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French museum report sparks researchers' revolt

Nature volume 409, page 273 (18 January 2001) | Download Citation

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Researchers at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris are up in arms over a report on the future of research at the museum. The report, which is likely to determine the museum's research strategy, implies that biophysics and Earth sciences have no place in the institution.

Looking ahead: the National Museum of Natural History in Paris is focusing on biodiversity. Image: FRANK SPOONER

Research should be centred around nine themes, the report says. These range from palaeontology to developmental biology, but all involve studying biodiversity from an evolutionary perspective. The report was commissioned from an outside panel by the museum's interim administrator, Jean-Claude Moreno, as part of a plan to reform the museum (see Nature 401, 104; 1999).

Museum staff say they were initially optimistic, but that the process has proceeded without their consultation. Trade-union representatives and professors walked out of a council meeting at the museum on 15 December after reading out a statement to Moreno saying the report inspired “deception rather than hope”.

One researcher says the reforms are being managed in an atmosphere of “extreme secrecy” and that there is “enormous apathy and exhaustion” among museum staff.

Moreno has promised that researchers will have the opportunity later in January to meet the committee that wrote the report, and hopes that most elements of the reform plan will be put in place before the summer.

Thérèse Garestier, director of the biophysics lab, which the report acknowledges as a centre of excellence, says she does not understand how its work in functional genomics can be dissociated from biodiversity. She says that implementing the report would reduce her laboratory's role to servicing the museum's taxonomists.

Over 100 researchers from the four labs making up the Earth sciences department signed a motion deploring the assertion that their research has no place in the museum. The study, they say, “demonstrates a curious interpretation of the natural sciences. . . with no reference to [the] past, nor to the Earth on which life developed and evolved”.

The report gives top priority to securing the housing and computerization of the museum's millions of specimens.

Paul Henderson, director of science at London's Natural History Museum and the only foreign member of the committee, says the report is a great opportunity for the museum to “re-establish itself as one of the great world centres in biodiversity”.

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