Saturday, March 27, 2010

Fox Meets Beetles

If you haven’t seen the video clip that I’ve embedded in this post, take a few minutes to watch it (5 minutes and 28 seconds, to be precise). Then read on.

So here’s the background to this clip. As you may know, in February 2009, Congress enacted the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), a Keynesian economic measure intended to counter the drop in consumer spending caused by the recession. Some of the $787 billion released by the act went directly into the pockets of the American public in the form of tax cuts and expansions in benefits. Other funding went to domestic spending in education, health care, and infrastructure, including the energy sector. And some money, believe it or not, went to science, in the form of additional funds doled out by various agencies including NSF, which received an extra $3 billion.

NSF chose to distribute this money by awarding grants to high quality projects in the 2009 funding round that it was unable to support because of limits to the available funding. In the case of the Improvements to Biological Research Collections (BRC) program, this included a grant to Michigan State University to address specimen housing problems in their entomology collections.

For those of you who haven’t come across the BRC program, it is an invaluable source of support to natural history collections. Each year, NSF provides funding (around $6 million this year) that goes to support new cabinets and drawers, databasing, specimen imaging, and staff. The agency does this because natural history collections form part of the nation’s scientific infrastructure; they are a research facility, just like large telescopes, particle accelerators, or supercomputers. Collections and their associated data support research across a wide range of environmental and life sciences.

Conservatives don’t like ARRA – they don’t think the solution to America’s problems lies with more spending by the Federal government that increases the national debt. There is a case to be answered here involving economics that is way outside of my area of experience, but as far as the mass of the American public is concerned, the debate involves whiny-voiced blowhards like Fox News’ Sean Hannity taking cheap shots and getting applause from the peanut gallery (oops, there goes my claim to impartiality).

Hannity recently launched “Waste 102,” which listed 102 ways in which the government was wasting US taxpayer’s money by giving funds to what he feels are undeserving projects. You can see the full list of these here. Note that the descriptions are deliberately distorted to give a very poor impression of the projects concerned. We’ll see this when we look in detail at #102, which Hannity refers to as “Protecting a Michigan insect collection from other insects.”

Hannity sent his henchman, Tucker Carlson, off to East Lansing MI to interview Anthony Cognato, Curator of the Entomology Collection and Principal Investigator on the offending grant. I think it’s fair to say that the interview did not go well, at least from Cognato’s point of view. Initially I thought this might be the result of biased editing on the part of Fox. Then I watched the unedited version, which you can see here if you’re interested.

When I raised this issue with some of my colleagues, it generated a lot of shrugging, accompanied by statements along the lines of “well, it’s Fox News – what do you expect.” Which rather misses the point. Fox certainly went gunning for Cognato, but the questions that Carlson asked were actually not unreasonable ones for anyone receiving taxpayer $$. If you get a grant, you ought to be able to defend your use of public funds. So, in the interest of any of my fellow curators and collection managers who find themselves in this situation in the future, I decided to watch the interview again and figure out what I would have said.

“How did you get this money?”

Well, it’s not easy. Only about 16% of proposals to NSF get funded, so it’s very competitive and you have to have a really good proposal. You have to say why your collection deserves support, demonstrate its importance in terms of research and education, and explain in detail how the project will directly benefit the American public. It gets assessed by scientists who are experts in your field, and then gets reviewed by another expert panel. Only if it passes all of those hurdles and gets a high enough rating is there a chance that it will be funded.

“What was your reason for asking for funding?”

These collections are incredibly important for supporting research in life sciences, human health, agriculture etc. The problem is that they are very fragile. Dried insects are very vulnerable to attack by other insects – if you think about it, there are many species that live by scavenging dead organisms, including insects. And that’s what natural history collections are – collections of dead animals and plants. Insect pests can completely destroy a collection so that its no longer usable. The problem with our old cabinets is that they weren’t good at stopping pests from getting at the collection.

“So bugs were eating your bugs. What were you doing about it?”

One short-term way of dealing with pests in the collection is to freeze the drawers with the specimens in them. That can kill the insects, if it's done right. The problem is that this takes a lot of time and effort and when you put the drawers back in the cabinet they can get infected by pests again. It’s not good for the specimens to keep freezing and thawing them and it’s expensive, and not good for staff, to spray a lot of pesticides around. So the most cost-effective way of dealing with the problem in the long term is to buy cabinets and drawers that stop the pests from getting in.

“What jobs did this create?”
Museum storage furniture tends to be built by the sort of small to medium-sized American companies that really suffer in recessions. They depend on federally funded museum projects to keep their sheet metal workers and carpenters in work. Then you have to think about the people that deliver the cabinets; the truckers and movers. They depend on work like this as well. We also employ four students on the grant. It’s hard for students to stay in full time education when money is tight, so student jobs like this are vital and a lot better experience than flipping burgers.

“If someone asked ‘why is this a good investment of my tax dollars, to save these bugs from other bugs, how would you respond?”
Museum collections like this one provide the data that underpins scientific effort across a whole host of fields that affect the health and wellbeing of ordinary Americans. Take agriculture, for example. It’s a major industry that supports tens of thousands of jobs across the United States, that is essential to our economic health, and that puts food on your family’s table. Our crops and livestock are vulnerable to attack by insects and collections like this are the source of the information that helps scientists develop new treatments and mechanisms for controlling pests. If the collections are destroyed, all of that information is lost forever. If you look at it that way, $187,000 over 2 years is a pretty good deal for the tax payer.

Now, I’m not saying I’d have been anywhere as lucid as this if someone shoved a camera in my face, but there are a few key points that you need to hang on to – national interest, critical resource, affects ordinary people, provides good value for money – that you need to get across in this situation, regardless of whether it's Fox News or the guy from the local free newspaper.

The interesting and encouraging thing is that when you look on the comments on YouTube, people got this. They managed to see past the smoke and mirrors that Fox erected and actually identified most of the points I listed above. And that’s a good thing, on many, many levels.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Told You So

The first of my predictions for 2010 has come true, as the Large Hadron Collider has broken again. According to the Independent, because of a problem with the stabilizers (I'm trying to sound like I know what this means) the LHC can only run at half power for the next two years, before being shut down for a year to try and fix the problem. The reason for the delay in dealing with this issue is that even at half power the LHC is still four times more powerful than any previous atom-smasher so there is still a chance that they can make some discoveries before 2013 and thus placate the queue of angry particle physicists who are waiting for their Higgs Boson. Yeah, if I'd paid $9 billion for a lemon, I'd want to recoup some of my investment as well. While I really, really try to avoid making budget-based value judgements in science, I feel obliged to point out that you could dig up an awful lot of fossils for $9 billion.....

Saturday, March 20, 2010


Museum people tend to complain a lot about the buildings where they're housed, even the new ones, but if you want to see some truly scary stuff check out Dan Chure's blog on the renovation of the Quarry Visitor Center at Dinosaur National Monument. Built on unstable ground in 1958, over the last few decades the center has become a carnival funhouse for paleontologists. I've included one of my favorite photos from Dan's blog - FYI the bookshelves in this picture are level (incidentally I once lived in a rented house in Oxford that had floors like this - I had to chock my furniture to stop it moving). Anyway, the Park Service has decided to tear the building down, rather than waiting for it to fall down by itself, and replace it with something better. The Plan calls for partial demolition and extensive rehab and rebuilding of that structure and a second building that will serve as a park wide visitor center. The Center will reopen in the Fall of 2011.


OK, OK, I know that there is a long and distinguished history of naming organisms after major benefactors - think Diplodocus carnegii, Barbourofelis fricki, Bambiraptor feinbergi, etc. But Fedexia? C'mon People, that's a bridge too far.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Digitizing Collections

For some time now, rumors have been circulating about a possible NSF-supported initiative to increase on-line access to biological collections. Now it seems like this might actually be a possibility; you can read more by following this link. This blog constitutes a community engagement process, so if you actually care about this issue (which I'm sure some of you do) I suggest scrolling down to the bottom of the blog and leaving a comment. Being an opinionated sort of chap, I already did. Suffice to say that while I think this is an excellent idea and while there are some good ideas circulating, I did feel obliged to strike a cautionary note.

First, you'll notice that a lot of the supportive comments come from botanists. This isn't particularly surprising because the botanical community has always been at the forefront of thinking about digitization. But there's also a good reason for this. Botany collections have one huge advantage when it comes to specimen imaging - the specimens are two dimensional. There is a world of difference between photographing a herbarium sheet and shooting the many irregularly-shaped lumps that make up the average vertebrate fossil, and this is reflected in the time and cost of doing so.

Second, as I've mentioned in other posts, cataloging (and yes, believe it or not there are significant swaths of our biological collections that have never been cataloged) is laborious, time-consuming, and unglamorous. It requires people, working systematically for many years, and there are various key aspects that are resistant to automation. Take, for example, labelling specimens. Yes, you can print off a label directly from your database, but you have to find a way of attaching the label to the specimen, or putting a catalog number on the specimen that links it to the label and to the original data. If you don't do this, and specimen and label part company, then the specimen becomes all but useless and all the effort that you have devoted to digitizing it - not to mention collecting, preparing, studying, and housing it - has been wasted.

This is not to say that NSF shouldn't be developing new technologies as part of this initiative - far from it. We badly need on-line tools to help people access, use, and enhance specimen data. But (to return to one of my enduring hobbyhorses) museums also need to commit their own resources to supporting the core activities of collection management, and that includes cataloging.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

"Curator" makes 50 best careers of 2010

US News has published its list of the 50 best careers of 2010 and guess what - "curator" makes the grade, joining funeral director, plumber, commercial pilot, meeting planner, and 45 other interesting professions. According to the profile, "the number of curators is expected to rise by 23 percent, well above the average rate for all careers. Between 2008 and 2018, there will be 2,700 new positions added."

What?? I'd love to know where US News got these numbers (as, I noticed, would most of the people who commented on this article; you can tell that they were museum people because they couldn't work out which was worse - the over-optimistic job projections or the fact the article spelled Jackson Pollock wrong). However, the US News goes on to add a note of caution; "Some museums have struggled in the recession, which puts additional pressure on those who take these jobs. Competition for curatorial positions may be steep. Those who don't rise to the top may seek related work as museum technicians, archivists, or researchers." I guess my colleagues and I in the collection care field would be fall in that last, "loser" category.

Beyond that, I had to chuckle at some of the sections, such as "activity level." In the case of some curators I've known, I'd say "non-existent (check pulse)," but no - apparently you may have to climb ladders or even carry objects (assuming that you don't have any of those people who didn't rise to the top to do that for you). And watch out; if you do fieldwork, there may be some walking involved. All this and "moderate" stress levels? It's tough at the top....

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Not Cultured Enough?

Last week, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the Salzburg Global Seminar (SGS) announced the release of a report entitled “Connecting to the World’s Collections: Making the Case for Conservation and Preservation of Our Cultural Heritage.” The report was based on a seminar held in Salzburg from October 28 to November last year. The seminar, which formed part of the IMLS’s multi-year initiative on collections care, "Connecting to Collections: A Call to Action," explored global themes related to conservation and preservation, including international needs, issues, perspectives, and accomplishments.

As IMLS proudly states in its press release -

"The report includes practical recommendations to ensure optimal collections conservation worldwide and the Salzburg Declaration on the Conservation and Preservation of Cultural, which was passed by 60 participants hailing from 32 countries. The session combined presentations by leading experts in conservation and preservation throughout the world with small working groups tasked to make recommendations for future action in key areas, including emergency preparedness, education and training, public awareness, new preservation approaches, and assessment and planning."

Which is all well and good, and makes for an impressive report. I would certainly urge anyone with an interest in collections care to download and read it.

However, I do have one question for IMLS, and that is this - how was it possible, out of 60 participants and 32 countries, that you did not manage to include a single delegate who works with natural history collections? Natural history specimens are, unarguably, part of our cultural heritage. They present particular challenges that would not be adequately covered by a group of people whose experience lies in the preservation of relatively small numbers of objects with relatively high monetary value. They encompass types of preservation - e.g. fluids - which are unfamiliar to arts conservators. And their pattern of usage is quite different.

IMLS has an excellent track record in supporting conservation projects in the natural sciences - in my own department here at Yale they are currently funding the upgrading and rehousing of our fossil fish collection. This makes the omission of natural history collections from the SGS seminar even more puzzling. It is true that natural history conservation is a specialized field, but I could easily come up with a list of 10 or more conservators in the US or UK that are experienced in this area and if I can do this then surely it's not beyond the abilities of IMLS. As it is, the absence of the natural sciences from this report significantly weakens its claim to "ensure optimal preservation of collections worldwide."

Mind you, I've always been skeptical about the value of "declarations;" after all, when was the last time any of us cited the "Declaration of Albuquerque"?