Archive for February, 2009

Archaeology Detectives on the Chopping Block (National Geographic Blog by Chris Sloan)

February 23, 2009

In his inaugural speech President Obama called for putting science in its rightful place. This was music to the ears of many scientists and science-supporters. Science needs to be nurtured for the sake of the long term benefits, not short term goals. In the entry below, guest columnist Dr. Christina Elson points to one place that apparently did not get the message.

While America and Britain ramp up programs to show science in action, the University of Pennsylvania Museum has taken what most people consider a big step backwards by threatening to strangle out of existence the positions of eighteen of its researchers. They include archaeology’s reigning crime scene detectives.

The American economy is suffocating from job losses, home foreclosures, and a dissolving financial sector yet newly elected President Obama is prioritizing our role as a world leader in science and technology. Great Britain just launched a massive new initiative called “Science: so what? so everything” to make science and scientists more accessible. Too often people in both countries see science as elitist and incomprehensible. Making it more accessible shows why our economy and national security benefit when we invest in science education and research.

For decades the Penn museum provided a home for world class scientists. The Museum’s archaeology detectives use all manner of techniques to discover fascinating things about the way ancient people lived and died, used plants and animals, and created and shared technologies. For example, Dr. Patrick E. McGovern (whose work has been reported by this organization) analyzed chemicals in ancient pot sherds to discover the origins and spread of wine making in the Near East and China. His colleague Dr. Naomi Miller recently figured out what King Midas might have had for dinner by providing archaeobotanical evidence for the chemical analyses of beverage and food residues found inside vessels.

The Museum’s director Dr. Richard Hodges insists that Penn is not making a financial decision. Rather, it’s finding a strategic balance between research and public outreach. People like Dr. McGovern are supposed to be supported with grants, not the institution’s operating budget. Come June, if they don’t have funding they’ll get taken off life support.

The Penn Museum also has self-esteem issues. How do you reach out when it sounds like most Philadelphians visit you only once in a lifetime? An expensive facelift and more amenities might do the trick. After all, getting people to the museum for any reason, if only because you can get a good cheesesteak there, greatly strengthens opportunities for outreach. In London you can walk into the overwhelming British Museum for free, get some coffee, and admire the Elgin marbles. In Philadelphia they ask you for a ten dollar “Admission Donation” and there’s a mummy.

If Penn wants to ramp up public outreach it might be exactly the wrong thing to let these scholars go. National Geographic is a massive organization that funds exacting research and has a powerful media arm. It succeeds in making science accessible in part because people here work hard to engage in meaningful conversations with scientists (and yes, as a scientist I’ve had any number of fun, funny, frustrating but ultimately meaningful conversations with “creative types”).

The kinds of discoveries Penn researchers make are incredibly appealing and picked up by news outlets that broadcast far beyond the city of Philadelphia. More excitingly, the work is tangible, tactile, and ideal for creating visualizations showing science in action. One hopes Penn’s facelift isn’t just about building more exhibit cases full of “stuff” but also investing in a media-rich environment that can broadcast its in-house research locally and internationally. Shouldn’t Penn be excited to have such great assets? My colleagues and I can only wonder why Penn isn’t trumpeting plans to make it’s scientists as accessible as a cup of coffee or gourmet meal. After all, they are the exhibits.

What do you think about the future of science research in the US? Is science it too elitist? How can scientists and the public connect better? For NG new coverage of some of Dr. McGovern’s For more information about the layoffs at Penn For information on Great Britain’s new science initiative


FIRE IN THE LAB (Archaeology Magazine 62.2(2009) by Roger Atwood

February 23, 2009

A plan by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology to cut costs by laying off 18 researchers and closing a major scientific laboratory has drawn angry protests from academics in the United States and abroad. Facing the backlash, museum director and archaeologist Richard Hodges said he will likely keep an as-yet-undetermined number of the 18 researchers on staff, but stood by plans to shutter the Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology (MASCA) as part of a plan to deal with slumping fundraising. Supporters of MASCA call it one of the museum’s core strengths and cite its pioneering work on the development of agriculture in the ancient Near East and the Maya world.

“What I’m trying to do is make the museum more financially sustainable.” Hodges told Archaeology. But he sounded an optimistic note on renewed fundraising efforts since announcing the layoffs in December. “We are finding quite a few new opportunities for funding, and I am pretty confident that in the end the number won’t be anything like that,” he said, referring to the 18 researchers originally slated to be let go.

Hodges announced the changes while circulating a “five-year strategy” to overhaul the venerable Philadelphia institution. The plan called for refurbishing exhibits, bolstering educational programs, and making the museum more tourist-friendly by adding an expensive restaurant and a visitor services department. The plan also called for “refram[ing] exhibitions in line with contemporary intellectual frameworks.”

“Some of our exhibits looked great in the ’80s but they’re a little tired now,” said Hodges, adding that he hopes to raise annual visitorship from 160,000 to 300,000 in five years. He said MASCA “was groundbreaking in the 1960s and ’70s,” but that its mission of pure archaeological research did not fit with the museum’s new direction.

The cutbacks drew almost immediate criticism, much of it focused on the plan to close MASCA and dismiss Patrick McGovern, head of its Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory and a nationally known researcher on the origins of wine and chocolate. In a letter to Hodges, Zahi Hawass, the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, said McGovern and other MASCA researchers “dedicated their whole lives to the discovery and elucidation of humans on this planet” and urged Hodges “to reconsider this harmful decision.”

Founded in 1961 as a center for radiocarbon dating, MASCA specializes in molecular and biological analysis of archaeological remains, and has a long list of research breakthroughs to its name. Among them are McGovern’s work that showed chocolate was cultivated in Mesoamerica by 1100 B.C., five centuries earlier than previously thought. MASCA’s demise would also mean laying off two other prominent researchers: Naomi Miller, a specialist in Near Eastern agriculture, and Kathleen Ryan, who studies ancient settlement patterns in east Africa.

Other research-driven museums face similar distress. The Field Museum in Chicago announced in January that its endowment had fallen $95 million, about 30 percent. “Corporate and philanthropic giving are down. What we see anecdotally is that many museums are in similar situations as the Penn and the Field,” said Dewey Blanton, a spokesman for the American Association of Museums.

McGovern, who also teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in biomolecular archaeology at Penn, said past efforts to boost visitor levels had fallen short and doubted this one would fare any better. “What has worked for the museum is cutting-edge research,” said McGovern. “This is what excites and draws people into the museum.”

Letting Go (The Chronicle of Philanthropy Special Report, February 12, 2009)

February 9, 2009
The Chronicle of Philanthropy
Special Report
From the issue dated February 12, 2009

Letting Go

Layoffs at nonprofit groups are spreading — with many more expected in coming months

Sherilyn Adams, executive director of Larkin Street Youth Services, began bracing for an $800,000 hole in her charity’s budget last summer.

She started by making small incisions, such as reducing travel and training costs. Then last month, after discussions with board and staff members, the San Francisco group cut the salaries of top employees and eliminated 11 positions, three of them through layoffs.

“We’re doing everything we can to protect against program closures,” says Ms. Adams.

Layoffs are beginning to batter the charity world, as more and more organizations can no longer compensate for declining revenues simply by freezing hiring or pay. But the job losses are still less significant than in the corporate world, in part because few nonprofit leaders are willing to take the sort of pre-emptive strike to projected budget shortfalls common among business executives.

“We don’t have the same business mentality, and we are slower,” says Nancy Hall, senior adviser at the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations. “Nonprofits want to try everything to avoid cutting staff.”

But many organizations are finding themselves without alternatives. While layoffs seem to be spreading most rapidly among smaller charities, not even the largest institutions are proving immune. Of the 25 American nonprofit groups that raised the most money in 2007, six have eliminated jobs, according to a Chronicle tally. Another four organizations that have not cut jobs on the national level have local chapters that have had to resort to layoffs. (One organization on the top-25 list, the Nature Conservancy, declined to comment).

AmeriCares has reduced its work force by 10 percent. Boys and Girls Clubs of America has cut 3 percent of its positions, and some local chapters are also shedding jobs. The United Jewish Communities National Office eliminated 39 full-time positions and one part-time post last year, or 15 percent of its staff, as a result of both the economy and a longer-term plan to decrease the group’s size.

State by State

The number of charity employees seeking work is starting to pile up in states across the country.

Of the 44 percent of nonprofit groups in Michigan that said their cash flow has been imperiled by the economy, 57 percent have cut jobs, according to the Michigan Nonprofit Association and the Johnson Center at Grand Valley State University.

In Maryland, 14 percent of charities surveyed by the state nonprofit association have laid off employees and another 12 percent expect to do so.

In Los Angeles, 21.6 percent of charities plan to lay off employees, according to a survey by the Center for Nonprofit Management, which supports charitable groups in Southern California.

Around the country, jobless claims are now at 4.8 million, the most on record. That means that demand for services has grown at many organizations, even as they are being forced to shed workers themselves.

People in the nonprofit world anticipate many more layoffs this year and next. Some charities that rely on multiyear grants are still relatively secure and may not be forced to take the ax to their organizations until later this year or next.

“We are not expecting to see a major fallout for another six or nine months,” says Elizabeth Banwell, director of external affairs at the Maine Association of Nonprofits. Her group is planning to hold a two-day clinic this spring to help pinched charities take smart approaches to trimming their staffs and other expenses. While few tasks are more painful than laying off good employees, some experts worry that organizations may not move fast enough to weather the recession.

“Charities tend to wait too long to make cuts and wait too long to take advantage of the economic recovery,” says Kim Wright-Violich, president of Schwab Charitable, a San Francisco organization that runs a donor-advised fund and provides other assistance to philanthropists. “If you are a small service-delivery organization, you want to get ahead of the downturn, which means you should probably already have made cuts, and then you should be watching very carefully for the recovery.”

‘Scale Down’

For now, most nonprofit leaders’ biggest concern is the people who depend on their help. If they are forced to lay off workers, they are trying to do so in a way that will not jeopardize their services.

Some charities are making small cuts across their organizations while others are eliminating specific programs.

Ms. Adams of Larkin Street Youth Services, which provides housing, job assistance, and other services to homeless youths, says she looked at where government was withdrawing support from the charity and trimmed jobs in those programs.

Among the areas where jobs were eliminated: HIV prevention and outreach. She also combined two positions in the development office.

“The idea is to scale down those services that we can easily scale back up,” she says.

Aaron Simonton, executive director of the Monroe Center for Healthy Aging, in Michigan, says he also looked at what programs he could offer on a reduced basis. For example, he transformed an assistance program for elderly people into an appointment-only system, which, along with other changes, allowed him to cut four jobs.

Other organizations are axing entire programs to focus their resources on other areas.

At Catholic Charities of East Tennessee, the Rev. Ragan Schriver, the group’s executive director, decided early last year to cancel an emergency-shelter program after state funds dwindled. Father Schriver says he examined the charity’s mission statement for direction.

“For any organization, that should be your deciding point, the mission statement, and ours talked about meeting unmet needs,” he says. “And we thought, There are shelters in a nearby city.”

Regina Birdsell, president of the Center for Nonprofit Management, in Los Angeles, says that cash-strapped charities ought to be looking for programs they may have developed in flush times that no longer make sense in this recession. She says in recent years there have been cases of “mission creep, where organizations have followed the funding, but that becomes more expensive in this economy.”

Larger charities are also examining their missions when deciding where to make cuts.

The National Christian Foundation, a donor-advised fund in Georgia, reduced its roughly 80-person staff by just under 10 percent in December. Steve Chapman, vice president for communications, says the cuts did not focus on any one department or type of job but were determined instead by which positions could be eliminated while still effectively serving donors.

Boys & Girls Clubs of America, too, combined some positions and laid off other staff members based on an assessment of which positions were less critical to serving children in need.

Donor Needs

At the same time, few charities are making deep cuts in their fund-raising departments. Some experts say the dire economic situation may have given nonprofit groups even more reason to hold onto fund raisers.

“Donors are going to be more cautious about what they support, and they’re going to want more assurance about effectiveness,” says Sharon Knight, interim president of the Colorado Nonprofit Association. “You have to either maintain your staff or beef it up to do that.”

While layoffs are spreading, even more common are freezes on hiring, reductions in benefits, salary cuts, and furloughs.

Thirty percent of charities that responded to a survey by the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations have already frozen hiring, and 43 percent have cut travel costs.

Carole Alexander, executive director of House of Ruth Maryland, says that she and her group’s board members decided at the end of last month to require staff members to take unpaid days off. The goal was to avoid laying off employees and to preserve the charity’s services. The organization will probably close all but its emergency assistance and shelter for one week this year.

“I wouldn’t say I’m hopeful, but I’m determined that we will find the money to sustain this agency,” Ms. Alexander says. “Demand has increased between 20 and 30 percent, and I think it’s unconscionable to reduce our staff in a way that will further disable us.”

Indeed, many employers are trying everything they can to avoid giving out pink slips, which can be devastating not only to those who receive them but also to those still employed.

James A. Phills Jr., director of Stanford University’s Center for Social Innovation, says that charity leaders can minimize the impact of layoffs on employee morale by being open and clear about their actions.

“How you handle layoffs has a tremendous impact on the productivity, resiliency, and capability of the people who are left,” he says. “If the people who are left see those cuts as fair and not political, and made with transparency, then it’s not as bad as a situation where there is a lot of negative emotion.”

Mr. Phills also says that groups should avoid multiple rounds of layoffs, which can further weaken employee productivity.

Laura Begley, who was recently laid off from a nonprofit human-services association in the Midwest, agrees. She says she appreciated the organization’s ability to articulate why her job was among those cut, as well as the help from an outplacement firm that she received.

“What was most important to me was that the vice president made it clear it wasn’t performance-based,” says Ms. Begley, 26, who worked in program support and marketing.

But charities may still see pushback in response to layoffs, and not only from within their organizations.

When the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology announced last fall that it would eliminate 18 research positions, 3,500 people, including many professors at other institutions, signed a petition criticizing the move. The museum said the changes were due to a reorganization as well as budget concerns, and that some of those losing their jobs might be moved to different positions in the museum.

Weighing Options

Meanwhile, charity workers at institutions of all sizes fear the worst is yet to come.

Many nonprofit leaders worry they will have to start cutting soon but are, for now at least, still reluctant to take steps that could reduce assistance to the people who depend on them.

Stephen A. Miller, executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Cecil County, in Maryland, is debating whether to charge families more for a summer camp his charity operates or to shut it down. That would mean laying off some workers.

Mr. Miller says he relies on those employees throughout the year.

If he did close the camp, he imagines, his employees would move elsewhere and he wouldn’t be able to find experienced people to replace them in the fall.

“We’ll probably make a decision at the end of March,” he says. “We’re in limbo.”