Sunday, October 31, 2010

Banged Up

In our quest to reach out to new audiences and encourage citizen science participation, this is one option that museums haven't yet considered. But maybe we should....

Monday, October 25, 2010

See, I'm Not Crazy!

For those of you who think I'm getting a bit monomaniacal on the subject of the UK government's austerity measures, the New York Times agrees with me! OK, they didn't literally agree with me, but we are of one mind, the  Times and I.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Ouch. Again.

Meanwhile, over in "that country where everything sucks" (to quote Beavis and Butthead) Chancellor George Osborn finally announced his Comprehensive Spending Review, aimed at taking £80 billion out of the public sector budget over the next four years. You can read the whole thing here, if you want, although it doesn't make pleasant reading. Nick Clegg (remember him?) says that everyone's making a big fuss over nothing, because all that's happened is that public spending as a proportion of the economy in 2014-15 will be back where it was in 2006-7. It should be obvious to many people why this is a facile argument, but BBC economics editor Stephanie Flanders spells it out very well in this blog post. The bottom line is that these are the largest cuts in public spending for 50 years and by the time we reach 2015, about 1 in 12 civil service jobs will have gone. Overall, estimates of public sector job losses are around the 600,000 mark.

What does this mean for museums? As we've already seen, there's been one early casualty in the form of the Museum, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA), which was abolished in the "Bonfire of the Quangos." That means that there is now no single body responsible for museums in the UK and the MLA's programs will devolve back to various Government departments like Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS). Apparently duplication of function across different departments is more efficient - go figure. The problem, of course, is that these departments have also had their budgets slashed. DCMS has lost 40% of its admin budget and has to reduce costs by £1.1 billion by 2014-15. One of the points highlighted in many reports is that despite these cuts, free entry to museums and galleries will remain. This is great in principal, but all that means is that the cuts will be applied where the public can't see them - the "business as usual" model beloved by many museum administrators. Want to bet on not seeing reductions in the level of collections care over the next 5 years? No, neither would I.

Some people of an optimistic bent will be cheered by news that the UK science budget has not been cut. Instead it's been frozen for four years, which is actually a real terms cut of around 10%, but from the amount of celebrating from British scientists you'd think they didn't teach math in British universities these days. Before any of you museum-based scientists get too happy about this, however, I would caution that Tories don't think what you do is science - they see it as more like a hobby. In their view, science is all about wealth creation. Museum research programs do contribute to the economic well-being of the nation in many ways, but these are mostly indirect. Conservatives' interest in scientific research are limited to two big questions: "Can you sell it?" and "For how much?"

By now, US readers will have long since tuned out, but if there are any of you left I would urge you, as I often do, to take notice of what is happening in the UK. With mid-term elections approaching, you are faced with a fundamental choice - a party that believes in public spending and another that doesn't. Take a long, hard look at Britain. This is what happens when a party that dislikes the public sector gets into power, and it's not pretty. And Cameron, Osborn, and that guy from the midget party no-one cares about anymore, are raging Trotskyites by comparison with their U.S. equivalents. You have been warned....

[BTW, for the lighter side of the budget cuts, my favorite are the two £5 billion aircraft carriers that are being paid for, in part, by cutting the planes that are supposed to fly from them. More here]

Three Simple Truths

Those of you with half-decent memories will recall that earlier this year I blogged on the parlous state of the U.S. Federal scientific collections, highlighted in a series of uncomplementary reports issued over the past few years. I'm pleased to report that the Government has now acted, in the form of a new policy for scientific collections issued by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which you can read here. It's not a long document, but it says three very important things:

1) It's not appropriate for Federal agencies to appropriate money designated for collection support and spend it on research.

2) Different collection holding agencies need to pool their efforts to develop consistent standards and best practices for collections care.

3) These collections belong to the American people and they need to be made accessible. This means investing in on-line collections access.

You'll notice that these are three topics that PoH often bangs on about. Does this mean I have a direct line to the White House? Hah - I wish! Wouldn't have an office with no windows if I did, that's for certain. However, what it does show is that these are simple, commonsense measures for the care of collections that are so obvious that even the Federal Government recognizes them. So how come so many non-Federal institutions don't?

Friday, October 22, 2010


This was sent to me from the AAM Registrars listserve last week and amply demonstrates why registrars are... special:

We’ve found a bottle rocket in our archives.  Cursory research indicates that bottle rockets normally contain black powder along with other things.  I checked the listserv archives but everything I’m finding seems to relate to stores of black powder.  In this case, the powder is contained in a small firework, and that firework is part of another object, so we’d prefer not to discard it…

at which point, I couldn't read any more.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Work vs Work Study

Laying off 56 workers is, while regrettable, not an unusual state of affairs in these straitened times. But replacing them with work-study students, as the  Indianapolis Museum of Art did? That's the sort of thing that gets you into trouble with the Feds, because the students in question were supported by Federal funds. Read more here - one suspects this may not be the last of these cases to hit the papers.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Sound of Silence

In previous posts, I've documented the emergence of a national strategy for the digitization of the US biological collections and the creation of a new NSF programs, Advances in the Digitization of Biological Collections (ADBC), as a first step in the realization of this strategy. If you haven't been following this and want to know more, just click on the word "digitization" in the tag cloud on the right hand side of this blog. I would also urge you to go take a look at the ADBC Community Blog.

One of the things that's struck many of us working on the digitization project is how little response we've had from the wider collection management community. During the initial process of creating the strategy, there was quite a bit of feedback from curators and researchers, and a little from collection managers. But since then, despite the emergence of more than $10 million from NSF to kick-start the initiative, there has been little in the way of further commentary. I find this quite worrying.

To explain why, I need to go back to the early 1990s and an initiative on taxonomy and systematics that was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). It was aimed at reversing the decline in taxonomic research in the UK; the long-term success of this initiative can be judged by the fact that there is yet another review of UK taxonomy going on at the moment with more-or-less the same objectives.

There were various reasons why the first initiative didn't work - lack of money was a key problem - but to my mind, one of its most striking features was that very few practising taxonomists or systematists were involved in its creation. Instead, the loudest voices were from the users of systematic research, especially researchers who used the so-called "comparative method" to study the evolution of life history strategies, host-parasite relationships, etc.

For these researchers, a major source of frustration was the lack of accurate phylogenetic trees to describe the interrelationships of the groups that they studied. They attributed this to a lack of trained taxonomists working on these groups, and went from there to making the case that the UK needed more taxonomists. A good thing, one might think. And so it was, as far as it went.

The problem was that this lack of taxonomists was just the outward sign of a much bigger and more complex set of underlying problems; these included the steady erosion of organismal biology in UK undergraduate degree programs, a lack of funding for museum collections, reductions in museum staffing at all levels (not just researchers), and especially a lack of permanent positions in universities and museums; it can take literally decades to acquire expertise in the taxonomy of some groups.

The researcher advocates of the taxonomy iniative were, by and large, ignorant of these issues. The taxonomists weren't. They were also alienated by some of comments made by promoters of the new program, who argued that, for example, funding should only be provided to do research on groups whose systematics are poorly understood. It may be a good way to use limited funds, but it's unlikely to win friends in an academic community that contains many vertebrate workers.

Another issue was hyperbole. The advocates of the program argued that this was a grand scheme for the benefit of humanity - to catalog all the species on the planet and uncover the one "true" phylogenetic tree that links them all. Talk like that tends to irritate practising taxonomists, who are well aware that species boundaries are notoriously fluid (even in relatively well-studied groups like mammals and birds) and that trees change every time new data emerges.

The end result of all of this was that the community that should have coalesced around the new initiative - a multidisciplinary collaboration between taxonomists, collection managers, biologists, conservationists, and the wider academic world; a community that could have perhaps leveraged more funding than the relatively modest amounts available to NERC - never formed. In time, the comparative method biologists moved on to other problems and the taxonomy initiative fizzled out after five years.

By now, you'll probably have seen where I'm going with this. The national collections digitization strategy is another program with ambitious objectives, albeit better-funded. It is being pushed strongly by the potential users of the newly-captured data. But it does not seem to have captured the imagination, energy, or enthusiasm of the people that actually work on collections. So do we have a problem?

At one level, I'd say no. The digitization iniative has the enthusiastic support of SPNHC, the society representing collections care professionals. SPNHC has pledged to work with applicants for funding under ADBC to help build collaborations with the collection management community and tackle some of the tricky practical issues with capturing large volumes of specimen data in a relatively short period of time. We also have at our disposal a raft of community-support tools - blogs, wikis, etc - that can disseminate information and feed back comments from stakeholders. If they choose to use them.

And this is where the problem comes in. Speaking bluntly, as one collection manager to others, we seem to have a problem historically in responding positively to change in our work and work practices. Our tendency is to assume that no-one understands the job we do; no-one consults with us; and no-one listens to what we say. In the past, sadly, that may have been so. But now, with this initiative, we're being listened to. The problem is, many of us are choosing to say nothing.

Maybe you're keeping your powder dry. Maybe you think that digitization is a distraction from the serious business of caring for collections. Maybe you think it's not enough money, or you suspect that the money that is available won't be coming to you. If so, then the answer is to get engaged. Comment on this blog. Better still, comment on the ADBC blog. Lobby SPNHC. Lobby your discipline-based societies - SVP, ASM, AOU, ASIH....  Do something.

For years, we as a profession have been arguing that what we do is important and that the collections we care for are a critical scientific resource that is worth protecting. Now, finally, we're being listened to. If we act strategically - if we see ADBC as the beginning and work as a community to build on it and leverage more support - then we have the potential to unlock enormous resources in support of our collections. If we stay silent, then I wonder if we'll ever be listened to again.

Friday, October 1, 2010

O. M. G.

I've always felt ashamed of being an acrachnophobe, but having just finished reading a piece on the Brazilian wandering spider (Phoneutria nigriventer) I feel that all my fears may have been justified. Not only is its bite excruciatingly painful, but the venom has also been found to cause increased levels of nitric oxide. What does that do? Well, if you're a dude, it can give you an involuntary erection that is both painful and long-lasting. Ouchy! However, unpleasant though this erection might be, you'd better enjoy it while you can because it might be your last; the venom can also leave you impotent. By grateful that humans are big animals. Lab mice injected with Phoneutria venom "experienced intense penile erections before succumbing to the toxin." That is a bad way to go.

I've never encountered a Brazilian wandering spider, thank God, but I already hate them. I plan on contacting Jeff MacMahan to suggest that the whole genus be wiped from the face of the planet for causing intolerable suffering to other species. And especially the males of other species.