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

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


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