Nature editorial supports science at the Field Museum

by Greg Mayer

Jerry and I have written about the plight of science at Chicago’s Field Museum, both here at WEIT, and with several colleagues in a letter to Science. In an editorial, Nature, the leading scientific journal of the English-speaking world, has also spoken out in support of science at the Field. In the editorial, Nature decries the imbalance in funding in the biological sciences, and points specifically to the Field Museum:

Solutions to many of the world’s problems will demand intensive research in many disciplines that are too-often excluded from even broad definitions of the life sciences. Efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change will require a detailed inventory of the world’s species (biodiversity, zoology, botany, taxonomy, microbiology, marine biology and so on) and their interactions with one another (ecology) and the environment.

Research into many of these areas is undertaken in museums. At the time the Breakthrough Prize was announced, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois, was facing tough decisions over a major shortfall in income. It is in the process of disbanding its separate research departments, reducing both the museum’s capacity for research into biodiversity and its high quality of educational outreach — crucial in a nation in which the very idea of evolution is perpetually under threat.

The occasion for the editors to make this plea was the announcement last month of the awarding of the “Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences“, a new and extremely generous prize ($3 million per person for 11 people!) funded by several Silicon Valley billionaires. Nature laments that even one of these awards going to a research museum like the Field would have a huge impact, not just on one recipient’s lab, but on entire scientific departments.

Further cuts will be necessary; the museum announced in December that it will have to slash $3 million from its research budgets (see Nature http://doi.org/j6q; 2012): an amount, coincidentally, that is equivalent to just one Breakthrough Prize, given to just one researcher in life sciences as defined by the Breakthrough Prize Foundation. It is a laudable aim to work for ways to prolong lives, even those that are already long and luxurious. To work for a world that can harbour billions of human beings in tolerable comfort is also worthy of recognition.

Grrl Scientist and Jack Stilgoe, both at the Guardian, raise similar concerns about the misdirection and imbalance of funding in the life sciences. Grrl Scientist notes that giving the prize to individuals ignores the collaborative nature of much science, especially in the award recipients’ fields; the parochial and narrow nature of its understanding of the “life sciences”; and the mistaken notion that scientists are motivated by the same kind of get-lucky-and-strike-it-rich mindset as are technological entrepreneurs. Stilgoe asks, “What’s the point of the Breakthrough science prize?”, answering, “It’s not clear if Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg and Yuri Milner’s award will add to scientific discovery or just Silicon Valley’s ego”. Grrl Scientist summarizes

… this prize is flawed and seriously misguided and thus, I don’t think it will accomplish its stated goals.

In fairness to the prize founders, they were explicit about their limited vision of what the life sciences are in setting up the prize, stating their goal was “to recognize excellence in research aimed at curing intractable diseases and extending human life,” so the fact that the recipients (one of whom, Lew Cantley, was an outstanding shooting guard on my grad school basketball team!) would be limited to biomedical fields could have been predicted. But that they were upfront about their limited and misguided vision does not vitiate its limitations.

3 Comments

  1. vested interest
    Posted March 23, 2013 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    Why there is no money for biological research – some rough thoughts to be refined or cast out..

    I recently watched a popular science program on tv that ranked the 10 most likely things to terminate either life on earth as we have it today or the dominance of hominids.

    They explored being hit by asteroids or comets; bio weapons, nuclear weapons, super-volcano and even disappearing into a black hole of our own making.

    I believe that the latter point is probably the most likely but on a metaphorical level. I am a zoologist not a physicist!

    It seems to me that the “sapiens” element of our specific name falls short of the mark. It is curtailed by short term greed, everywhere, enhanced by vested interest. Of course this view can be explored forever in so many political avenues but that would be to miss the point.

    We live in a delicately balanced and (currently) closed system which we neither understand nor, overall, are in a position to care about. Whether it is the greed of loggers, fossil fuel companies, bankers financing the wrong thing or societies and their politicians being set up to only be able to work with such a short planning horizon, we are probably on a road to ruin.

    Of course we are developing our environment faster than the ability to be able to cope with it. Evolution of our thinking is not, on the whole, keeping up. We are just like the fox in the chicken coop. We will want all the hens, we want them now, we want to horde them for us and ours and we will defend our horde, even if it is too much for us, against others.

    So the big business cozys up with the politicians and has a nice time. The politicians get voted in and lots more fossil fuel is burnt and the system perpetuates. Look how long it took America (by that I mean, presumably, DC) to acknowledge global warming. A combination of paid-for science (by big business), paid for scientists (yes, by big business) and politicians (paid for…) kept the debate open far longer than other continents.

    Biological science has the power to transform the planet. Understanding the human biome and secondary genetic expression can transform medicine – only 10% of our cells are human – that should change our perception of self. The ability to understand complex ecosystems and in turn climate control. Nano bots and genetic revolutions are in their infancy. The future should be rosy for Biologists. I hope it becomes so.

    Various states are trying to avoid teaching science or at least adding in creationism instead, if possible, of evolution. Religious passions run deep and high. Big business does the same.

    Biological research can help resolve the problems but it has mighty enemies. Hardly surprising they get no money. They will just expose more inconvenient truths. They are scientists not politicians. They need champions if they are to progress. They will need to be visionary and rich..

  2. Jim Thomerson
    Posted March 23, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Although not as well publicized as the Field Museum situation, shrinking of support for museum based biological research is widespread and ongoing. I first became aware of it in the 1970s with the closing and consolication of ichthyological research collections in California.

    I’m a former Research Associate for Fishes at the Field Museum. There are several thousands of my specimens deposited there, as well as field notes, photographs, reprints,and lab books. I have been donating money here an there specifically to support research on fishes. I’m pretty well committed, but I will query the Field Museum as to the possibility to make dedicated contributions specifically to support the work of the fish collection.

  3. David Duncan
    Posted March 23, 2013 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    What’s gone wrong at the Field? Did they blow a lot of money on something, or are admissions down, donations down, government support down?


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