Nature editorial supports science at the Field Museum

March 23, 2013 • 8:41 am

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.