Research that underpins the preservation of cultural treasures should be championed.
Archaeologists last week announced the discovery of what looks likely to have been a huge shipyard dating back to the second century AD, part of a complex of buildings at Portus, the ancient port of Rome. The discovery (see go.nature.com/qpbirv) is the latest in a major project to explore Portus using an array of geophysical and electromagnetic techniques.
There are any number of similar science-based studies, projects and initiatives under way around the world, all intended to discover or preserve our heritage. As shown in a European web portal launched last week at www.heritageportal.eu, the sciences involved are drawn from across the disciplines. Projects include using climate models to establish which heritage sites are most sensitive to global warming, studies of dust and the effects of its transport in museums and libraries, semantic search techniques to link digital archives and grey literature, and atomic force microscopy to look for signs of decay in paper.
No one could deny that such science is important, given the intrinsic interest of cultural heritage to citizens, not to mention its often sizeable value to economies. But the field of 'heritage science' is nevertheless beset by obstacles to its recognition. Because it lacks a disciplinary focus, no traditional university department or disciplinary funding agency readily sees it as their own. Projects are often small scale, and unlikely to reveal the fundamental scientific insights or spin-off products required in competitive funding proposals.
Furthermore, even though national heritage sites and collections may flourish, the science that helps them do so only occasionally gets the public attention it deserves at the institution that houses it, and rarely, if ever, at the national level. And yet without such science, the value of those sites and collections would be all the more threatened.
To its credit, the European Commission recognizes such problems, and has over the past three years funded the Net-Heritage programme, gathering an overview of national programmes and identifying key weaknesses and strengths. The programme, which finishes at the end of this month, has opened up valuable conversations and coordination between Europe's ministries of culture and other research funders.
What next at the pan-European level? Although the European Commission will continue to have an operational role, the responsibility for coordinated research funding passes to national governments, through a European Joint Programming Initiative (JPI) entitled Cultural Heritage and Global Change. As a result of the Net-Heritage discussions and JPI programmes, there are likely to be collaborations between two or more countries and joint calls for research, in which money does not cross national borders but synergy between parallel national interests is acquired.
However, there are concerns about continuity. The JPI primarily involves collaborations between ministries of research rather than culture, and within each country the culture and research ministries tend not to connect effectively, whether from conflicting pressures or turf protectionism. Accordingly, it is essential that those involved in the JPI, not least the Italian government spearheading it, do whatever they can to prevent such obstacles from undermining achievements in focusing European efforts. Above all, this research will depend on champions at government and institutional levels, as each country battles with budgetary pressures. Otherwise, the spotlight thrown on heritage science by the Net-Heritage programme and its portal will dim, and the fledgling policy coherence it brings will go to waste.