Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Check out this great article by Stan Friedman on the proliferation of "curators" outside of the traditional heritage institution world (my particular favorite is "Ryan Seacrest, pop culture curator"). Does this prove the oft-quoted dogma of the collections manager that "Any fool can be a curator"?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Get Stuffed

I can understand the principle behind the recent efforts by Rajshahi University Zoology Professor, Dr Bidhan Chandra Das, to train more Bangladeshi taxidermists in order to preserve dead wildlife for use in education. But I'm not sure the exhortation to "stuff more rare animals" hits quite the right note.

Anthropology "Not Anti-Science"

A couple of weeks back, the New York Times reported that the American Anthropological Association had made a decision to strip the word "science" from it's long range plan. This was cast in the light of a science/anti-science struggle within AAA's membership. AAA has now issued a press release which forcefully rebuts the Times article and emphasizes that anthropology draws on research from both the sciences and humanities. This clarification of AAA's position is very welcome, and only the most churlish of readers would respond to it by saying that there's no smoke without fire...

Monday, December 13, 2010

Why We Accession

At first I was puzzled by the headline to this article, entitled "Local museum retrieves some fossils at auction." Why would the Buena Vista Museum of Natural History, which is located in Bakersfield CA, have to go to auction to retrieve its own fossils? Well, of course, the fossils don't actually belong to the BVMNH - this exceptional collection of Miocene marine organisms was in fact the property of a local collector, Bob Ernst. Ernst died in 2007, leaving the fossils to his widow, Mary. Financial pressures have now forced Mrs Ernst to sell the collection. Cue much angst on the part of the Museum, which has been trying to raise funds to buy some of the specimens.

I don't know anything about the specifics of this case, but a study of the Museum's mission statement rang immediate alarm bells. According to their mission, the BVMNH is "the repository of the Bob and Mary Ernst Collection, the largest private collection of Sharktooth Hill Miocene fossils in the World." In a museum context, "repository" is a not a great word. All too often it's code for "I lend it, you pay to look after it, I get it back whenever I want."

The best approach is to accession the specimens so that they become the property of the museum. Most museums only enter into repository arrangements only when there is no other alternative - e.g. for collections that were made on Federal land - and have a legal agreement in place that sets out the expectations of the parties. These include ensuring ongoing access for researchers, providing appropriate curatorial care, and - critically - the circumstances under which specimens can be retrieved by the owner. For most Federal agreements, the museum's expectation would be that we keep the fossils in perpetuity, unless we breach our obligations of care and access.

BVMNH was co-founded by Ernst because of his concerns that Miocene fossils from Sharktooth Hill were being removed by other institutions, including the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the California Academy of Sciences, and the Smithsonian. Apparently, his intention was to make sure that Bakersfield residents would be able to enjoy their local fossil heritage. It's sadly ironic that, should the fossils pass into private ownership, the only material to which they will have access are the specimens whose long-term  accessibility is guaranteed by LACM, CAS, NMNH, etc. As for researchers that have based their studies on specimens from the BVMNH collections, they run the risk that the specimens cited may no longer be available for study by future generations of scholars. I doubt we've heard the last of this one....

[with thanks to Josh Ludtke for bringing this to my attention.....]

Sunday, December 12, 2010

"YouCut" Bad

I am writing this as a former left wing radical and card-carrying member of the Labour Party. In my opinion the whole "YouCut" episode is nothing to do with the public understanding of science and all about the toxicity of modern American politics.

It's a widely acknoweldged fact that Americans have a deep distrust of intellectuals. This is something that the Republicans have never been shy of exploiting and even Democrats have had to acknowledge. It's no accident that one of America's smartest presidents ever (William Jefferson Clinton: Georgetown, Oxford, and Yale; Rhodes Scholar, etc.) spent most of his presidency honing his best Jed Clampett impression. Sad to say, the current president may be brought low because he's smart, well-educated, and not afraid to show it.

Science is an easy target because most people don't understand it and because scientists are easy to caricature as out-of-touch with reality. Combine that with the fact that they often work on things that are a major turn-off to the Republican base - stem cell research, evolutionary biology, and climate change are a few that spring to mind - and you have a sure-fire recipe to turn research funding into another productive front in the culture wars. Politicians don't attack science because they don't understand it. They attack it because they know that other people don't.

Another issue that makes NSF an attractive target for politicians is that the destination of monies allocated to science via the agency is determined by peer review - i.e. by scientists and scientific priorities. This is anathema to most politicians, who would like to dole out big research grants through the same system of political patronage that determines most other Federal funding. Under this model, the decision as to whether a multi-million dollar research grant was given to, say, Harvard or Kansas would be determined by how much you needed the votes of the Kansas senator vs those of the senator from Massachusetts.

Of course, I'm not dewy-eyed enough to believe that political factors play no role in the award of large grants, especially and the mega-grant level, but NSF is scrupulous in its employment of peer review, to an extent not matched by all Federal agencies. The idea of all that potential pork being handed out on the say-so of a bunch of pointy-headed intellectuals must drive Members of Congress batty.

Of course, the problem with taking a "negative" stance is that while it's much more fun, it doesn't really take you anywhere. So that's my challenge to the "YouCut" people. Rather than the public telling us what should be cut, why not have them tell us what should be funded. Pick your favorite proposals and then let's publish them and see what everyone thinks. No? Well that's not surprising. Because that's not the debate that you're interested in having, is it?

"YouCut" Good

I'm am writing this as a member of Britain's educational elite (MA Oxon, St John's, 1988) and adopting the persona of a firm, but caring conservative in the mold of my contemporaries David Cameron (Brasneose, 1988) and Boris Johnson (Balliol, 1987). From this perspective, I think it's entirely reasonable that in these fiscally challenging time our elected representatives should ask the public to consider whether they are really getting good value for money from Federally-supported research.

To me, the issue here is one of public understanding of science. By and large, scientists have not been particularly good at explaining to the public what they are doing with all those taxpayer dollars. This becomes rapidly apparent when you begin to search the NSF database, as suggested by the YouCut program. Few of these projects feature anything like a Plain English summary of why the project is important, how it will improve people's lives, and how the money is going to be spent.

Instead, discussion of the "broader impacts" of the work are dominated by grant-speak phrases like "synergy," "cyberinfrastructure," "proactive," "leverage," and "transformational." This "verbiage" (another grant-speak term) isn't good science, nor is it even very meaningful. It's just gobbledygook. Minimally, any project worthy of public funding ought to come with an explanation, understandable to most members of the public, of why they're having to pay for it.

Many scientists will argue that their work is so complex and the U.S. public is so scientifically illiterate that such as task is impossible. To which I say "bullsh*t." Consider this explantion, one of a number that were produced by partical physicists in 1993 in response to a challege from the then U.K. Minister for Science to produce an answer that would fit on one page to the question "What is the Higgs boson, and why do we want to find it?" If you can do this for sub-atomic physics, surely one of the most abstruse branches of science, then why not biology, genetics, social sciences, or any other discipline?

"YouCut" is a challenge, but it's not an unreasonable one. Rather than protest loudly that we are under attack by a bunch of know-nothings, we should embrace the opportunity of providing better access to, and understanding of, publicly-funded research.

Not the Best of Weeks

It hasn't been the greatest of weeks for science in the U.S.A. First, serious concerns began to emerge about the lab work behind the discovery of an arsenic-digesting bacterium, which was announced with great fanfare by NASA a week previously. My friend and colleague Carl Zimmer has produced a great synposis of these issues for Slate, which you can read here.

What's particularly saddening is that, according to Carl, his article is already being picked up by Tea Party bloggers and websites, who are using it to add to the growing clamour from the Right for tighter controls on Federal funding of science, more skepticism about climate change research, and you name it. This is an unfortunate time for a high profile case that casts doubt on scientific practice and procedures to hit the news.

Over at the New Yorker, Jonah Lehrer has been doing a great job of undermining my confidence in science by publishing an excellent article on the Decline Effect, a phenomenon by which repeated re-testing of apparently rock-solid scientific results results in their becoming less, rather than more convincing with time. The conclusion the article comes to is that it may be next-to-impossible to prove anything experimentally. Sigh.

Which raises the question of why we don't just do like the anthropologists and abandon science altogether. On Thursday, the New York Times reported that the American Anthropological Association has been thrown into turmoil by a decision at its recent annual meeting to strip the word “science” from a statement of its long-range plan. "Why" you might ask? Well this highly entertaining blog post by Alice Dreger gives some background, but essentially the take home message is that the Right has no monopoly on wingnuts.

Meanwhile I had promised a more detailed follow-up to the whole "YouCut" assault on NSF, but when I came to consider it in detail I realized that I was so schizoid on this subject that I would have to right two posts from diametrically opposed positions. So that's what I did. If you want a sensible analysis of the situation, this is a very good article from USA today. If, on the other hand, you want to know what I think, read on......

Saturday, December 11, 2010


Man, I love lolcatz. Who doesn't?

One Down

The first of the three grant proposals I had on my plate was submitted yesterday - congratulations to all the people who put in a ton of work on this. Fortunately, my part was a fairly small one. However, that still leaves two to go. Next deadline, December 31st. Ugh.

One knock-on effect of all the activity, grant or otherwise, this year is that the number of posts on PoH will be less than last year. Nonetheless, I've set myself the goal of hitting 100 by the end of December. Of course, there'll be no sacrificing quality; you won't catch me publishing worthless stuff just to get the numbers up. And that's a cast-iron commitment.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Wisdom of the Crowd

This topic deserves a lengthier post - and rest assured, reader, one is coming - but for now, a quick heads up about the Republicans' "YouCut" initiative, which allows the public to select Federally-funded projects that they believe should be cut as worthless. This week they were taking aim at NSF, encouraging citizens to search NSF's awards database for projects they felt were wasteful and then send the grant numbers to YouCut. Note that one of the key words they suggest to help narrow the search is "museum." Sigh. Of course, this isn't the first time that NSF support of museums has been criticized - you may recall this case from earlier in the year. But that was just the numb-nuts at Fox News; this time it's people that actually control funding allocations. There are good reasons for using tax payer dollars to support science in museums and you can rest assured that SPNHC, NSCA, AIBS and a bunch of other organizations will be making that case over the next couple of years. It's not going to be an easy ride... more on that later.


Ah, the noble science of oology, useless for just about anything except Scrabble (and even then it won't net you many points). To have a collection of birds eggs these days is about one stage up from being found in possession of... well, I'll leave that to your imagination. Anyway, apparently I missed this court case back in March, but it's already having implications for natural history collections. A post on the NatSCA listserve this week alerted recipients to the availability of an historic collection of shells. The owner was selling the antique cabinet that housed the shells, but couldn't find an auctioneer who would take the collection itself for fear of possible prosecution. While I'm no great fan of the commercial market for natural history specimens, one has to wonder how many UK natural history collections will just get dumped in the future because of publicity about this prosecution.