Tuesday, August 5, 2014



That got your attention, didn't it? As you can see from this graph, generated using Google Trends, it's got the attention of a lot of people at the moment. That vertical line on the right hand side of the graph shows the increase in popularity of 'Ebola' as a search term on Google searches. The fact that the line is vertical is an indication of the acute nature of this interest. All of a sudden, people across the word are very interested in this relatively rare, but exceedingly nasty hemorrhagic fever.

Museums should be very interested in this, for a couple of reasons. First, it's crying out for the deployment of a pop-up style exhibit on emergent diseases and zoonoses - this is exactly the sort of urgent human health/wildlife/lab science issue that we should be jumping all over. We're seen as a trusted source of information and here is an issue where public interest is intense and panic is already bubbling under (read some of the comments made on this article, for example).

Related to this, it's a prime opportunity to talk about the potential of museum collections to address matters of public interest, in this case Emergent Infectious Diseases (EIDs). This was a major thrust of my Cardiff talk (and, unfortunately, the source of the "Chris Norris hates bats" conference meme) and I'm going to beg your indulgence to repeat it here.

Some years back, while I was working at the American Museum of Natural History, we got a large grant from NSF to recurate the Museum's collection of bats, which runs to about 120,000 specimens. At the time, I had an interesting conversation with my big brother, Peter, about the the whys-and-wherefores of this project. Specifically, he expressed disbelief that I was getting paid to mess around with a bunch of pickled bats.

The broader implications of this, in terms of whether one's job is "nice" or "essential" - my brother, being a doctor, put me in the former category and himself in the latter - are something that I'm going to explore in later posts, but at the time my defense of the bat project revolved around the fact that bats are inherently interesting.

Bats are the second most diverse group of mammals (in terms of numbers of species); they fly; they echolocate; they're major pollinators and agents of insect control; and many of them are critically endangered. They can help us illuminate a variety of evolutionary and ecological problems and we need a better understanding of their systematics if we're to develop effective conservation strategies. Bat collections like the one at AMNH are a vital tool for this, and the only way to ensure that they remain accessible for researchers is to invest public funds in their care and curation.

That's the approach I took at the time, but 15 years on I think I'd probably approach things in a different way, and I'd start by telling him that bats are a major host species and vector for some very nasty zoonotic diseases, including the SARS, Nipah, Cedar, and Hendra viruses; a number of influenzas; and rabies. They're also strong candidates for the hosts of the Marburg virus and - surprise, surprise - Ebola.

Bats are the subject of intense interest by the virology community at the moment. There's something about bat physiology which, combined with their ability to fly, makes them ideal for incubating and dispersing viruses. The extent of the viral diversity within bats is quite staggering - a 2013 study of the "virome" of the Indian fruit bat Pteropus vampyrus revealed that it was the host for 55 different types of virus. 50 of these were previously unknown and of the 5 that were, one - Nipah virus - had already jumped to humans.

Now, consider that bat viromes are quite species-specific, and bats are incredibly speciose. Also consider that many of these species are poorly known, and occur in tropical rainforest that is rapidly being cleared for cultivation. And as the forest is cleared, humans and our domestic animals are going to come into contact with bats - and viruses - that we haven't previously encountered. It doesn't take a background in virology to appreciate the potential for disaster.

If we are to respond effectively to the threat of emergent diseases, we need to catalog and map bat diversity, and to describe the viral diversity within bat species. And guess what - museums can do this. We have global collections of bats that could not be replicated without massive financial investment, and an ever-expanding palate of modern molecular techniques like pan-virus-specific primers and rapid sequencing arrays that let us extract and identify viral DNA from within natural history specimens.

To me, this is - sadly perhaps - a far more compelling argument for funding the study of bats than emphasizing what truly amazing animals they are. There are a number of potential funders who will give you money because bats are interesting, but there are far more people who will give you a lot more money because they are a potential hazard to human health.

Traditionally, natural history museums have based their outreach strategy on instilling in the public a sense of wonder about the natural world, drawing on their collections to support this. But as we face of world of shrinking public funding, we have to ask some hard questions about whether this is enough and about whether we're doing a good enough job of telling the public about how those collections affect their day-to-day life, and their potential for making the world a better place. We also have to ask whether a sense of wonder is still a sufficient motivation to guarantee public funding.

Consider these numbers, taken from a 2008 review of EID events. Of the 335 such events that were recorded between 1940 and 2004, 60% were zoonotic - in other words, cases where disease had jumped to humans from another animal species. Of these zoonotic events, 72% originated with wildlife. In the words of the authors of the study "zoonoses from wildlife represent the most significant growing threat to global health from all EIDs.

If you want motivation for funding museum collections to catalog and study the natural world, you need look no further than that.

Monday, August 4, 2014


A few weeks ago I gave a talk at the 2014 SPNHC meeting on advocacy for natural history museums in the 21st Century. It was subtitled "when popularity isn't enough." The talk seemed to be well received, but reading a few on-line comments afterwards, I wasn't entirely sure that people had got the point. "Chris Norris says bats are scary," was one such comment. "I think it's a shame that the public have to be scared of collections to support them," was a comment made by one of my fellow speakers.

Of course, I didn't say either of those things and that wasn't the point of the talk. So at the risk of flogging a dead horse, and with apologies to any of you that were at the talk and got the point, I thought it was worth rehearsing the argument again. Perhaps with less bats and Ebola this time.

The talk in question was, first-and-foremost, about motivation; how do you get people to spend public funds on natural history museums and their collections when there are many more things that they could be spending the taxpayers' money on? It's a significant issue, for the foreseeable future at least, because of the ways in which the world is changing.

In the developed world people are living longer, and the costs of the medical treatments needed to keep them alive is rising dramatically as well. That means that the segment of public funding that governments have little or no control over - healthcare, social security, retirement benefits, etc. - is also climbing dramatically. In the U.S., as of 2010, public healthcare costs worked out at around 6.7% of GDP. By 2050, that fraction is predicted to rise to 14.9%.

Mandatory Spending - as that encumbered cost is referred to - accounts for around 60% of the U.S. Federal Budget. Out of the remainder that Government has control of on a year-by-year basis - called Discretionary Spending - comes everything else. It does include some money for museums, but it also includes funding for a bunch of things that people really care about - education, defense, medical research. And, to pick one particular example that's in the forefront of many people's minds at this time of year, control of wildfires.

Did you know that during the summer the U.S. Federal government spends $100 million a week on preventing and tackling wildfires? It adds up to around $2 billion a year. Set against this, the $5 million dollars a year spent by NSF on collections support seems pretty puny. Obviously there are strong motivations for allocating money to fire control - uncontrolled fires cause massive damage to land and property, and are a risk to people's lives and livelihoods. So how can museums compete with this level of urgency?

The answer, of course, lies in cooperation, not competition. In this case, for example, it is believed that one major factor in the increasing risk presented by wildfires is climate change, and one of the various ways that climate change affects wildfires is by promoting the spread of new types of insect pests. Pests kill trees, dead trees fuel fires. If you suddenly get an increase in the number of dead trees in a stand of forest, it's likely to affect the fire regime of that area.

So, if you're going to plan how to spend that $100 million a week most efficiently, it might be worth trying to map areas where pest species are occurring in places that they haven't been seen before, and for that you need data on historic occurrences that are found in museum collections. Better-curated collections equals better fire prevention, and that's surely worth devoting a small fraction of that massive fire control budget towards achieving.

Of course, it's not as simple as that. There are a significant number of people (and unsurprisingly they're on the right of the political spectrum) who think that money is better spent on fighting fires than preventing them, or using fire-prevention as leverage to allow more logging on public lands. Using funds to support entomologists and museum collections is unlikely to sit well with this constituency, especially as this strategy also involves some level of acknowledgment that the cause of the problem lies with climate change.

And then there's the fact that scientists find it relatively difficult to say for sure how pest distributions relate to fire patterns. Like many things in nature, it's complicated. Once again, part of the answer may lie with data in museum collections, but it takes time and money to tease it out. That doesn't sit well with politicians and public who want immediate answers and decisive action.

So, there's our advocacy challenge - how do we demonstrate that museums are relevant to things that people care about, to the extent that it's worth taking some of the money budgeted for those things and directing it towards us? It seems like a no-brainer, and yet the level of public funding that's going into museums suggests that we're not doing as good a job as we might hope.

IMO, a good advocacy strategy for natural history collections should have 5 characteristics:

  • The strategy must be based on public benefits
  • It should be rooted in success, not failure
  • It should be forward-looking, not harping back
  • It should depend on relevance, not curiosity value
  • It must be flexible and scaleable
I'm going to explore each of these in detail in the next few posts. But first, in a shameless attempt to capitalize on recent news, I am going to talk about Ebola...