UMIS | University Museums in Scotland

University Museums in Scotland - Conference 2002

Natural Sciences Research in the National Museums of Scotland
and its Relationship to the Collections

Mark R. Shaw
Department of Geology and Zoology
National Museums of Scotland
Chambers Street
Edinburgh EH1 1JF


The term "research" covers a confusingly wide range of activities, nowhere more so than in a museum. This paper focuses on "question driven" research that is externally motivated rather than being primarily introspective with respect to the museum or its existing collections. The many reasons why it is important for the National Museums of Scotland (NMS) to conduct in-house research of this kind are outlined, and include benefits in the familiar museum functions of exhibition and education as well as contributing to Scotland's international status as an intellectually developed and participating nation.

Question-driven research typically needs new and focussed collecting activity, and sometimes the most important relationship that the collection has with current research is simply to act as a depository, whereby the research done will remain objectively testable. However, the collection growth achieved through developing particular areas of research activity is, over career-length time spans, of especially high quality and adds substantially to the usefulness of the collections for the large variety of purposes to which they are put, including other research dimensions.

The need for research in the natural sciences to be to some extent (and in different ways) opportunistic in an institution the size of NMS is outlined, and it is explained how research programming is approached in strategic terms aimed at enabling NMS to "punch above its weight" in relevant fields. The maintenance of a healthy research environment is also dependent on other factors, however, and there is a crucial need for NMS to project the research aspect of its work strongly so as to encourage an even broader understanding of value and support for non-introspective question-driven research to be conducted as an important, even obligatory, part of overall activity.


The views given in this paper are personal and should not necessarily be taken as an expression of the future policy of the National Museums of Scotland (NMS), and indeed the practices described may change as NMS is currently experiencing unprecedented reorganisation.

Furthermore, it may be difficult to address remarks simultaneously to both geology and zoology, but the thrust of what I want to say applies to both, even though the uniqueness of geological specimens is generally of a higher order than that of zoological ones, which can slant the approaches that are taken, not only in research but also in collecting policy (Taylor, 1999; National Museums of Scotland, 2001). Geologists will, I hope, forgive me if I follow my roots and give mostly zoological examples - these being the ones that I understand best and so can discuss most easily. Former Keepers of Geology at NMS (when Zoology and Geology were separate departments) have given views on the role of NMS's collections in geological research, albeit before much of the decline of related research in universities had become evident (Waterston, 1972, 1979a, 1979b; Rolfe, 1979)

The kind of research discussed

The breadth of the term "research", especially in a museum context, is so wide that it will be necessary to sideline much of what might be included at the outset, in order to try to say anything meaningful at all. Therefore I will not cover the process that needs to be undertaken in order to write an exhibition text, or to prepare a catalogue, or to answer enquiries, or to understand what some strange object found in the collection is, or why, when and where it was collected, or, indeed, whose handwriting it is that was found with it. All these needs arise routinely in a museum, and they all demand some sort of process of "finding out" by the curator. But I shall exclude all that. Also I shall exclude various weightier kinds of research into the history and provenance of the collections and the motives or behaviours of those who formed them, important and relevant to the museum and society though that is. I am content to exclude it here because I am confident that it is now well understood that natural sciences collections are an important part of our cultural heritage, and therefore well accepted that historical research into them is warranted.

The natural sciences research I want to talk about is the more deliberate and independent (that is, not motivated by specific institutional need or introspection) question-driven activity that might best justify a museum's view of itself as being at least in part a research institute. This research - the discovery of new information about the patterns and processes of the natural world - is closest to the purpose for which the vast majority of specimens in natural sciences collections were originally collected. Clearly the involvement of museums in this kind of research will generally be strongest when there is a specimen base for the knowledge derived : to this extent our research is also methods-led. The new information that is sought can be of various kinds - including where species (of animals, minerals, and so on) occur and why, how to tell them apart and the provision of scientific names for new ones, what dynamic inter-relationships they have, what evolutionary (or geochemical) processes led to them, or indeed how they are faring (or once fared, in the case of organisms we know only as fossils) under the changing opportunities and pressures of their environment. The general aim may be to help humanity to understand the world's natural resources well enough to make informed choices about exploiting, coping with and caring for them, and we might very loosely think of this kind of research as "taxonomy" in the broadest possible sense, for mostly it relates, through the identity and interpretation of classifiable organic or inorganic specimens, to the properties of taxa of one sort or another. This sort of research is extremely important, if only because humans depend on natural resources and our knowledge of the natural world is not growing at the rate at which its content (especially the extant biota) is most alarmingly diminishing.

The relevance of Museums

There can be no doubt that National Museums that include the natural sciences must involve themselves strongly in this kind of research, for two main reasons. Firstly, over the past few decades in particular, many other organisations have shied away from it, as has been well-publicised for the biological sciences at least (House of Lords, 1991; Blackmore, 1998; House of Lords, 2002). This has much to do with relatively modern developments in biology having strongly eclipsed "whole organism" research and teaching in universities, partly through the workings of the Research Assessment Exercise as applied to science, the increased pressure to carry out commercially supported applied research, and the cost both of maintaining large collections of specimens and especially of adding to them in a purposeful way. To a large extent this applies also to the earth sciences. Some large organisations such as the British Geological Survey continue to be publicly funded as collection-holding research institutes without also being conventional museums, but they are few and their collecting is now largely commercially driven. The need for a broad base of taxonomic research continues, and museums are now almost alone in having the capacity to do it - therefore it needs to be done in museums. Indeed, it is increasingly important (though generally not the case) that the core natural sciences research capacity of museums should be maintained to be devoted to long-term scientific and societal objectives, rather than being directed towards short term projects with specific focus on wealth creation, or even the quality of human life in any immediate sense. Research on the extant biota is particularly pressing : major concerns have recently been well aired that high profile initiatives in biodiversity conservation, such as the 1992 Rio Convention on Biological Diversity and the ensuing National Biodiversity Action Plans, are, in practice, defeated by lack of sufficient knowledge (House of Lords, 2002).

While the first reason for doing this research relates to its absolute importance, the greatest importance of the second reason is to the museum itself. To fail to engage in question-driven research would leave a museum with major natural sciences collections unable to assert its true potential and relevance. A National Museum, especially, needs research activity in order to flourish - or even to be properly alive. This enables it, firstly, to be well integrated with the wider scientific community; secondly, to recruit and retain the best quality curatorial staff; thirdly, to provide high quality collection growth leading directly to value-adding publications, and through the donations from contacts and collaborators that will almost inevitably accompany that; and fourthly, to inject the current frontiers of the subject matter into exhibition and educational outreach work (including the results of in-house research when appropriate). From these bases the museum might hope to win good recognition of its importance to society.

NMS's capacity and orientation

NMS now has only a single natural sciences department, covering both geology and zoology but not dealing with botany except as palaeobotany. There are 10 curatorial sections (5 in Geology and 5 in Zoology) and, among very many other duties, each Section Head in particular is expected to carry out scientific research within his or her very broad area of collection responsibility. Perhaps in all about 15 staff members regularly contribute as authors to our research output, and much of the research we do is collaborative - in this way we become fully integrated in the scientific community, behave most cost-effectively, and avoid adverse competition. While our most obvious collaborative role might be to provide the necessary taxonomic (or other specimen analytical) input, in practice our wider subject expertise is generally also involved.

Research is a specialised business and the spans of curatorial responsibility are far too wide for individuals to have uniformly high expertise, so that in practice we have many gaps in our research coverage and, indeed, capacity. As an example, the head of our Marine Invertebrates section does research on marine worms, but because of our small staff base we are not currently doing research on the many other large and important groups under that section's care, such as Crustacea, Echinodermata or Cnidaria. These animal groups, however, have had their turn in the past and are likely to do so again in the future: active areas of research generally change as staff turn over.

Nobody on the permanent staff has research as their primary function: for all of us, caring for the collections and making them accessible in various ways has to come first. Paradoxically, the time in which to do research comes under the greatest pressure, yet the activity is - in the long term - what really gives the institution its status in the world and delivers the lasting part of its relevance to society as a whole. Sometimes the priority for research is given a short-term boost, for it is important to be able to be responsive to an unexpected opportunity: for example, the research we did on sea birds following the Braer and Sea Empress oil spills provided significant insights and knowledge, as has a great deal of "rescue geology" in line with the temporary accessibility of key sites. Being opportunistic doesn't mean the research is random or its desirability unevaluated: we only take up opportunity in relation to our ability to do so both effectively and usefully. But nevertheless I would argue that it is the question-driven, relatively long-term research efforts that last for a curator's career that achieve most. Some examples of such question-driven areas current in the Geology and Zoology Department of NMS are given in Table 1. There is a mixture of local (i.e. national) and wider (i.e. international or universal) approaches, and I have simply listed one topic for each of the Department's curatorial sections. It will be evident that the clearest overall orientation is to contribute to a broader understanding of the natural world with goals that are essentially scientific or practical, rather than being commercial. We do in fact engage in contracts, sometimes overtly commercial ones, but in this paper I am addressing a different kind of activity, which I want to keep separate.

Table 1

Some areas of Natural Sciences research interest in NMS

How, Why, What questions concerning:

  • Geochemical processes in basin formation
  • Occurrence and origins of mineral deposits in Scotland
  • Early evolution of seed plants
  • Animals of the earliest terrestrial ecosystems
  • Biomechanics of plesiosaurs and other marine tetrapods
  • Taxonomy of marine worms
  • Mid-water Atlantic fish
  • Biodiversity and conservation of saproxylic Diptera in Scotland
  • Host associations of W. Palaearctic parasitic wasps*
  • Mammals and birds (issues relating to conservation biology)*
  • Systematics and distribution of Antarctic octopods†*

* To be enlarged on
† Now ceased

Relationship to the collection

Two examples can be taken from this to show how the core area of research interest relates to both scientific and practical outputs, and in particular to examine how the research done relates to the collection in NMS. In the first example (Fig. 1), parasitic wasps are insects that lay their eggs in or on the bodies of other insects, which are then killed by the developing parasitic wasp larva. They are very specialised and each species is restricted to a narrow range of hosts. It is partly for this reason that there is a relatively huge number of species - in Britain, for example, the 6000 species of parasitic wasps make up a quarter of the entire insect fauna. They have potent roles in the population dynamics of other insects, including an importance in pest control, yet they are a very poorly known and much neglected aspect of the fauna, and in serious need of much more nature conservation attention than it is currently possible to give them, simply because we do not know enough about them. Indeed, even our supposed knowledge of which species occur in Britain is probably at least 30% inaccurate (Shaw & Hochberg, 2001). The research on parasitic wasps started in NMS in 1980, since when about 120,000 specimens, very many of them reared from their hosts, have been added to the collection, and about 100 in-house publications have resulted in the various directions depicted in Fig.1. There has also been a lot of external research use made of this collection. The point I want to make is that there was almost no pre-existing collection: the small quantity that there was had been casually collected and it was not so much drawn on to facilitate this research, as subsumed into the much larger process of purposeful collecting necessarily conducted for and during the research programme. In a very real sense the collection's primary role is to act as the depository of voucher specimens for the published work that accompanies this collecting-and-research axis, so as to ensure that the published conclusions have an objectively verifiable - or I should say testable - base for all time. It is admittedly a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation, as the material cannot be published on before it has been collected and examined, and nor does all of the publication happen immediately. Nevertheless, the collection is being built in order to answer questions that are actively being asked, and the importance of the collection is very much tied to this vitally important depository function. In some fields a pre-existing collection strength may be sufficient for it to make a substantial contribution to the research being pursued, but it is much more usual (especially in zoology) for the research questions to demand new collecting, leading to the deposition of new material made important by publication.

Fig 1

In the second example (Fig. 2) research in NMS on mammals and birds has, since 1988, tended to concentrate on the conservation biology of endangered species, both in the UK and elsewhere. Specimen acquisition is mostly through donated carcases arising as casualties in the wild or in captivity and, as with parasitic wasps, the research interest has led NMS to build a unique collection resource and forge many productive collaborative links. Kitchener (1997, 2002) has outlined the dynamics and rationales, and about 100 publications relating to the conservation biology of mammals and birds have resulted since 1988. Again, it is essential for verification and objectivity that the specimens on which the conclusions are based are deposited in the collection, and again the collection was not at the outset fully capable of answering the questions being asked. I want to stress once more that it is through question-driven research, the collecting needed to satisfy it, and the deposition of the material on which the publications are based, that I believe the most relevant and valuable collection growth is achieved. Once they are in the collection these enhanced specimens are, of course, also a part of the long-term resource available for researchers asking various other kinds of questions in the future - some, no doubt, not yet conceived. It is also true that nothing breeds like success: the more we do in a particular field the more we get opportunity to do, and the donation rate to the research-active parts of the collection is conspicuously higher than in those areas that we have - at least temporarily - to leave fallow.

Fig 2


I have said that the best research we do is question-driven. But who asks the question? For some research institutions there are clear demands to provide particular kinds of information, and the questions may be being asked externally, more-or-less in exchange for funding. Others have to bid competitively for external funds to allow them to add specific projects of their own choosing to their research activity. For NMS, I argue that research should be less constrained. In part this stance is both justified by, and an inevitable consequence of, our small size. The need for collection management and research in different broad areas is recognised in the division of the overall collection into curatorial sections, but each of these is so wide that there are many areas in which pressing questions abound, and there is no really overriding reason to choose between them. Our approach has been to select the research fields in which to become active largely on the basis of our best opportunity to achieve most - to "punch above our weight". Overall, the decision to do research in a particular field is connected very strongly with our recruitment strategy for senior staff, which is to recruit the best person we can for the mixed-rôle jobs we have on offer. I must stress that the rôle of these jobs is very mixed, and research ability is only a part of what we have to look for. Nevertheless, it is the person that does good research, not the collection. I will give an example that relates to someone no longer on the staff, to save blushes. A few years ago our malacologist retired and, not least for collection management reasons, we needed to recruit another. Following discussions with various other UK organisations, it seemed that deep sea gastropods would present particularly good opportunity, and fulfil a UK need. Had NMS been purely a research institute we would probably have advertised for someone specifically for this, and run the risk of recruiting a merely adequate person, but we were recruiting to a post with many other duties as well, so instead we just bore it in mind and advertised openly across the whole sectional responsibility for Mollusca. By far the most able and interesting person to apply was recruited, and so started our unexpected - but in every way fruitful and appropriate - interest in Antarctic octopuses! The strategy of recruiting the most able person, almost whatever their research interest (so long as it is fully relevant both externally and to their collection responsibility, and also affordable), has paid off again and again, in the sense of leading to excellent all round achievements. It does, however, boil down to the hypothetical research mission statement "It doesn't so much matter what we do research on, as that it is relevant and of a high quality" with which I must say I am completely comfortable under our particular circumstances though, rather dangerously, it would need more than the mere sound bite to justify such an extreme expression of opportunism. But there are so many pressing fields that we can't cover all at once that a good part of the choice can be left to the quality of the applicants for jobs, and our judgement of - among other things - the opportunity that can be found for them to achieve significant and worthwhile research activity. This process also provides sectional collections with a rotation of expertise as one curator's career with NMS ends and another starts, and this ensures the broadest activation and relevance, over time, of the collections.

This strongly opportunistic and relatively lightly-managed approach, that builds on the quality of the staff and gives rein to their own drive, has been an important part of not only our high output but also its good quality. It has also kept us strongly involved with the wider scientific community. One result of this is that our staff can often win grants, or forge opportunities to undertake collecting as participants in larger enterprises - for example by joining externally funded cruises and expeditions, or through being welcomed as a suitable recipient of the carcases that inevitably arise from captive animals. Without being able to win the peer group respect that brings such opportunity, the research-based collecting activity of many sections would be impossible, for NMS could not afford to support it at full cost. Other important needs - one might call these part of our weight, and we must strive to maintain them - are reasonably good salaries and progression, competitive with those in other research establishments, an adequate staff base, and a good provision of appropriate equipment and other facilities.

Another important way in which we achieve our output most effectively is through direct collaboration. Table 2 shows the authorship of our published research output over the past 5 years: 64% of publications were co-authored with external collaborators. As well as often being the best way to achieve results, to some extent collaboration helps to resolve the paradox of our research being of such high priority and yet there being too low a staff base to allow much time to be devoted to it. Incidentally, the very low level (less than 4) of publications co-authored completely within NMS is an indication of our rather sparse staffing structure, which leaves wide gaps between the interests and expertise of our staff.

Table 2

Authorship of “significant”* publications put in press by NMS G&Z Dept., 5 years to April 2002

Single author - 64

Multiple authors (all in Dept) - 7

With external author(s) - 124

*A “significant” publication is one that presents new information in a peer-reviewed journal (etc). Popular articles, book reviews etc. are excluded.

Further development

What of the future? In this era of strategic aims, objectives, plans, targets, evaluation and review, is it going to be tenable to allow opportunity and quality to be the arbiters of the research directions we take (albeit within criteria of general relevance and feasibility, which may in fact be quite deterministic), or will we be forced to be accountable to more prescriptive research strategies? Could top-down strategies be sensibly and successfully devised (and by whom?) to be applied to a sparse staff base in which research is nobody's first priority? Or, perhaps even worse, do we face our research becoming project-based and entirely dependent on our ability to compete successfully for external funding?

There are many important issues here, not least of which is accountability, and I am sure that in the months to come we will debate them within NMS as part of our current process of self-analysis. I have argued for our research to be largely conceived and led internally as part of a basic scientific endeavour for several reasons, some of which are essentially practical. Thus, in my view, the flexible and opportunistic strategy we currently adopt is the right one. I also believe that we do well out of our broadly based job responsibilities - recruiting as subject specialists staff who can adopt broad goals, encompassing curation, helping others, public education and research, seems not to be a problem and brings a richer understanding to each rôle than could be expected from splitting them. In the natural sciences at least, the best way out of the paradox of some senior staff not having enough time to do much research is not to separate the functions of research and other curatorial duties, as this would lead to a disintegration of focus on the collection, but to provide more sectional support staffing. Indeed, to vest all research in dedicated posts in an institution of our modest size would make research more vulnerable and, in the long run, put it at risk of being burned off altogether. Much of what I advocate is rather unfashionable - perhaps deeply so - but it has worked well and I believe other models would fail to achieve more in NMS.

One of the reasons we do research is to find answers to questions regarded as worth answering. But another value of the research done by NMS is simply that it allows Scotland as a nation to take its place alongside other countries in having a National Museum engaged in the overall international endeavour to understand the natural world. For this purpose it is even less important what our research is into than that it is of good quality and broad relevance - it is enough simply to be influential, and to be accredited internationally. This is not a new idea : for example, William Speirs Bruce, who conceived and led the 1902 Scottish National Antarctic Expedition, was strongly motivated by that concept of national status (Rudmose Brown, 1923). Although fostering Scotland's international partnership status may provide only a rather weak stimulus to a person doing any particular piece of research, it is a powerful reason for NMS to manage for excellence in what we do. Being able to continue to achieve excellence depends on a stout level of institutional will as well as a secure funding base. If it is accepted that undertaking both opportunistic and question-driven research in appropriate fields is an important - I believe fundamental - public service duty of a National Museum's natural sciences department, we must find better ways to get this across from NMS than we have managed to do so far. For too long we have been trying to achieve this vital research function almost on the side, exploiting (albeit unintentionally) the willingness of some staff to devote large amounts of unofficial time to it, and emphasising to our funding body rather different aspirations and performance indicators (typically to do with visitors, exhibition sites and diversifying access). Such is the rather limited public and media perception of what museums are for, that it may at first be uncomfortable to heighten the projection of the parallel role of NMS - Scotland's National Museum - as a research institute of international standing, but much more overt recognition of this function is needed in order to win new resources to secure its future, and therefore we must proactively expose it to debate and, indeed, recognise that accountability may then become an issue. But intention and resourcing must precede accountability, and so the first aim should be simply to share and articulate a sense of responsibility to the research itself with our sponsoring department, to ensure that NMS recruits, supports and retains able staff producing an appropriate and excellent research output, with broad scientific and societal aims, into the future.

I will leave readers with some slightly overstated ideas. I hope that they will seem more understandable and easier to relate to at the end of this paper than they would have at the beginning.

The most important scientific function of the collection is as a depository, to facilitate objective review of published work.
The most important specimens in the natural history collections may be those that have been published on, but the most useful are the ones we are currently adding.
It doesn’t so much matter what research we do, as that it is relevant, useful and of a good standard.
Of all the tasks we have, research is of the highest importance even if it tends to be accorded the lowest priority.

Click here to see the figures and tables in their original Power Point format.


I am grateful to colleagues in NMS for comments on an earlier draft.


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