Sunday, April 29, 2012

On Cake

This is a post about cake. Everyone likes cake, don’t they? When you walk past one of those high-end cupcake stores like Magnolia Bakery and see all the cakes lined up in the window, there’s a great urge to run inside and buy one (or more than one). You know you probably shouldn’t, but you do anyway.

Cakes, by and large, are sold by their icing. The cake itself, sensu stricto, may be appetizing and nutritious, but a lump of brown cake by itself is not particularly exciting. Nonetheless, cake performs an essential function in the bakery. It’s possible to imagine a world in which you had minimal or zero quantities of cake and your confectionary was made up mostly or wholly by icing (some might say that designer cupcakes are a prime example of this). But it wouldn’t be a very substantial cake and you wouldn’t get much benefit from eating it. The cake may be a bit boring to look at, but without the cake to back it up, icing is a bit meaningless.
The National Science Foundation recognizes the value of cake, at least in a metaphorical sense. NSF supports cutting edge research of the sort that gets published in frontline academic journals and sometimes gets recognized by prestigious international awards like Nobel Prizes. This is glamorous, high profile stuff that gets in the papers and makes people’s careers. It may be a little unfair to compare it to icing, but bear with me for a bit.
NSF doesn’t just pay for icing. It also supports cake, in the form of infrastructure and equipment grants. And if you work in a natural history museum in the USA, one of the most important of these grant programs is Collections in Support of Biological Research (CSBR). CSBR is not a huge program by NSF standards – around $6 million a year - and the work it supports is unlikely to set the world on fire. CSBR pays for new cabinets, and archival storage materials, and specimen conservation, and collection databasing and imaging. No-one ever won a Nobel Prize for this stuff, and it certainly doesn’t have much of an impact on the tenure process of the average faculty curator. But without it, our collections would be unusable for science.
So it was a bit alarming to read in NSF’s FY 2013 budget request that the Foundation was planning to reduce funding of CSBR to $4 million a year and make it a biennial competition. So much so that we at SPNHC got together with our colleagues at NSCA and AIBS and many other collections stakeholders and wrote a letter to NSF saying, in effect, “what gives?”
And we received, almost by return of post, a letter from NSF’s Assistant Director of Biological Sciences, John Wingfield, which explained why CSBR had been cut. What it basically said was, “look, we’re spending a lot of money on some very important research programs associated with collections – Dimensions of Biodiversity and Assembling, Visualizing and Analyzing the Tree of Life – not to mention that collections digitization stuff you said you wanted. Times are tight and that money has to come from somewhere. So yes, you’ve got less cake. But there's still some cake left and look at all the lovely icing you’re getting as well.”
Which demonstrates a truth universal; everyone agrees that cake is important, but no one likes paying for it. NSF recognizes the importance of infrastructure, but it has to make pretty pink cupcakes to take to Congress each year in order to justify its budget. CSBR grants rarely make headlines, and when they do it’s for all the wrong reasons. So what we’re left with is grandiloquent language about unlocking the secrets of life by describing biodiversity. It’s stirring, but it’s also deeply unsatisfying to anyone that actually works with museum collections, because we know that underneath the shiny pink exterior there’s not much cakey substance.
A couple of posts back, I was talking about "Mapping the Biosphere," a paper in Systematic Biology that attempted to set out the effort and resources required to describe 10 million species in 50 years. It was an interesting paper, because it genuinely tried to get to grips with the challenges of the underpinning collections infrastructure as well as the taxonomic challenges. In other words, while there was a liberal dollop of visionary icing, it didn’t scrimp on the cake. It’s a vision that anyone who cares about natural history collections should embrace. So why do I have feelings of misapprehension?
Some of the reasons were laid out in the earlier post and relate to the problems of launching any “Big Science” program in this day and age, but there’s also a cake dimension. To illustrate this, I’m going to shift metaphor temporarily and talk about cricket.
Norman Tebbit (who anyone who lived in Britain in the 80s will remember with a fond shudder – those were the days when Tories were Tories, rather than the milquetoast modern variety that slash your services to the bone, but put on a sad face while they’re doing it) once proposed a “cricket test” for immigrants to the UK. To paraphrase Tebbit, Britons of Indian and Pakistani extraction claim they’re proud to be British, but who do they cheer for when England are playing India or Pakistan? If they’re not cheering for England, can they really call themselves British? It was a fatuous question and came to signify all that was wrong about that government’s approach to race and immigration. But I’m not above repurposing for my own ends.
My question to my faculty colleagues working in museums is as follows. If you were given a chunk of money - sufficient for one salary for, say, three years – and told you could employ a postdoctoral fellow or a collections assistant, who would you hire? The person who might boost your research output to new levels, or the one that will deal with your cataloging backlog. My guess, based on the cake and icing model, is that nine times out of ten it will be the former and not the latter. And that’s why we will always struggle to get adequate support for our collections.
Now, if you are a faculty member reading this – which is quite unlikely – you may say that this is unfair, and it’s like being asked to choose between apples and oranges. To which I would reply, first, shame on you for introducing yet another food metaphor into the discussion, and second, are you seriously suggesting that “apple or orange?” isn’t a legitimate choice?
I’ll close with one more bakery-related metaphor. Suppose you owned a bakery. It might be a good idea to talk to your customers about how to make your products better and to improve the quality of your service. But would you put them in charge of the bakery – rather than a trained baker – on the basis that eating cake gives them a unique insight into the business? And on that note, I think I’ll finish.
[PS - it's possible that you found this blog post by accident, having Googled "Cake" or "Magnolia Bakery." In which case, sorry, and I hope you are now passionately committed to the cause of improving our scientific research collections]


  1. I absolutely love your cake metaphor, and I'm not above stealing it myself. For me, the most resonant part of that metaphor was summed up with this: "The cake may be a bit boring to look at, but without the cake to back it up, icing is a bit meaningless."

    Having recently returned from the AIC Annual Meeting whose theme was Public Outreach for conservation, needless to say there was much discussion on "icing" - those flashy and tasty bits of conservation treatment that make up a very small percentage of our actual role in cultural heritage preservation. But that's what the public wants to see - those before and after photographs, not graphs charting the seasonal fluctuations of relative humidity in an institution, or magnitude of risk calculations.

    Which is why I think the cake metaphor is so apt - you have to have both components, cake and icing, in order to present an entire dessert. It seems to me that our role in this analogy is to continuously emphasize and illustrate that without collections preservation cake, the icing is only so many empty calories.

    Thanks for the great post!

  2. Thanks, Beth - I think you could argue that almost all preventive conservation is cake and that what people think of as conservation is the icing - spectacular object-based treatments. Trying to make the case that more spent on cake means less that you have to spend on icing is a bit of a paradox, given that the icing is seen as a major selling point for the profession.