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 every 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

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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]

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Ethics or Economics

Having not blogged for a while I've missed a couple of juicy controversies that others have cheerfully piled into. So I'm left playing catch-up, and feeling like I'm not quite as cutting edge as I used to be. But sometimes even half-warmed leftovers can prove surprisingly tasty, so I decided that it was worth revisiting both stories in a pair of posts.

Controversy #1 relates to a paper published in Science by Ben Minteer and colleagues back in April (see what I mean about being late to the party?) which said, and I paraphrase, that there really was no reason for biologists to kill things anymore because you can get all the data you need to describe a new species from DNA samples and digital sound and image records. If you want to read the paper - and frankly there are better uses of your time - you can find it here:10.1126/science.1250953

There were only two surprising things about the paper, namely that Minteer et al bothered to write it and that Science thought it worth publishing. This particular issue has been round the block so many times, particularly in the ornithological community, that it has no tread left on its tires. I've even covered it myself in an earlier post. There really isn't any case to answer as far as the impact of scientific collecting on endangered species is concerned and those involved should have known better.

Nonetheless, an impressive array of worthies from the biocollections community formed a line to beat the living daylights out of Minteer's thesis in various blogs, interviews, etc., including nearly a hundred people who signed a riposte to the original paper that was also published in Science. The mainstream media, who like nothing better than the sight of two groups of egg-head scientists pulling what's left of each other's hair, dutifully took notice and the whole mess was extensively reported in a wide range of venues including NPR, Slate, and the CSM

As it happened, this turned out to be a good opportunity to emphasize the vital importance of collections to our understanding of the natural world, and many people from the collections community did so, eloquently and effectively, so I'm no going to rehash the arguments again. But it did make me think about a related issue, which is our oft-repeated mantra that much of the value of natural history specimens lies in their associated data.

I'm currently talking to some colleagues about a potential project on the economics of museum collections as large-scale distributed research facilities (yeah, yeah, I know… it doesn't sound all that interesting. You'll just have to take my word for it that it is). Anyway, it's made me think a lot about cost/benefit calculations.

Suppose that what we say is true, and that most of the value of natural history specimens is in their data.   Now consider the fraction of curation costs per specimen that is devoted to data storage and distribution versus physical storage and specimen access. My guess - and it is only a guess, I haven't quantified it (yet) - is that the cost of storing and serving data is significantly less than the cost of housing and maintaining a physical collection. So if you say that most of the value lies in the data… do I have to draw you a picture of where this is leading?

Now obviously, I'm not the first person to have thought of this. In fact, since we began the major effort to digitize the nation's biocollections, there has been a small, but persistent niggle of concern about what the long term implications will be for the collections we curate. It's usually expressed in terms of diverting some grant funds away from physical collections care and towards data capture. Since most of us are already doing some form of data capture, what we're talking about here is a relatively short-term injection of funds to accelerate the process and deal with the (admittedly gigantic) backlog. But I don't think that, as a community, we've really got to grips with what the much longer-term implications of mass digitization might be. Are we making physical collections redundant?

Clearly there's a strong counter argument, in that specimen data, in isolation, are actually not that valuable. The value is contextual - it's linked to the specimen. The specimen without data is much less valuable than the specimen with data, but the reverse is also true. Having data allows you to better interpret the specimen. It also improves your ability to study the specimen and generate more data.  To some extent, data-minus-specimen is a bit of a dead end.

This is particularly true when we enter the bright and shiny new world of "Big Data." As I'm sure you all know by now, Big Data is all about correlation, not causality. It reveals patterns, but it doesn't provide explanations for why those patterns came about, or even if they are "real" patterns, as opposed to statistical artifacts. To answer those sorts of questions, you have to go back and reexamine the sources of the data, which our case are the specimens.

But what exactly are those specimens, or rather, what should they be? Traditionally they might have been a skin and a skull, a whole animal in fluid, leaves and flowers on a herbarium sheet, a pinned insect, a microscope slide, or something else depending on the discipline concerned. Now these "traditional" preparations are likely to be supplemented by tissue samples, digital imagery, sound and video recordings, etc. And, of course, data - because the data are an integral part of the specimen.

There's a cost/benefit curve to every specimen. The cost is what it takes to collect, prepare, house, maintain, and provide access. The benefit is what you get out of it in terms of research, education, entertainment, etc. The calculations are complex and "value" may be positively or negatively impacted by a number of factors: for example, the number of other specimens in existence, changing research priorities, the invention of new analytical techniques. But just because its hard to do this, doesn't mean that it shouldn't be done.

What we have't really grasped about digitization, IMO, is that the curve is changing. We're still stuck with a paradigm that assumes that most users will want/need to physically access a traditional prep type housed in a museum. That might be true, but we need to quantify and justify it if we're to continue to argue for resources. At the moment, our most sophisticated argument seems to be that we can't predict how collections will be used in the future, so we'd better not change anything now. If pressure continues to build on funding, as it likely will do, then we need a more nuanced and better supported position.

Minteer et al used an ethical argument to challenge our traditional methods of collecting, but perhaps they'd have been more successful deploying an economic one.  As a community it behoves us to think about these issues before someone else does it for us….

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Fear

Ebola!

That got your attention, didn't it? As you can see from this graph, generated using Google Trends, it's got the attention of a lot of people at the moment. That vertical line on the right hand side of the graph shows the increase in popularity of 'Ebola' as a search term on Google searches. The fact that the line is vertical is an indication of the acute nature of this interest. All of a sudden, people across the word are very interested in this relatively rare, but exceedingly nasty hemorrhagic fever.

Museums should be very interested in this, for a couple of reasons. First, it's crying out for the deployment of a pop-up style exhibit on emergent diseases and zoonoses - this is exactly the sort of urgent human health/wildlife/lab science issue that we should be jumping all over. We're seen as a trusted source of information and here is an issue where public interest is intense and panic is already bubbling under (read some of the comments made on this article, for example).

Related to this, it's a prime opportunity to talk about the potential of museum collections to address matters of public interest, in this case Emergent Infectious Diseases (EIDs). This was a major thrust of my Cardiff talk (and, unfortunately, the source of the "Chris Norris hates bats" conference meme) and I'm going to beg your indulgence to repeat it here.

Some years back, while I was working at the American Museum of Natural History, we got a large grant from NSF to recurate the Museum's collection of bats, which runs to about 120,000 specimens. At the time, I had an interesting conversation with my big brother, Peter, about the the whys-and-wherefores of this project. Specifically, he expressed disbelief that I was getting paid to mess around with a bunch of pickled bats.

The broader implications of this, in terms of whether one's job is "nice" or "essential" - my brother, being a doctor, put me in the former category and himself in the latter - are something that I'm going to explore in later posts, but at the time my defense of the bat project revolved around the fact that bats are inherently interesting.

Bats are the second most diverse group of mammals (in terms of numbers of species); they fly; they echolocate; they're major pollinators and agents of insect control; and many of them are critically endangered. They can help us illuminate a variety of evolutionary and ecological problems and we need a better understanding of their systematics if we're to develop effective conservation strategies. Bat collections like the one at AMNH are a vital tool for this, and the only way to ensure that they remain accessible for researchers is to invest public funds in their care and curation.

That's the approach I took at the time, but 15 years on I think I'd probably approach things in a different way, and I'd start by telling him that bats are a major host species and vector for some very nasty zoonotic diseases, including the SARS, Nipah, Cedar, and Hendra viruses; a number of influenzas; and rabies. They're also strong candidates for the hosts of the Marburg virus and - surprise, surprise - Ebola.

Bats are the subject of intense interest by the virology community at the moment. There's something about bat physiology which, combined with their ability to fly, makes them ideal for incubating and dispersing viruses. The extent of the viral diversity within bats is quite staggering - a 2013 study of the "virome" of the Indian fruit bat Pteropus vampyrus revealed that it was the host for 55 different types of virus. 50 of these were previously unknown and of the 5 that were, one - Nipah virus - had already jumped to humans.

Now, consider that bat viromes are quite species-specific, and bats are incredibly speciose. Also consider that many of these species are poorly known, and occur in tropical rainforest that is rapidly being cleared for cultivation. And as the forest is cleared, humans and our domestic animals are going to come into contact with bats - and viruses - that we haven't previously encountered. It doesn't take a background in virology to appreciate the potential for disaster.

If we are to respond effectively to the threat of emergent diseases, we need to catalog and map bat diversity, and to describe the viral diversity within bat species. And guess what - museums can do this. We have global collections of bats that could not be replicated without massive financial investment, and an ever-expanding palate of modern molecular techniques like pan-virus-specific primers and rapid sequencing arrays that let us extract and identify viral DNA from within natural history specimens.

To me, this is - sadly perhaps - a far more compelling argument for funding the study of bats than emphasizing what truly amazing animals they are. There are a number of potential funders who will give you money because bats are interesting, but there are far more people who will give you a lot more money because they are a potential hazard to human health.

Traditionally, natural history museums have based their outreach strategy on instilling in the public a sense of wonder about the natural world, drawing on their collections to support this. But as we face of world of shrinking public funding, we have to ask some hard questions about whether this is enough and about whether we're doing a good enough job of telling the public about how those collections affect their day-to-day life, and their potential for making the world a better place. We also have to ask whether a sense of wonder is still a sufficient motivation to guarantee public funding.

Consider these numbers, taken from a 2008 review of EID events. Of the 335 such events that were recorded between 1940 and 2004, 60% were zoonotic - in other words, cases where disease had jumped to humans from another animal species. Of these zoonotic events, 72% originated with wildlife. In the words of the authors of the study "zoonoses from wildlife represent the most significant growing threat to global health from all EIDs.

If you want motivation for funding museum collections to catalog and study the natural world, you need look no further than that.