Collections and Research Annual Reports

2012 Collections and Research Annual Report

Collections-based research has been the core scientific mission of The Field Museum since its founding in 1893, and “Collections & Research” has been the name of the division housing the core scientific departments dedicated to that mission since 1983—the year I started here as a curator, in fact (with a shift to “Academic Affairs” for a few years).  Before that the research arm of the Museum was called “Science & Education,” and was grouped with the Exhibits and Education Departments.  In 2013, the name will change again—to, interestingly enough, “Science & Education” —in conjunction with a fundamental restructuring within the Museum.  But research, grounded in collections, will continue to be one of the most important strengths of this institution.

Looking back over 25 years I am struck by the continuity between the scientific work then and now, but also by the amazing increase in productivity.  In the late 1970s and earlier ‘80s it was typical to see at most 100 publications per year from the curators and scientific staff.  In 2012 our scientists (including a markedly smaller curatorial faculty) produced nearly 270 scientific publications, ranging in subject from CT scanning of Egyptian bird mummies, to DNA barcoding of fungi, to the beer-consumption practices of the ancient Wari culture of Peru, to the sharing of host plants by competing ant species.  And of course many of these papers identified new species: a theropod dinosaur, a few shrew-mice, a myrtle tree, a dozen-odd rove beetles, several bats and snakes, and over 100 lichens.  C&R scientists described 149 species and other taxa new to science in 2012, putting the number published in the past 22 years over 1,300. Most of our studies would seem familiar to our colleagues of a quarter century ago, although methods like DNA barcoding would surely intrigue them.  Molecular-based research into evolution and populations has been going on at the Field since the late 1970s, but the pace and scope of that work, thanks to automated sequencing, has increased by incredible leaps.  Likewise, the chemical investigations carried out in Anthropology’s Elemental Analysis Lab have unlocked previously inaccessible information about how artifacts were created and where they came from, and CT-scanning technology has enabled “virtual dissection” of cultural objects that would have amazed our predecessors.  New technologies solve old mysteries, breed new questions, fuel innovative work, and increase the productivity of our scientists. But while new technologies and methods account for some of this increase in productivity, I think the deep passion and commitment of our scientists account for a great deal of it as well.  Their commitment is obvious by their publications, their broad involvement in their fields, and by their dogged pursuit of grants.  The scientists of C&R have not only generated, but also funded, much of the original scientific research produced at the Museum.  Grants are the engine that drives this research.  Scientists in C&R received more than $3.7 million in new awards in 2012 from the National Science Foundation, Institute of Museum and Library Service, Marie Curie Foundation, National Geographic Society, Negaunee Foundation, and other sources.  With these awards, the active grant projects being spearheaded by this group number more than 80.  New awards combined with existing grants total more than $17.7 million.  Tracing C&R grantsmanship back to the mid-1980s would no doubt total in the neighborhood of $100 million raised.

Our researchers are also more deeply involved than ever in educating future generations of professional scientists.  It is perhaps a cliché to compare the “3rd floor” of the Museum to a mini-university, but it is apt.  We continue to have strong connections, through teaching appointments and graduate student advising, to Chicagoland universities.  Our closest and most formal ties are with the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Northwestern University.  We are the scientific home base to over 50 resident graduate students from these three schools, and more, and our curators serve on dozens of dissertation committees.  Some students enroll at these schools specifically to work with certain Field Museum curators.

Our training efforts reach far beyond Chicago.  Field Museum scientists are deeply engaged in building the expertise of conservation specialists and museum professionals internationally.  The scientists in Zoology and Botany in particular lead conservation and capacity-building efforts across the globe, including Madagascar, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Thailand, China, Tibet, the Philippines, Peru, Costa Rica, and Brazil.  FM-trained students now occupy influential conservation positions in universities, museums, and NGOs worldwide.  As the map on the inside cover of this report shows, this research and training takes Field Museum scientists around the world.  We routinely conduct fieldwork in more than 30 countries (plus the Antarctic and the North Pacific Ocean), and research collaborations take us to another 20 or more locales.

But ultimately it all comes back to the rows and rows of shelves and cabinets on the 3rd floor, and in the Collections Resource Center, that house our 24.7 million specimens.  The Field Museum’s reference collections constitute a vast lending library for the international scientific community.  Our collections are in constant use by Field Museum scientists as well as visiting researchers from other institutions.  Last year more than 700 visiting scientists and dozens of graduate students conducted research in the collections.  We also hosted dozens of college classes, and numerous back-of-the house tours for VIPs, donors, and groups with specialized interest in the collections—ecology classes, artists, gardening enthusiasts, Native American tribal leaders, and more.  In addition, we loan tens of thousands of specimens each year to researchers around the world.  The Field Museum collections are really the “go-to” place for a broad array of disciplines, and form a crucial part of the global knowledge base in the biological and social sciences. Numbers alone cannot capture the unique character and scientific importance of the numerous objects accessioned by the collections staff each year.  Whether through field collecting by Museum curators, purchase, donation, or salvage (e.g., road kill) literally every day the Museum gains new specimens that significantly enhance the quality, depth, and breadth of our collections, and most important of all, expand their usefulness as a “library” of the natural and cultural world—a world-class resource for research.  It is incumbent upon us to maintain this resource, grow it, and make it available to the world scientific community, so that they can fuel current research, and help future scientists address questions we can’t even envision.

As we move into 2013 the Collections & Research division will cease to exist under that name.  All the scientific departments will be merged together under the title “Science & Education,” and a restructuring of the various efforts and function is underway.  These changes will require a great deal of effort on the part of the scientists and staff involved, but ultimately we hope these changes will yield new efficiencies, and new synergies.  But the core science carried out at the Field will not change.  It is our brand.  The scope and impact of collections-based research is grounded in its dedication to documenting the natural world, the patterns of biological evolution, and the development of human societies.  We are also committed to leveraging that knowledge to understand and conserve biodiversity, enhance our understanding of ourselves as humans, and increase scientific literacy in an age of declining expertise in the sciences.  Division names may change, but this mission will not.

Lance Grande, Senior Vice President and Head Collections and Research

Past Collections and Research Annual Reports: