On the unkindest cut of all

We’ve been talking about the deficit, budget cuts, what this means for science and whether we should fight our corner and all sorts of stuff in the last couple of months or so.

So, through the wonders of Facebook last Friday night I discovered that whole research groups are being cut, preemptively, at the Natural History Museum. Get the full story at the day job. (hey! Reportage!)

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Scientist, poet, gadfly
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25 Responses to On the unkindest cut of all

  1. Henry Gee says:

    Ah me, what goes around, comes around. I remember being a young reporter on Nature covering the last wave of cuts at the NHM a decade ago. The new Director, Neil Chalmers, came in during a recession to find a moribund institution with no endowment; no sources of income apart from the Government; and a modest grant, around 97% of which went on payroll – clearly unsustainable. He made quite a few cuts, and made himself very unpopular at the time, but he transformed the place. I suspect history will look kindly upon him. Or his decisions, at any rate.
    The present decisions are of course awful, but the legacy of the last government means that cuts will have to be made everywhere, particularly in the public service. I reckon that if Chalmers hadn’t done what he’d done ten years ago, there’d be no museum at all whence savings might be made.
    A high-profile casualty of the last round was palaeobotanist Chris Hill, the first (and, in fact, one of the few) non-voluntary redundancies. I sometimes wondered what happened to Chris – but I met him a few weeks ago having a great time at the Institute of Geology and Palaeontology in Nanjing, where he has more fossils than he can eat, and appears to be having a great time.
    As it happens, China is a great place for micropalaleontology, and I wouldn’t be surprised were some of the soon-to-be-former staff at the NHM or elsewhere tomake their way to the Middle Kingdom, or Zhong Guo, as they say in Beijing. We could be seeing the start of a new Brain Drain, not from the UK to the US, but from both countries to China. In fact, I have some evidence that this is already happening.

  2. Richard P. Grant says:

    Chalmers must have done a good job, cos the NHM is actually pretty healthy right now (Darwin Centre, q.v.).
    Still, didn’t stop the current director playing a straight bat and directing me to the press office when I asked him some questions. Who are, of course, completely useful. cough

  3. Alejandro Correa says:

    Or Dr. Chalmers will be the same The Hounds of Tindalos, who said:
    We are just now discovering that the old alchemists and sorcerers were right about two-thirds, and its modern materialist biologist is wrong in nine tenths.
    But this Chalmers is dead.
    Oh my God, that is an confussion.

  4. Richard P. Grant says:

    Well, I’m certainly confused now.

  5. Alejandro Correa says:

    Someone should clarify this confusion.

  6. Henry Gee says:

    Don’t look at me, I’m lost too.

  7. Alejandro Correa says:

    I investigate over there that the only one who can clarify this is Frank Belknap Long
    Thinking it was so obviously.

  8. Alejandro Correa says:

    Ugh, I could not contact with Frank Belknap, they tell me who died in January 3, 1994.

  9. Alejandro Correa says:

    I am totally perplexed and confuciusornis confused.

  10. Alejandro Correa says:

    I remember a statement remarkable of Dr. Chalmers (I hope it is the same NHM):
    Only the scientific dogmatism. He replied. I’ve always been a rebel, a champion of lost causes, which is why I have decided to reject the conclusions of modern biologists.

  11. Richard P. Grant says:

    Hum. Having googled him I’m going to have to say
    [citation needed]

  12. Richard P. Grant says:

    Seriously though, let’s think about this.
    You can visit the NHM in London for free. This PDF of visitor numbers shows that visits to the Museum have doubled to over 3 million annually since entrance was made gratis.
    Now, if the NHM started charging again, a small amount (say 2 quid), then even if numbers dropped off a bit (which wouldn’t be a bad thing–it’s always crowded there), then the 2.3 million they’re looking for would walk in off the street.

  13. Alejandro Correa says:

    [citation needed]. Of course, the citation is:
    Ref. The houndle of Tindalos
    Frank Belknap.
    of The Cthulhu Mythos

  14. Richard P. Grant says:

    That might be Halpin Chalmers.

  15. Alejandro Correa says:

    But is probably Neil Halpin Chalmers, Director of NHM.
    Of course someone will need to know?

  16. Richard P. Grant says:

    That’s Sir Neil Chalmers of course, and I suspect he’s got bigger lawyers than me.

  17. Alejandro Correa says:

    Maybe it would be good to do a letter a Sir Neil Chalmers and get a good job in the NHM, now.

  18. Alejandro Correa says:

    I’m sorry but I lost the english formality because of my long permanency in Cromer wit Crox, now that I’m in London and see so many people moving from one place to another is shocking, Sir Richard Grant, you understand me.

  19. Richard P. Grant says:

    That’s the problem, innit?

  20. Alejandro Correa says:

    Yes. So adapt again.

  21. Brian Derby says:

    I visited the NHM on Monday with the kids (no school, so need to provide entertainment). We visited the Darwin Centre and although it is interesting, the static display with its video commentators is less interesting on a revisit because the cuddly comments are designed for visitors (school kids?) with short attention spans and do not give enough detail. One thing that was noticable was the low level of activity seen through the windows into the “labs”. Although a number of the work areas were occupied with workers at desks/benches, there were a number of rather empty rooms – not abandoned, just absent people. Of course it is well known that if I take visitors to my students’ work area, they will all have vanished but the impression of the NHM was that it was not a hive buzzing with activity.

  22. Richard P. Grant says:

    (Sense at last. Thanks Brian)
    That display wasn’t as impressive as I’d been let to believe it was. I actually thought they missed a huge opportunity.
    I was talking to Karen James (and as you know, she’s in one of the videos, talking about peer review) about this, and… well, I should ping her to come and tell you about it, I guess.

  23. Karen James says:

    What’s that pinging sound?
    Loved the ‘cuddly comments’ remark, Brian, and have to agree with your assessment in general. I think the most useful thng for me to do here is not to defend but to explain. It is universally bemoaned that professional science communicators, as a group, tend to underestimate the sophistication of their audiences, young and old. Your point about the commentators not giving enough detail, especially for repeat visitors, is valid and I suspect at least two of them would agree! I think the official line is that those who want more can attend one of our Nature Live meet-the-scientist events and/or load up their Nature Plus cards with links and explore from their computers later. (Out of curiosity, were you aware the cards were an option?)
    Your remark about the quietness of the labs is interesting. This could be partly just bad luck (maybe we were all at a seminar, maybe it was tea time) but most likely it’s 1) that they gave us all permanent workstations i.e. our computer desks out of view so that no one has to be in the public gaze all day, 2) that grad students and post-docs don’t always keep normal working hours, 3) that the designers made certain assumptions about our work patterns that aren’t always correct, 4) that to minimise the fishbowl effect on staff, lab benches (where you might spend several hours at a time) were put far from the window and work areas like PCR machines and DNA extraction robots (that you’d only ever stand in front of for a few minutes at a time anyways) were put closest to the viewing window. In other words there was a lot of compromise between what’s best for visitors and what’s best for staff. That said, we did warn the designers way in advance that the area might frequently look empty… and I should just probably stop there.

  24. Richard P. Grant says:

    Thanks Karen. The repeat visits is the crucial thing, I reckon.
    I must say, the personalized tour of the tank rooms was pretty darned good!

  25. Richard Carter, FCD says:

    I know I’m hideously old-fashioned on this subject, but I like my natural history museums to have dead animals in glass cases; not live scientists.

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