Published online 23 December 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.1333


Downturn hits Chicago's natural history museum

Staff and science cut as museum's endowments crash.

Field MuseumThe Field Museum is slashing its budget by 15%, thanks to the economic downturn.The Field Museum

The venerable Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago is cutting its budget by 15% — laying off staff, paring salaries and cancelling projects — after being hit by the economic recession. The value of the museum's endowment has plunged by nearly US$100 million (31%) in the past six months.

Employees at the 115-year-old institution, known for its historic collection of 25 million specimens, were notified in a memo on 19 December of plans for weathering the financial downturn. "We are trying to hold everything together on the scientific side," says museum president John McCarter. "But who knows where the bottom of the downturn is."

Early retirement packages with emeritus status have been offered to 68 museum employees, including 27 scientists, and more staff departures are expected. Members of the museums 564 staff who earn more than $75,000 per year may face salary cuts of 3-5%, and McCarter's own $450,000 base salary has been chopped by 20%. The science operating budget for 2009 will end up being sliced by $1.7 million, down to $7.4 million.

Shannon Hackett, an ornithologist elected to head the panel that oversees the scientific staff of 179, says that the mood is grim. "I find it sad and tragic to put senior people in this position," says Hackett. "These people are highly specialized. They are not interchangeable pieces of a puzzle. Once you lose your academic stature, it is very difficult to regain."

Boom and bust

The reductions come after more than five years of major expansion, including the hiring of University of Chicago palaeontologist Neil Shubin as a provost in 2006. The position has now been eliminated.

A new collection resource centre was constructed underground for $70 million, and refurbishing the 1921 building's original heating and cooling plant cost $23 million. The museum has also created a $4-million genetics lab, a $3-million herbarium and a $3-million Biodiversity Synthesis Center — a key component of the international Tree of Life project to map phylogeny and biodiversity.

Although these projects show a commitment to scientific frontiers, the museum now faces the harsh realities of a recession. "We are as a whole reaching a breaking point," says Peter Makovicky, chairman of palaeontology. "We don't know the full effect of the cuts, but the fear among the professional staff is that they will bear the brunt. We know the trustees are concerned about the overall survival of the museum."

McCarter says they will assess the voluntary retirement acceptances by the end of 2008. The museum's unrestricted operating budget for 2009 will be $50.7 million, down $8.9 million on the figure for 2008.

The museum has sought more endowments to cover scientist costs ($2.5 million per researcher), but the falling value of investments has sent the museum's endowment from $320 million last spring to $215 million at the end of November.

Museums and universities across the United States are facing a similar financial landscape, but are following different paths for survival. From 31 May, for example, the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia will no longer fund 18 'research specialist' positions. Officials hope that these jobs, in the curatorial department and the Applied Science Centre for Archaeology, will be funded through future grants or contributions. 

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