Published online 11 June 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.294

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Axe hovers over UK museum jobs

Natural History Museum pre-empts government cuts with attempt at big savings.

Natural History MuseumThere could be job cuts at the Natural History Museum.Natural History Museum

London's Natural History Museum is considering slashing 40 jobs in an attempt to save more than £2 million (US$2.9 million) as it braces itself for an expected wave of cuts to public-sector spending in the United Kingdom.

Despite the apparently healthy financial outlook reported in its most recent accounts, the museum is mulling over proposals to cut 40 positions in research, public engagement and corporate departments. At least one research unit could be totally eliminated, and Nature understands that staff concern is high. A senior employee has said that more cuts could be forthcoming.

The museum's plans come in light of commitments from the country's new Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government, which is committed to making £6 billion of cuts in the current financial year, as it struggles with an annual deficit of £159 billion. It has already pledged to make swingeing cuts to public services.

“I hope I will not be asked to make any further cuts in the Department. I fear I probably will be asked to do so.”

Norman MacLeod
Natural History Museum

Other public institutions in the United Kingdom, including universities, are likely to face the same pressure on their finances as the museum. However, many of these institutions lack the museum's enormous ability to generate funds through activities such as merchandising (see 'UK science braces for impact').

In a message this week on a palaeontology mailing list, Norman MacLeod, the keeper of palaeontology at the museum, explained that all science departments at the museum were required to identify posts that could be cut.

"The next few years are going to be neither easy nor a pleasant [sic] for any UK museum or indeed any institution in the UK public sector," he wrote.

"I hope I will not be asked to make any further cuts in the Department. I fear I probably will be so asked to do so [sic] though the senior management of the NHM [Natural History Museum] is doing all it can to avoid any further damage to any Museum programme."

Cuts upon cuts

Nature was unable to contact MacLeod, but museum director Michael Dixon confirmed in a statement that following a review, the museum "has decided to reduce its committed expense base by £2.3 million per annum". Dixon says that this will give the museum flexibility in how it invests and "will also increase our resilience to the outcome of public sector funding decisions".

Dixon says that owing to ongoing negotiations with trade unions, it cannot reveal an exact breakdown of the jobs under threat, although it says that 10 of the 40 positions at risk are currently vacant.

Palaeontologists have already expressed anxiety about the potential complete elimination of the micropalaeontology group. Both research posts in the small but highly respected department are earmarked for elimination, along with two other palaeontology jobs.

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Tom Dunkley Jones, a micropalaeontologist at Imperial College London, told Nature: "The news has had a strong response from the wider community. We're worried about how the collections are going to be interfaced with the scientific community. The second thing is the researchers there."

The issue of the museum's collections is especially worrying, says Jorijntje Henderiks, a micropalaeontology researcher at Uppsala University in Sweden. The Natural History Museum holds important samples, including those collected on the nineteenth-century expedition of the pioneering deep-sea survey ship HMS Challenger.

Writing on the palaeontology mailing list, MacLeod said, "There is no intention for the NHM to diminish the extent of the micropaleontological collections in its care or diminish the management/development of those collections."

However, Henderiks told Nature, "Especially in these vast collections, we need someone to guide us through them and be on the ball with what other researchers are doing with the collection." 

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