Classified information sees the light

April 21, 1995

The Natural History Museum has for the first time appointed a science director, reflecting the importance it now attaches to its long-hidden but expanding research work, Aisling Irwin writes.

The move demonstrates how the museum has changed since 1990 when it was wracked by redundancies. It has tried to focus, publicise and apply its research. Now, the museum is capitalising on the demand for biodiversity-related research around the world - a third of its income comes from sources other than the Department of National Heritage, such as research council grants and consultancy fees, and it is increasingly collaborating with universities.

Along the huge corridors of the museum where the public does not go, and where many of its 68 million specimens are stored, is Paul Henderson, the new science director. He has been at the museum since 1977, and says: "I've seen the natural history museum change in culture dramatically. The scientists have realised that there's good pure science that links in with issues that are very much applied.

"The bulk of staff welcome the change because it gives them new intellectual challenges. They realise we've got to do a lot more to show the world the relevance of our work: for survival of the institution but also for survival of the subject".

The core of the museum's work is systematics, the classifying of animal, vegetable and mineral. It was seen by many as a dusty subject until two recent events moved it into the spotlight, helping the museum in its quest for publicity.

First, the House of Lords published a report in 1993 highlighting the importance of systematics and calling for it to be taught more at universities. The museum is now running short courses for undergraduates and two postgraduate courses in taxonomy.

The second boost was the 1992 Earth summit: "It was critical for us," says Professor Henderson. "Many countries have signed the biodiversity convention. That's where we see ourselves playing a big role: we can provide the information for developing countries to tackle what they need to do."

The United Kingdom's response, the Darwin Initiative, has led to many projects. The museum won Pounds 340,000 of the most recent Pounds 3 million funding wave announced a few weeks ago. Professor Henderson says that systematics will always be the core of the museum's work: "There's a huge number of species that are still unknown; many remain undescribed".

But it has many other research projects, including searching for oil and minerals, finding cheap ways of dealing with sewage effluent and studying the environmental effects of mining in Africa.

The museum is sharing its research with universities. With University College London it is running the Fluids in the Crust Initiative, studying issues such as the quality of ground water. And it is trying to increase its research student numbers, in partnership with universities.

But Professor Henderson is still sensitive about whether outsiders value science at the museum. He thinks the Government has failed to give it credit for finding income from other sources. He thinks the "pivotal role" the museum has to play in tackling the world biodiversity problems is still not understood. "The museum has had to work very hard to get its recognition," he says.

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