Published: January 12, 2013

Will we maintain our connections to other natural history institutions around the world?

John Bates, Curator and Section Head, Life Sciences, Negaunee Integrative Research Center

Our connections to institutions like ours across the world help other natural history institutions in the myriad of countries where we work. 

Another interest of mine that I hope does not get left out of the refocusing that is currently underway at The Field Museum is our connections to other institutions like ours across the world.  I feel like we could do so much more with respect to helping other natural history institutions in the myriad of countries where we work.  I’m going to finish this post with a letter that I submitted in response to a 2004/2005 article that Mac Chapin wrote for Worldwatch entitled:  A challenge to conservationists: Can we protect natural habitat without abusing the people who live in them?  Chapin was taking the large conservation organizations to task for being insensitive and overbearing with respect to the issues of local people when trying to create protected areas across the world, but to me, Chapin made a common error in leaving academic institutions (natural history museums, universities and research stations) out of his discussion.

The connection between natural history museums, local people and conservation should be obvious, but as I said, Chapin didn’t even mention them as being part of a larger equation.  That bothered me because everywhere we in the Bird Division have worked, we’ve had a natural history museum associated with our work, and I think these institutions are and should be part of the solution for getting people to appreciate the value of the natural world around them.  These museums come in a broad assortment of sizes and capacity.  The National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi rivals the Field Museum in terms of activity and collection areas.  They have Botany, Zoology, Earth Sciences and Cultural Heritage Departments and a Centre for Biodiversity.  The public displays include what is literally one of the best displays of regional bird diversity of mounted birds in the world as well as a modern exhibit on human origins and more.

The Museu Goeldi in Belem, Brazil is another institution with a distinguished history of research on Amazonian biodiversity and the collections and exhibits to match.  At the other end of the spectrum is a small museum in Cobija, Bolivia, or the network of museums that make up the Museums of Malawi or the Zoology Museum on the Makerere University campus in Kampala, Uganda.  Others include the CRSN, Lwiro research station (D. R. Congo), and the Museo de Historia Natural Noel Kempff Mercado (Santa Cruz, Bolivia).  These institutions all play a role in educating the public about biological and cultural diversity for their visitors.  They also are touchstones for experts because of collections.  But the only if they have suitable support to keep talented staff and researchers.  So how can we help them?  Everyone has different needs.  Steven Waimiti of the National Museum of Kenya is coming this week to Chicago to work on the samples of avian feather lice and hosts he has collected in Kenya.  The goal here is to train an expert on feather lice who can go back to NMK and train others in the future (across the museum there have been NMK staff trained in various research and collection areas).  There are plenty of questions that need to be answered.  Sometimes it is equipment, like a new computer or field supplies (e.g., tents and mist nets).  In Cobija, Bolivia, is a small museum that our colleague Dan Brinkmier worked with extensively to help develop exhibits back when he worked for ECCo.  This museum has a small exhibit area and collection space and it is a meeting place for local natural history experts.  Dan helped develop many of the exhibits.  At the CRSN, Lwiro station in the Congo, there are extensive and collections and an outstanding library.  With support from the MacArthur foundation, we’ve worked to get these collections and staff reconnected with the outside world after years of civil turmoil.  Stabilizing these collections in the long term continues to be a concern.

So when I look at who we are as an institution, I think of us as a member of large network of sister institutions with the same goal: to study and teach people about the value of biodiversity throughout the world.  I sure hope that in refocusing that our connections like this do not fall into that category of “we can’t do everything.” 

Here is what I wrote in response to Chapin’s article:

Dear Editor,

Mac Chapin’s November/December 2004 article: “A Challenge to Conservationists” and the responses to it (January/February 2005) failed to address a key element in the bigger picture with respect to indigenous people and conservationists.  Chapin’s main thrust is that the big NGOs are ignoring goals of indigenous people when it comes to conservation planning, the responses to this article were generally along the lines of “the story was incompletely told” or “here is how our organization does things differently.”  In general, letters agreed that Chapin has identified a major issue in international conservation.  But the letters did not address other important aspects of this admittedly complex problem.  One concern that I have is that Chapin implies that “science” is the driving force behind much NGO conservation activity.   Unfortunately, the reality is that this science is largely limited to bringing together enough information to argue for protecting a region and monitoring of megafauna.  Not enough attention has been paid to the need for capacity-building for science in the biodiversity-rich regions of the world.  Chapin and too much of the conservation community and those that fund it seem to often forget that successful long-term conservation will depend not only on the support of local communities, but also on local and regional scientific institutions with properly trained local staff who can continually interact and educate the public about the science behind conservation in an ever-changing world.  Sadly, these institutions seem to be missing from the world of Chapin and those that responded to him.

Of the millions of dollars going to conservation, only a tiny percentage is funding scientific training and staffing at academic institutions in regions of high biodiversity.  I am particularly speaking of institutions like local universities, museums, and research stations.  What is needed is more investment to provide the best education possible for the next generation of scientists capable of documenting, monitoring and arguing for the preservation of biodiversity.  There needs to be more support to establish additional positions at universities so that even broader scientific training and communication can be provided in the future.  Chapin makes a point that staff (including scientists) at the big NGOs may have to follow specific agendas.  This is true, but he never points out that academic institutions present a logical and extant alternative that have traditionally been places where such agendas are not as prevalent.  Unfortunately, in too many countries, the best and brightest young biologists are now siphoned off to work for NGOs, often because NGOs can pay more than an educational institution can.  It strikes me as far too rare to find a large NGO supporting a local academic institution.  In many cases, they simply employ academic staff on a project-by-project basis. 

It is amazing, but Chapin mentions universities once in his entire article and even then they are relegated to a list of entities that received funding from USAID, although he quickly goes on to point out that most of this funding went to large NGOs.  My guess is that in this example, little was spent building the capacity to train future in-country scientists.  Leaving academic institutions out of the conservation equation is simply shortsighted.  Local academic institutions in particular offer an obvious place to bring stakeholders at all levels together.

I am consistently dismayed at the state of support for academic institutions that are involved in biodiversity conservation in the countries where I work.  While staff of the conservation NGOs in the region (or the park staff supported by the NGOs) motor about in their new SUVs and travel to meetings all over the world, academic colleagues ride public buses or dilapidated vehicles that are maintained because there is nothing else and struggle to find funding to go abroad.  Recently, several colleagues at an academic institution came to me saying they wanted to create their own NGO in hopes of being able to carry out their research.  The issue is not just about material resources and I am not saying that all funding should go to improving scientific capacity.  However, I do believe that if there was a better balance of support between traditional academic institutions, NGOs, and indigenous people, then interactions might be better at all levels.  Academic institutions offer what may be the best avenue to make governmental agencies more accepting players with respect to biodiversity conservation.   I hope that the major foundations, who have long supported educational institutions throughout the world, will not lose sight of the fact that the people at these institutions and those they train can and will, if given the proper support, conduct scientific research that will have a have a huge impact on successful conservation in the future.  In this sense, local academic institutions represent a much more critical long-term resource than conservation NGOs.  They also may represent the best places to establish the connections with local communities that Chapin and others feel the large NGOs currently lack. 


John Bates

John Bates
Curator and Section Head, Life Sciences

Contact Information

The tropics harbor the highest species diversity on the planet.  I am most intrigued by evolution at the tips of the tree of life.  My students and I study genetic structure in tropical birds and other organisms to address how this diversity evolved and how it continues to evolve as climates change and humans continue to alter landscapes.

We study comparative genetic structure and evolution primarily in the Afrotropics, the Neotropics, and the Asian tropics.  I am an ornithologist, but students working with me and my wife Shannon Hackett and other museum curators also have studied amphibians and small mammals (bats and rodents) and more recently internal, external and blood parasites (e.g., Lutz et al. 2015, Block et al. 2015, Patitucci et al. 2016).  Research in the our lab has involved gathering and interpreting genetic data in both phylogeographic and phylogenetic frameworks. Phylogenetic work on Neotropical birds has focused on rates of diversification and comparative biogeography (Tello and Bates 2007, Pantané et al 2009, Patel et al. 2011, Lutz et al. 2013, Dantas et al. 2015).  Phylogeographic work has sought to understand comparative patterns of divergence at level of population and species across different biomes (Bates et al 2003, Bates et al. 2004, Bowie et al. 2006, I. Caballero dissertation research, Block et al. 2015, Winger and Bates 2015, Lawson et al. 2015).  We also have used genetic data to better understand evolutionary patterns in relation to climate change across landscapes (e.g., Carnaval and Bates 2007) that include the Albertine Rift (through our MacArthur Grants, e.g., Voelker et al. 2010, Engel et al. 2014), the Eastern Arc Mountains (Lawson dissertation research, Lawson et al. 2015), the Philippines (T. Roberts and S. Weyandt dissertation research) and South America, particularly the Amazon (Savit dissertation research, Savit and Bates 2015, Figueiredo et al. 2013), and we are entering into the genomic realm focusing initially on Andean (Winger et al. 2015) and Amazonian birds (through our NSF Dimensions of Diversity grant). Shane DuBay is doing his dissertation research in the Himalayas on physiological plasticity in Tarsiger Bush Robins.  Nick Crouch, who I co-advise at U. Illinois, Chicago with Roberta Mason-Gamer, is studying specialization in birds from a modern phylogenetic perspective.  We seek to create a broader understanding of diversification in the tropics from a comparative biogeographic framework (Silva and Bates 2002, Kahindo et al, 2007, Bates et al. 2008, Antonelli et al. 2009).  João Capurucho (U. Illinois, Chicago, co-advised with Mary Ashley)  is studying phlylogeography of Amazonian white sand specialist birds and Natalia Piland (Committee on Evolutionary Biology, U. Chicago) is studying the impact of urbanization on Neotropical birds.  New graduate student Valentina Gomez Bahamon (U. Illinois, Chicago) is also working Boris Igic and me, after doing her Master Degree in her native Colombia on genomics and the evolution of migrating Fork-tailed Flycatchers (Tyrannus savana).  Jacob Cooper (Committee on Evolutionary Biology, U. Chicago) is studying the diversification of birds in Afromonte forests

Josh Engel and I are working up multi-species phylogeographic studies of birds across the Albertine Rift, based the Bird Division's long term research throughout the region.  We are working up similar data sets for Malawian birds.  Our current NSF Dimensions of Diversity grant on the assembly of the Amazonian biota and our NSF grant to survey birds and their parasites across the southern Amazon are generating genomic data for analysis in collaboration with paleoecologists, climatologists, geologists, and remote sensing experts from the U.S. and Brazil.  These large collaborative projects are providing new perspectives on the history of Amazonia.