums.

So what can be done about this? Some responsibility, inevitably, lies with employers, who need to think more about how to motivate staff in the long term. This process needs to start before you even make a hire. Job descriptions for collection management positions commonly use a “kitchen sink” approach, defining every possible activity that might be associated with managing the collection and adding a catchall “and other duties as assigned” in case they’ve forgotten something. This essentially means that no matter how your job or skill set develops over time, it’s impossible to argue for a promotion.

It’s a common approach, but – to be blunt – it’s also cheap and irresponsible; cheap because it’s a underhand way of capping salaries, and irresponsible because it ducks the employer’s obligation to invest in developing their human resources. A more honest approach would be to accept that people develop their skill set over time and to create job descriptions and a salary structure that reflect this. There are not so many collection managers in your institution that this will break the bank, assuming that you actually build potential for salary growth into your budgeting.

Another thing that employers can do to motivate staff in the long term is to diversify their workplace experience. Mix things up – create multi-disciplinary groups to tackle specific problems, or consider rotating staff between different collections and operational units to diversify their expertise. It’s also important to challenge staff; assigning jobs to people that take them outside their comfort zone.

Related to this, one of the most effective tools for motivating staff is delegation. Effective delegation is not a way of dumping your low-grade or boring tasks down the chain to more junior staff. As a manager, your criterion for delegation should be tasks that you would actually enjoy doing yourself if you had the time. Give challenging jobs to your staff and trust them to get on with them.

However, it’s not simply the responsibility of employers. As a current or potential collection manager, you need to take responsibility for yourself. And the first step in this process is a reality check.

The fact is that if you take a job in collections, you're not going to be paid much and your prospects for promotion will be limited. Furthermore, if you adopt a non-curatorial, non-faculty track - at least in the USA - it is unlikely that you will ever be in a senior managerial role in your institution and so your ability to effect change will be limited. If this is a problem for you, you may want to consider another career path. There are other jobs in the museum sector that are better rewarded and have better prospects.

Having said so, there are many advantages to working in collection management. Setting aside the pleasure of actually working directly with the amazing objects we hold, the job is diverse and if you prove yourself competent the chances are you will be allowed a fair amount of latitude to develop your own interests. But you need to take a level of responsibility for doing this; it is unlikely that your employer will do it for you. And, realistically, you may have to do some of this on your own time.

One important way that you can gain additional training and experience – and this is a shameless plug – is to get involved in professional societies like SPNHC. The training, usually in the form of workshops, is the hook by which you can justify participation to your employer, but it’s involvement in the running of these societies that will give you exposure to activities and projects at a level and scale that you wouldn’t necessarily get in your day-to-day job (enlightened employers recognize this as well).

When I started out working with collections, I swore that I would never end up like the various institutionalized miseries that I encountered at work. I'm in the middle one of the Five Ages at the moment, and I will admit to feeling a little nervous. But I'm working hard at sustaining a diverse range of projects and activities in my job, because I've also come to realize that if I'm still here and miserable in my sixties, it will be far worse if I have only myself to blame.

Picture sources:

Friday, October 24, 2014

Ebola. And Museums. Again.

My friend and colleague Beth Merritt is always saying that museums need to be the heroes. But so little of what we do is truly heroic. But now, I think we have a genuine chance.

In case you hadn't noticed, people are a teensy bit worried about Ebola at the moment. Yes, I know I told you about this months ago. You remember, when I was telling you about how museums ought to stop worrying about being popular and start being relevant.

Well here's an opportunity, handed to you on a plate. Across the western world, there is a slow, but steadily growing wave of panic building over Ebola. The media and conspiracy theorists are happily feeding this with misplaced doubt, weasel words, and outright lies.

People are wondering if they should travel by air; if they should let someone who's been to Africa teach their kids, even if they were thousands of miles away from the current outbreak; if we should institute compulsory quarantine, or stop all flights from West Africa.

In my kid's French class (yes, her French class for f*cks sake) they are discussing whether Ebola might be actually be airborne (it isn't), whether someone is sick from it in Rhode Island (they aren't), and whether this is why they should wash their hands regularly to avoid getting it (obviously flu just isn't scary enough).

There are people out there, trying to hold back the tide (kudos to Carl Zimmer for this article in the Times yesterday). But they need help. The CDC aren't the ones to do it; even if you don't believe the conspiracy theories, the agency is hardly covering itself in glory at the moment.

If only there was some organization, or set of organizations out there, that was skilled at presenting scientific information to a wider audience, that could (for example) rapidly develop some form of temporary exhibit on the science of Ebola that could go out to shopping malls and libraries and other places that people congregate, or host a talk, or send people to do interviews on local radio. The type of organization that opinion polls suggest, time and again, enjoys significant public trust.

So come on, natural history museums! Where are you? What are you doing and why aren't you all over this? You spend years bitching and moaning about how no-one appreciates how important you are, and wracking your collective brains over approaches to advocacy, and then when the opportunity to thrust yourself into the limelight drops into your lap, in the form of a super-scary zoonotic disease that literally everyone in the world is talking about, you look at it and say "Uh Jeeze, I'm not sure that's quite our thing…"

If you can't capitalize on this, then I hereby give up on you, museum community. You really are a waste of space and you plainly don't give a toss about the concerns of the public that pays your bills.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Hot Air

Source
Lately, it seems like I've been posting a lot of John Stewart clips on Facebook. It's been a good few weeks if you want a good laugh at the apparent lunacy of the Republicans and their cronies at Fox News, what with John Holdren's testimony to the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, the Ebola crisis (which apparently is Obama's fault, along with war, famine, and death), and ISIL. Stewart's demolition of Rep. Lamar Smith's assertion, based on the behavior of the ice in his glass of water, that melting glaciers couldn't cause sea level rises, was particularly chucklesome.

Unfortunately, when you stop and reflect on what's going on, it's not quite as amusing. The Republicans are slowly and carefully building a public narrative that questions the integrity of the scientific community and hence the level of trust that you can place on what we say. A recent review of American public attitudes in PNAS suggested that while Americans view scientists as competent, they are not entirely trusted. A particular source of concern seemed to be the dependence of scientists on grant funding, the implication being that they will say or do whatever they have to in order to get their hands on money.

Seen in this light, Rep. Smith's ongoing investigation into the peer review system at NSF takes on a whole other dimension. It could be that, as Smith claims, he is just fulfilling his obligations as an elected public representative in the face of stonewalling from the agency, which is claiming (rightly) the need to maintain the confidentiality of the peer review process. But it's an inevitable truth that if you sling enough mud at something then eventually some of the mud starts to stick.

If you look at the list of grants that Smith wants to review, there are a few patterns that spring out at you. There are the usual set of quirkily-titled social studies proposals (the Republicans have a long-standing abhorrence of NSF funding of this sort of research) and more than half the proposals are for work that takes place overseas (your taxpayer dollars being paid to 'furriners'). This plays into a narrative popular with a certain class of Republican voter, whereby (in their opinion) the Federal government squanders public funds on frivolous projects that do not directly benefit the American people.

But there are also a fair number of grants on the list that relate to climate change. Eight of them, in fact. The interesting thing is that seven of these grants do not deal with gathering evidence of climate change. Instead, they are projects concerned with communicating with and educating people - especially children - about climate change and its impacts. So, for example, we have a film, a musical, a museum exhibit, and a program to develop cooperative educational partnerships, all focused on the issue of climate change.

By now, I hope, you will have begun to see the story that is being shaped by the Republicans. "The scientific community is just another lobby organization. They benefit from a system - peer review - whereby they get to decide how your money gets spent without any oversight from your elected representatives. They choose to spend that money to further their own agenda of promoting the 'theory' that climate change is caused by human activities, corrupting the minds of our young people through educational materials and museum exhibits which, you, the taxpayer, are paying for. They criticize us for taking money from our friends in oil and coal, but they themselves are only interested in getting grant funds to pursue their own interests."

In short, they can argue that the strongest possible reason for accepting the reality of climate change - that the overwhelming volume of scientific evidence and scientific opinion supports it - can be challenged because the system that generates and supports the research is flawed and because rather than being impartial, as the  PNAS study suggests the American public wants us to be, we scientists have gone one step further and have become advocates for a particular point of view.

It's a pretty effective strategy, because it aims for the root of the scientific process - peer review - and says that, much like evidence in a court of law, the case for climate change is fruit from a poisoned tree. It can't be trusted. At best, it makes us look like we are on a level playing field with lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry.

If you work in a museum in the U.S., then this should bother you a great deal. Notice that one of the grants targeted for review is NSF DRL-0915778, "Hotspot California: Bringing Dioramas to Life Through Community Voices," a project at the Oakland Museum of California to develop an exhibit that (in the words of its abstract) will showcase five real places in California that exemplify high biological diversity and complex environmental issues. Innovative approaches to interpretation will emphasize personal connections to these places and infuse static dioramas with visualization technologies that illustrate environmental change over time. I haven't seen it, but my friend Pat Holroyd (who has) says that the exhibits "are really cool and have been transformative for that institution."

So this is personal for us. This is our job, it's what we do and, as I argued in an earlier post, it's what we need to be doing more of if we are to advocate successfully for the ongoing relevance of museums and their collections to society. At the moment, we trade on public trust - that oft-quoted, much-valued feature of museums that makes us a valued resource for information. But if NSF's recent experience is anything to go by, that trust is likely to be the first thing that comes under attack. And we will come under attack, because museums are an effective mechanism for getting information about scientific research to people who might not otherwise be exposed to it.

We currently say - and we should continue to say - that what we tell people is based on conclusions drawn from the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence; in many cases that evidence actually comes from the collections that we curate and the work of our own scientific staff. But once the integrity of our staff is called into question, you can easily imagine the voice of outraged conservatism - "I'm not having my kids go to some museum where activist staff fill their heads with propaganda about climate change."

For many museums this is not a new phenomenon - those of you with long memories may recall the Enola Gay controversy at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum nearly twenty years ago. But in natural history, we're used to being seen as the cuddly place where kids go to learn about dinosaurs and pandas.    True, museums have tackled - and continue to tackle - the issue of climate change. But as the weight of evidence and opinion turns towards the conclusion that the impact of our species on the planet's climate represents a major challenge for future generations, we are going to come under increasing pressure to moderate our message from those with a strong political and economic stake in promoting the opposing viewpoint.

This is going to be a time for fearless leadership from the top of our institutions down, starting at Board level. So what do we make of the recent brouhaha regarding the presence of well-known "climate skeptic" David Koch on the Board of the American Museum of Natural History? There are those that say that Koch, as "one of the biggest funders of groups that deny or misrepresent climate science and biggest contributors to climate pollution" has no place in the leadership of an institution like AMNH. But as I look at the challenges facing us, I wonder whether it isn't exactly the opposite.

If museums like AMNH can't accommodate someone with Koch's views on their boards without compromising their message, aren't we basically proving what the Lamar Smith's of this world would have people believe - that we have abandoned any semblance of impartiality in favor of  outright advocacy? My - perhaps naive - belief is that if AMNH, or any other museum for that matter, has a strong, honest, principled stance on the content of its programs, it should be able to resist the attempts of any board member, however wealthy or powerful, to push those programs in directions that contradict the weight of evidence. It's better to have them at the table than to exclude them and prove Smith and his congressional allies right.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Price of Knowledge

Source
In the last post, I touched one issue of collection economics... namely, where does collection value reside and how do you measure it? The other question that I've been ruminating on is how far you can go in trading on that value to offset the cost of caring for the collection. Or, to put it another way, when is it OK to charge?

This question came up in a discussion on the NatSCA listerver regarding the rights and wrongs of charging the general public for enquiries, which then got picked up in a comment piece by Jan Freedman, and finally an online poll by Museum's Journal that basically showed an overwhelming majority of respondents thought it was "unethical" to charge for enquiries.

So what do we make of all this? Well first, we can dump the whole "unethical" angle. This seems to have come about because a number of people, especially in the listserver discussion, believed that you shouldn't charge the public for something that they are already paying for through their taxes. Setting aside the fact that not all museums are publicly-funded, there is no reason why a public service can't charge people, especially if the funding available from taxpayers doesn't meet the full cost of providing the service. Do I get to ride the bus for free, because it's public transport and I'm a member of the public?

Once we've got rid of the emotive language of ethics, we can get into more substantive arguments - namely, is it a good idea to charge? This is the thrust of Freedman's opinion piece, and he makes some good points. We want to encourage people to appreciate museums and their collections as common property; to educate and too inspire. Answering enquiries is a great way to engage with the public and an alternate route to further the institution's educational agenda. And finally... and I think this is perhaps the most persuasive argument of all... it will probably end up costing you more to collect and process payments than it would to just answer the question.

Unless, of course, it's a very complicated question. Most enquiries are along the lines of "is this a fossil?' and can be answered quickly and concisely, with "no" being the default response on 99% of occasions. But there are exceptions, especially once you start dealing with academic users of the collection. So let's back off a bit and ask what to me is the main question. When you charge someone for an enquiry, what are they actually paying for?

Yes, I know that at one level they're paying for an answer. But in most of the cases that people have been talking about so far, you’re charging for access to our expertise. So, what does it actually cost to answer a question? Let’s assume that all we’re really talking about is what it costs my institution to employ me for the period of time that it takes to answer the question. That’s my salary, my fringe benefits, and an overhead that covers the basic services that Yale has to provide in order for me to do my job, which all adds up to about $1.30 per minute.

Most public enquiries don’t take very long to answer – say 5 to 10 minutes if they come in via email, as the majority of them do these days. So what we’re basically saying is that in order to recover the cost of me taking time to answer someone’s question, I’d have to charge them between $6.50 and $13.00. If we handled a lot of public enquiries, this might quickly add up to a lot of money.

But in fact, we don’t. The majority of our traffic comes from professional users of the collection, with maybe 15 or 20 enquiries a year from “the public.” So, following on from Freedman’s argument that this is all about educating the public as to the value of our collections, my Division is spending around $170 a year on public outreach, which is a *very* small fraction of my annual operating budget.

True, you might argue that spending $170 to reach 20 people is not a particularly efficient strategy for outreach. But many of us, myself included, can remember writing to a scientist as children and being psyched when we got a letter back (and it was a real letter in those days...). It's an important way to engage and potentially inspire and falls squarely into the Museum's outreach mission.

But suppose that it’s not a 5 or 10 minute answer, but is instead a one to two hour answer. These sorts of questions are more usually generated by our professional users, but they can come from the public as well. Now you’re looking at a cost of maybe $150 in terms of my time. Would this be worth recovering?

The answer to this, I think, lies in the fact that a 1-2 hour question is fundamentally different to a 5-10 minute question. If a question takes me only 5-10 minutes to answer, that’s likely because I either know the answer already, or because I can find the information needed to provide an answer more quickly than they can, by virtue of my professional training. But a question takes 1-2 hours to answer, it probably means that I have to access the collections to get the information – that’s where the major time-sink comes in. And to my mind, this is an altogether different scenario.

As we've discussed in previous posts, you can spend hours arguing what museums are “for,” but in the case of the VP collections at the Peabody at least, I would argue that Yale is paying a goodly chunk of money to operate a facility that provides resources for research and education. There are different ways in which you can use this facility – you can search for information on-line, you can visit the collections in person, or you can ask me or my staff to answer your question for you.

From our perspective in the collection - given our limited time and funding - we’d like to push as much of the expense of using our facility back onto the users. So for us, the third option – where we answer the question for you – seems by far-and-away the least cost-effective. But from the user’s perspective, travelling to the Peabody to do 1-2 hours’ work might or might not be cost-effective, dependent on where they’re travelling from and whether there are other things they might do when they’re here.

So this is a different sort of cost calculation than the one we used for the 5-10 minute enquiry… $150 for us to answer the question for you, weighed against (probably) several hundred bucks of travel and accommodation expenses, to say nothing of your time, for you to come here and answer it yourself. When you put it that way, a $150 fee looks like a bargain, right?

Of course, all of this assumes that we have 1-2 hours to spare. It doesn't do us much good to charge for a service that means that we can’t perform the other, basic collections operations that our museum is paying us to perform. So could we make enough money charging for enquiries to support the salary of someone dedicated to answering those enquiries?

Here at Yale, we employ Yale work-study students at around $12 an hour to provide collections support, which includes dealing with enquiries. The primary rationale is educational; the students get the experience of working in a museum environment and, as many of them have gone on to museum-related grad school programs, it’s plainly a meaningful experience. But we also get a motivated group of temporary employees that significantly reduces the burden on our permanent staff.

In a system like this, where we have flexible employment paid at an hourly rate, we could relatively easily charge a fee for a time-heavy enquiry and use the fees to support a student to answer the enquiry. That seems like a relatively “ethical” solution – we’re charging for a service, but the funds are being used to directly support an educational program that benefits the collection user’s professional community by helping to generate trained workers.

And it’s cheap. Work study students at Yale don’t pay for their health benefits and even with the overhead their cost works out at about 30 cents a minute, meaning that $150 enquiry now costs around $45. So it would appear that I've solved the entire conundrum and that every vertebrate paleontologist in the world should be slapping me on my virtual back and thanking me for saving them hundreds of dollars in airfares and hotel bills.

The problem, of course, is that $45 is a bargain unless you’re used to paying nothing. The majority of collection users operate in an entirely un-monetized economy, where all of the services that they use are provided on a quid-pro-quo basis; as most of us, or at least our faculty curators, are collection users as well as providers, once we start charging we would inevitably start paying as well.

And that is perhaps the biggest conundrum of all – this whole vast edifice of science, consisting of billions of specimens, tens of thousands of people, and hundreds of buildings, is supported on not much more than the belief of the museums that it’s worth investing funds to provide a free service that benefits the scientific community, and by extension society as a whole.

This would almost make me feel warm and fuzzy inside, were it not for the nagging concern that a system like this is terribly vulnerable. We can, if we chose, quantify the cost of the service we provide – I've done it in this post, albeit as a series of back-of-a-beer-mat calculations that any half decent economist would shred in seconds. But we really don’t have much idea of how to quantify benefit, or at least not in dollar terms, which means that we can’t talk in a meaningful way about value (which is not the same as cost). Nor can we have a conversation about efficiency, or the cost-effectiveness of the service we provide.


And when don’t have answers to questions like that, then our prowess at answering questions about dinosaurs looks a lot less impressive.

[The observant among you will have noticed that I mentioned three ways of accessing the collection, but I only talked about two of them. That was deliberate. Digitization costs got touched on in the last post and I'll come back to them in a future post]