Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Australian Science Review, museums & science

John Long, Australian Science Review – museums are a critical element of science, Cosmos, 6 January 2023

In September 2022 the Australian Government announced plans to refresh Australia’s Science and Research Priorities and National Science Statement.

The ARC Review Panel will provide the Minister for Education with an Interim Report by 31 December 2022 and a Final Report by 31 March 2023. 

The proposed review of science policy and priorities in Australia by Minister ED Husic is indeed welcome and long overdue. While the key points raised in the Minister’s Press Release are indeed important ones to start with, there are always areas that have been long overlooked as being significant to the nation that should be included in future science policy and funding decisions.  Here I will address one area of concern and why it is vitally important to be included in any discussion of science policy in Australia.

Professor John Long

In the past two decades we have seen a subtle shift in how certain areas of research in the biological and earth sciences are valued and funded. For example, our state museums and federal natural history collections are poorly funded with loss of specialist staff , many with irreplaceable knowledge, over the past two decades. Whereas museum scientific staff could once apply and compete for federal research funding through the Australian Research Council (ARC), this opportunity was taken away from them about 10 years ago.

Contrast this to the USA where the National Science Foundation (NSF) funds taxonomy, (the study of classification and relationships of species), collections management and infrastructure. During my time at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History in California, where I directed the research program, I was pleasantly surprised at just how much funding the entomology curator kept winning through competitive grants. He was a specialist one group of flies yet his work was shown to be relevant to understanding how bee hives were collapsing around the country, threatening a $15 billion apiary industry. Today, museum scientists in Australia can only get ARC funding if they hold a part time position with a university. This simply doesn’t make sense and completely undervalues both the role of taxonomy and natural history collections as arguably the most valuable stored non-digital resource  in Australian science today.

Collections of Australian insects in our state museums and federal institutes help us identify new invasive pests and build biosecurity defences, plus enable identification of new species with innate value for understanding and managing ecosystems. All of this starts with base collections used for research which are worked on and continually added to as more field work is done. Taxonomy underpins vitality in our Agriculture, as well as innovation in Pharmaceuticals. For example, Leeds University researcher Dr. Paul Beales has discovered that the venom of a wasp from Brazil suppresses the growth of bladder and prostate cancer cells.  Australia has over 12,000 species of wasps, but how many more are yet to be discovered , some with possibly undiscovered new agents for medical research, if we had a well-funded team experts engaged in researching them?  This applies many other kinds of organisms yet to be discovered, from fungi through to deep sea fishes.

Taxonomy provides a profound understanding of biodiversity and sets the baselines for ecosystem studies; it is vital for the future sustainability of all our natural resources, on land, in our soils, and in our seas. The same can be said of our vast geological collections, which hold historical value associated with early mining and ore deposits, as well as a serving as a resource for the study of tectonic processes and mineral genesis. There are many other collections of value that inform industry sustainability those relevant to fisheries, coral reef biodiversity, botanical collections, and microbial collections to name a few. The latent value of our natural history collections is simply priceless.

The Natural History Museum (NHM) in London, posts a bold statement on its web site: The Museum’s 80 million objects form the world’s most important natural history collection. The scientific community is using the collection to answer key questions about the past, present and future of the solar system, the geology of our planet and life on Earth.

2021 news release by the museum indicated that digitising the NHM’s collections could contribute over 2 billion pounds to the UK economy.  Since digitising 4.93 million objects in its collection (2015) it has resulted in over 28 billion downloads contributing to 1407 peer-reviewed scientific publications.  These papers include valuable contributions to our understanding of climate change, biodiversity, crop security and human health.

Australian museums have a long way to go to completely digitise their own collections as it not given much priority due to severe underfunding. If it was federal policy and the economic value was clearly elucidated, I’m sure this issue could be easily addressed.  It’s not just collections that need attention, but also staffing at major museums. We have lost a great deal of specialist knowledge through attrition of research positions.  and I fear taxonomy is under threat of extinction in this country I something is not done urgently.  All of the issue s raised above should be considered in the next round of Australia’s Science policy reviews.

John Long is currently Strategic Professor, in Palaeontology at Flinders University (2013-), but has served as Vice President of Research and Collections at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History (2009-2012), as Head of Sciences at Museum Victoria (2004-2009) and as the Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the Western Australian Museum (1989-2004).

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