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Budget Cuts Hit Chicago's Field Museum

20 December 2012 3:35 pm
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Mowing to come. The Field Museum of Natural History plans to cut scientific staff as a result of budget troubles.

Reeling from its heavy debt load and the recession, The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois, announced plans on Tuesday to cut its annual budget for scientific programs and research. In a meeting with staff members, the museum's president, Richard Lariviere, explained that the museum needed to shave $5 million from its overall budget of about $70 million—a 7% cut. The bulk of those savings—$3 million—would come from its science departments. More optimistically, the museum also hopes to find ways to add $100 million to its endowment.

Long celebrated as a leading research center in the natural sciences, the museum houses some 25 million specimens of fossils, plants, and animals. Many of these were collected by the museum's 27 curators—researchers who also have labs at the museum for studying the collections. In the last year alone, Field Museum scientists discovered more than 200 new plants and animals. An additional 141 staff scientists, who work with the collections, are also employed at the museum.

Some of the curators have tenure, but others do not. Yet even those with tenure may not be safe from the axe, because Lariviere has requested a special museum committee begin the process of declaring a "financial exigency." The declaration will allow the museum to lay off even its tenured scientists.

The brunt of the cuts are falling on scientists, Lariviere told the editors of the Chicago Tribune in another meeting on Tuesday, because the support staff has already been so severely reduced that it is more of a crisis when a member of the housekeeping staff calls in sick than when a curator does. Besides slashing budgets, the museum hopes to increase its revenues by relying on its own collections and specimens (including the nearly complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, known as "Sue") for its exhibitions, rather than bringing in shows from other institutions, which is often expensive.

The Field Museum fell on hard times in recent years, after taking on expansive projects, such as the $65 million Collections Resource Center, a state-of-the-art facility for storing and studying specimens that opened in 2005. Although the museum has an endowment of about $300 million, it also has more than $170 million in outstanding bonds. These cost more than $7 million a year to service, and take a large bite out of the Field Museum's overall operating budget.

Since 2008, the museum has tried other measures to reduce its debt load, such as implementing a hiring freeze, losing staff members through attrition, and repeatedly cutting budgets, including those for public exhibits. The museum has not released specific plans for how the newest round of cuts will be applied, and morale is low, according to a museum spokeswoman.

In addition to the cuts, the Field Museum will restructure its four academic departments of zoology, botany, anthropology, and geology. The plan is to shrink them into a single, smaller organization, titled Science and Education, with a narrower mission. Its exact structure and purpose remains to be decided, but "there will be involvement from the scientists about the kinds of research questions that are best answered here," writes Debra Moskovits, a senior vice president who will head the new department, in an e-mail to ScienceInsider. She declined to be more specific about the type of research that will be pursued, saying only: "I believe our science will increasingly engage in the complex issues of our times."

For the scientists at the museum, the news of the cuts and restructuring has been unsettling. "Because we are only in the initial stages of decision-making, there is speculation among staff and naturally, some people are anxious," Moskovits writes.

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