Monday, June 15, 2015

Crash! Bang! Wallop!

Universal Pictures
I had intended to break my (relatively) long silence with a piece on the pitfalls of confusing research infrastructure with big science. But instead, I’ve ended up writing about Jurassic World. Go figure.

I’ll put my cards on the table straight away; I didn’t have high hopes for this movie and my instincts were right. Despite the relentless noise, roaring, shouting, running, etc., I actually dozed off about halfway through. Colin Trevorrow may be a highly competent director, but he’s no Steven Spielberg.

Which is a pity, because there was at least the kernel of a good film here. The idea of a world where genetically de-extincted dinosaurs are so commonplace that you have to engineer fake ones to meet the public’s demand for new thrills is an interesting one, and also quite meta given that this is exactly what the Jurassic Park movie franchise felt it had to do to drum up an audience. The massive figures for the opening weekend suggest that it’s a winning formula.

Look beyond this, and there are some more worrying things that emerge. Others have written more eloquently than I can about the clumsy misogyny represented by the portrayal of the main female character as a career driven ice-queen who can’t relate to kids and needs to be humanized by exposure to a real man. Knowing my daughter and her friends were watching made me feel a bit queasy about the message being conveyed; yeah, a woman can have an important job, but real fulfillment will only come when she gets herself a man and a family.

Clare Dearing is certainly no Ellie Sattler, but then there’s no Ellie Sattler in Jurassic World against which to measure her, and precious few scientists of any description. In the previous Jurassic Park movies, the scientists were the heroes. In this one, we have an ex-military dog-whisperer, which says a lot about where we’ve gone since the last JP movie came out, in July of 2001. Yes, we still boo the military-industrial complex – represented by Vincent D’Onofrio’s character – but now we want our leading men to come with the approved stamp of heroism that only Serving Your Country can bring.

Owen Grady may talk a lot about Alphas and pack structure, but this is animal behavior reduced to the level of understanding of the guy that teaches obedience classes for your dog. In Jurassic World, “science” is represented by the geneticist, Henry Wu; a character far more reptilian than the things he cooks up in his lab. Wu is not so much villainous as completely lacking a conscience; in one of the better moments of the film, he is asked why he has created the monstrous creature that is running amok in the park. “Because that’s what you wanted,” he says, or words to that effect. More teeth. Cooler. The fact that it is also lethally dangerous is not Wu’s problem.

And that, in a nutshell, is the message of Jurassic World. Science generates a genetically modified organism and releases it into the world with no concern for the troubles it may cause; deciding whether such a thing is right or wrong is not what scientists do. It’s left to an ordinary guy who understands, in a vague, gut-driven sense, that animals are sentient beings and not “assets” (to use the Park’s terminology) to save the day for humanity. This is a far cry from the original Michael Crichton novel, which argued that only scientific theory can critique and predict the perils and pitfalls of turning reconstructed dinosaurs into tourist attractions.

My colleagues in museums around the country are looking forward to cashing in on a new wave of dinosaur popularity, and for this I guess we have to show some gratitude to Jurassic World. But the overwhelming message that the movie leaves you with is that science is a dangerously amoral pursuit that is no substitute for a good old boy on a motorcycle who can relate to “raptors.” Given thelevels of public skepticism about the motives of scientists, I’m not sure this is something we should be embracing.

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.