Research To Suffer As Chicago’s Field Museum Of Natural History Redefines Its Mission

As many readers have likely seen in recent news, original scientific research at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History is poised to take a major blow with the announcement that the museum is refocusing its scientific mission and will soon be scaling back its research activities. The Field is in serious financial trouble. In debt for the last decade and for years unable to balance its books, the institution has reached its borrowing limit and must find a way to resolve a 5 million dollar imbalance in its annual budget. For leadership through this growing crisis, the museum hired a new president and CEO, Richard Lariviere, who began his post in October. Last week, Lariviere and the museum’s board of trustees offered the first glimpse of their proposed solution: a 5 million dollar cut in annual operations expenditures, 3 million of which is to be shouldered by the museum’s science departments. Lariviere has stated that the Field plans to restructure its scientific mission, and that deep cuts in research staff – including the museum’s roster of tenured curators – could be expected. This is a scary prospect for the dozens of professional scientists who have built their careers at the museum, and very sad news for folks who, like me, took some of the first steps of their scientific careers there (I worked as a research assistant in the Division of Amphibians and Reptiles for a year after college; this experience shaped my decision to go to grad school, and led me to study lizard evolution!).

For the most part, the details of these upcoming changes have not been resolved, and will be the subject of internal deliberations in early 2013. Nonetheless, there are reasons for serious concern about the future of research at the Field. First, the museum is scrapping its four current research departments (Anthropology, Botany, Geology, and Zoology) in favor of a much leaner “Science and Education” department. In addition, a committee is currently taking preparatory legal steps necessary to lay off tenured curators, an action that is impossible under normal circumstances (to get this done, the museum must declare a state of financial exigency). These actions speak loudly, and the research curators and staff at the Field have real cause for concern following this recent announcement.

This said, most of the specific decisions have yet to be worked out, and administrators have stressed that very little is final. On the bright side, one collections staff member told me that collections will still remain central to the museum, and that some collections-based activities are safeguarded. For example, a number of collections maintenance positions are secure (several are already endowed, for example), and the collections should be able to continue standard operations such as loan processing and hosting of visitors, unabated (scientists shouldn’t refrain from requesting materials or visiting – in fact, such use serves to emphasize the importance of these collections). Nonetheless, research curators serve a vital role for the maintenance and management of collections, providing critical financial and intellectual support and guidance for collection managers and staff. The elimination of research curatorial positions is bound to have lasting effects on the overall health and utility of the FMNH collections.

To an outsider scientist such as myself, it’s not clear what type of potential solution, if any, might preserve the historic focus on original science within the Field Museum. I have no idea, for example, whether this is something that the Field may fundraise itself out of (could a wealthy corporation or individual still “save the day” with a massive endowment?), and I don’t know what other alternatives are being considered for balancing the budget (e.g., do the science departments have to shoulder 60% of cuts, or might the administration take a bigger share of the cuts through additional reductions of executive salaries and positions?). It’s hard to make constructive suggestions without more detailed information about the museum’s financial options. However, I hope that during the next several months the president and trustees will seriously consider a wide range of options as they strive to balance the budget.

What I think I can offer though, is an informed perspective about the tremendous value of the Field’s research divisions. Large research museums such as the FMNH are globally very few, and each plays an outsized role in (1) generating new knowledge about biodiversity and culture, (2) educating and training of thousands of young scientists and professionals, (3) conducting global change science and promoting successful conservation of species and ecosystems, and (4) communicating novel and accurate science to the public. A healthy research faculty is vital to all of these functions, and if the Field shifts its focus away from their faculty, this broad suite of services will be diminished.

Just like at research universities, scientific discoveries are made every day behind the scenes at large natural history museums. Such institutions make particularly large contributions to the discovery of unknown species, towards resolving the evolutionary tree of all life, and to detecting changes in the distributions of plants and animals over time – including those due to climate change. All of this work is also done to some degree by university researchers, but museum scientists are positioned to make the biggest impacts in these areas due to the unique advantage of being able to run full research labs in the very institutions that serve as storehouses for the world’s biodiversity data (i.e., the preserved specimens and tissue collections that generate raw data for these kinds of science). It’s research curators who mentor graduate students making basic discoveries, who attract and host international collaborators to visit and utilize the collection, and who conduct expeditions to augment the museum’s holdings.

Museum curators offer a valuable social service by training countless future scientists and scientifically responsible citizens. Most museum curators were at some point themselves trained at a museum, but curators also mentor large numbers of future professors and applied scientists. In addition, we often forget that scads of students and interns are trained and educated at museums, and continue on to other careers. These students, who end up as doctors, teachers, policy makers, engineers, and analysts benefit no less from their museum training, where they gain skills in research, problem solving, critical thinking, and communication.

Many museums, and especially the Field, are responsible for catalyzing important conservation action. The Field Museum has had great success with its ECCo program (Environment, Culture, and Conservation), which has conducted conservation inventories across Latin America, eventually leading to the protection of 19 million acres of Amazon wilderness. ECCo employs a large staff of conservation researchers and technicians; many curators and collections staff members also play important roles in their inventories.

Research curators also help museums communicate with their public. In his statements about the upcoming organizational changes at the Field Museum, Lariviere indicated that in coming years, the museum would cut costs by featuring more material from its own collections (rather than hosting traveling exhibits). This is a great idea, but it’s the curators who know best what’s interesting and exciting about the collections. Many of the best exhibits tell a story of discovery, or illustrate how a fossil changed our thinking about a scientific hypothesis. Museum researchers know their collections better than anyone else, and are the best source of these powerful stories – without the appropriate context or insight, a specimen on display may fail to capture the imagination of the visitor.

A visitor has a memorable one on one experience with an Asian Carp behind the scenes on Member’s Night at the Field. Photo from EOL (credit: Omar).

Original research is central to all of the activities of the Field Museum of Natural History, a fact that resonates throughout the museum’s historic mission statement. This statement is well worth reading, and it’s also worth keeping in mind that this is the statement that has inspired longstanding financial support by the institution’s patrons. In addition, the details of this mission have been taken into consideration by the multitudes of countries and cultures that have donated specimens and artifacts representing their natural and cultural heritage to the Field’s collections. The Field’s standing as an active, world class research institution has undoubtedly been a key reason so many international authorities have granted it permission to permanently store their natural and cultural treasures.

Due to its circumstances, the Field Museum is seeking to redefine its mission. Unfortunately, in doing so, it risks violating the trust of its financial and material benefactors. According to the Chicago Tribune, Richard Lariviere said “for all of my experience in the philanthropic world, it is rarely the case that you can motivate people to make significant gifts if all you are doing is asking them to help you balance the budget… We have to balance the budget and then tell them the story of why this place is so important to them.”

I would argue that the Field Museum is important for a legion of very real reasons well-described in its historic mission, and not because of a “story” crafted for potential donors. This won’t be news to the museum’s most steadfast supporters, who year after year have shared in the excitement of research and discovery by Field Museum scientists, frequently dropping in on the labs they support, and keeping close tabs on expeditions and new discoveries. I hope that Lariviere and his leadership team think carefully about the changes they’re proposing, and ensure that the very elements that make this institution so important remain intact once they’ve balanced the budget.

Because many of the museum’s plans are not yet final, a petition has been circulated in a show of support for a continued central role for research at the Field Museum. If you agree with it, I encourage you to sign it. It currently has nearly 8500 supporters.

Also, lots of others have written about this over the last week or so. Sarah Werning from UC Berkeley and Greg Mayer (U Wisconsin Parkside) and Jerry Coyne (U Chicago) wrote great posts on other blogs, and news articles have been published by the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times (an article and an editorial), and Science Magazine, among others. If you’re unable to access any of these, email me and I’ll send you a copy.

13 thoughts on “Research To Suffer As Chicago’s Field Museum Of Natural History Redefines Its Mission

  1. Thanks for another thoughtful & carefully written post, Luke. This is indeed a tragic story. Hopefully the outcry from the scientific community will have at least some small effect.

  2. Thanks Liam, I appreciate it. Things have been worrisome at the Field for awhile now, but this is a pretty dramatic shift for the worse. Here’s hoping that a bit of feedback might make a difference… As Greg Mayer and Jerry Coyne pointed out in their post (see above), there’s precedent, so all the more reason to show your support.

  3. Great article, Luke – best of luck to you and the others working on this important issue. Carl and I are happy to lend our support in signing the petition!

  4. This is my first visit here, although I am a regular reader of other Nature Blog Network sites. I browsed my way through your delightful and well-written entries (which I found fascinating despite my minimal interest in life sciences other than human epidemiology, as a statistician).

    I am sad about The Field Museum situation. My heart sunk at this:

    “…there are reasons for serious concern about the future of research at the Field… the museum is scrapping its four current research departments [of] Anthropology, Botany, Geology, and Zoology, in favor of a much leaner ‘Science and Education’ department…”

    That is just awful! It is due to a budget shortfall of $5 Mil, which is no small sum. Yet it would be nothing, infinitesimal in fact, to the technocrat crowd. That was a possibility that you mentioned, in more tactful terms, a philanthropic donation from a patron. It would be best to try to find one with undergraduate study (better yet, a PhD!) in a scientific or engineering-related field, as there would be less likelihood of having to plead the case for the importance of basic research. I will propagate your post via the Twitter wire service, in hope of raising additional awareness. Unfortunately, it isn’t a predictable medium, nor do I have any influence.

    My wish: The soi-disant Angels of venture capital would “save” The Field Museum, without interfering with its essential mission. Maybe the wealthy private sponsors of “Race to the Top” might be helpful here? I wish they’d realize that institutions such as The Field Museum of Natural History are the reason we already ARE at “the Top”! We have arrived, awhile ago. To lose basic research support in zoology, geology et. al. clearly portends descent.

    1. Thanks for the thoughts Ellie. You’re right that it’s hard to predict what might inspire people to help out, but it’s probably more likely if folks are aware and talking about it. Many thanks for spreading the word!

  5. Great post Luke. It’s a real shame the the Field Museum has gotten itself into this situation. It’s even more of a shame that the research scientists who weren’t responsible for balancing the budget are now likely to pay the price for the administrators who failed to do so.

    1. Thanks Rich. And you’re right – a sad irony is that the museum took on much of its debt to build a massive new facility for collections and research about a decade ago. This was a controversial decision, mainly due to the cost (65 million), and many of museum’s scientists were opposed to it. This facility is a great addition, but it may ultimately cost the museum the very researchers it was designed to serve.

  6. I’m glad to see the plight of researchers at museums is getting the attention it deserves. Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (RSABG) laid me off (15 years faculty), along with 20% of the staff, particularly in the research and education areas, without ever declaring financial exigency. End result? 1.2 million specimens without a single full-time curator, no librarian, and the graduate classes offered cut in half. (Incidentally, I ran the numbers, and the probability of laying off 9 women and the only openly gay man given the demography of the staff was 0.0625%. Just saying.) They managed to keep their AAM accreditation, heaven knows why. I don’t think the Trustees ever really considered the long-term impact of this kind of a disaster on the future reputation of the institution.

  7. Curator and Scientist, Cape Town.
    Research is fundamental to the on-going process of adding value to collections and, therefore, the ways they can be used to enhance knowledge and public understanding. Collections require context and knowledge if they are to remain up to date and useful in science contributions and public knowledge and awareness through, e.g., publication, lectures and exhibitions, which are equally fundamental, and cannot function in isolation. Financial issues notwithstanding, the envisaged cuts seem short-sighted and suggest a fundamental lack of understanding by the museum’s administrative authorities as to why their own jobs exist in the first place. The effects of cuts, if indeed unavoidable, should be balanced equitably across the board, without fear or favour.

  8. You wrote a fine summary for which I thank you, but I would also urge the scientific community and everyone else who cares to call the representative whose district the Field Museum is in, as well as the Research and Science Education Subcommittee of the Science Committee in Washington–not to mention the presidential comment line. Whether any of that does any good, who knows, but taking action against such a direct hit on this museum might help. Here are some numbers I found yesterday after spending the day calling around. No one in government seems to understand the gravity of the problem, let alone that a problem even exists:
    Danny Davis, the the democratic representative from the district: 202-225-5006 (in Washington); in Chicago his number is 773-533-7520. The Field Museum, a privately owned Not For Profit (but answerable to the Attorney General of the state) can be reached at 312-922-9410. The Science Committee’s number is 202-225-6371. The Research and Science Education Subcommittee, headed by Dan Lapinsky, an Illiniois Democrat, can be reached for comment at 202-225-5701 in Washington; in Chicago the number is 312-886-0481. The Mayor’s office is 312-744-2597. The Governor, Patrick Quinn, also a Democrat, can be reached at 217-782-0244. Please urge everyone to call or write.
    Again, thanks for your fine account of the museum’s financial problems and their historically bad proposed solutions.

    1. Hi Diane,

      I agree – a lot of folks don’t realize that these are some pretty serious proposed changes that would redefine the nature of the Field Museum. Unfortunately, Lariviere firmly denies this and has dug in his heels in the face of the criticism he’s received. In a recent interview with Science, he “It’s absurd to think that we can’t do science because we don’t have a herpetologist. The very notion that these cuts mean the end of science at the museum … doesn’t make sense.” Lariviere doesn’t know what he’s talking about here. As the roster of curators has dropped by a third since a 2008 hiring freeze, the scientific activities that go on in the collections have dropped markedly, especially in divisions – like Amphibians and Reptiles – that now have no curators. When I worked there in 2003-2004, this division was a vibrant place, with two curators, several technicians and interns, postdocs, graduate students, and a healthy stream of visiting collaborators and other scientists. Visiting scientists still use the herpetology collections, to be sure, but the division is a ghost town compared to a decade ago and native research in the division is essentially a thing of the past.

      My biggest worry is that Lariviere and members of the public don’t realize what a huge change it is to remove a research institution’s research faculty. Lariviere has no prior experience with museums (he started his post in October), but for some reason he’s confident that these changes won’t alter the museum’s research impact.

      Those with more experience disagree. Michael Donoghue, who held the same position at a similar institution (he was director of Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History) said ““It feels like we’re watching the Field Museum publicly commit suicide… They’ve basically announced that they’re going to drain the scientific lifeblood out of the place. And that means they’re no longer going to be a player on the stage of the great museums of the world. It’s a really dumb move. There has to be an alternative.” And Neil Shubin, a former provost of the Field Museum, said “An inevitable decline will follow from those cuts… They’ll lose what is unique about the Field: Its scientific authority, which comes from the eminence of their scientists and collections. It will take years to replace, if it can ever be done.”

      I think you’re right that this needs to be communicated more broadly. Thanks for posting those numbers. I encourage people to call them.

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