Museums are winning the war against “fake news” but losing out on research funding

By Meg Beckel

President and CEO of the Canadian Museum of Nature

Barely a day goes by when we don’t hear reports of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” and it’s taking a toll. A global survey released in September by the polling firm Ipsos found that 32% of Canadian respondents were skeptical of science, up from 25% the year before.

Yet, one scientific institution continues to receive top marks when it comes to public trust and credibility: natural history museums. According to a 2017 study by IMPACTS Research & Development, museums are considered the most trustworthy source of information in the U.S., rating higher than local papers, non-profits, the government or academic researchers.

What gives museums this superpower of public trust? First, seeing is believing. Natural history museums collect, preserve and manage physical evidence of plants, animals, minerals and fossils – evidence that is on display for all to see. The Canadian Museum of Nature has been building that trust with the public since it first opened its doors in 1912.

Second, research-intensive museums are experts in knowledge translation, giving the general public access to complex subjects. More than seven million people visit natural history museums annually in Canada—far more than any other scientific institution. More than half a million people visit the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa each year, with millions more experiencing the museum’s travelling exhibitions across Canada and around the world.

Natural history museums are also critical contributors to scientific discovery. The Canadian Museum of Nature is home to Canada’s largest museum collection: 14.6 million individual natural history specimens, including mineralogy, paleobiology, zoology and botany. This invaluable and irreplaceable scientific infrastructure provides baseline evidence of our planet’s development, change, and interdependencies over four billion years of history.

These national assets are also available globally. Natural history museums are a significant source of data feeding into the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), a global platform that allows anyone, anywhere to access data about all types of life on Earth. The UN’s convention on Biological Diversity endorses GBIF as a vital source of data for its deliberations and actions in global conservation efforts.

The Canadian Museum of Nature has contributed over 900,000 digital records of biodiversity data to GBIF, which directly feed over 1.2-billion digital downloads annually. The GBIF Science Report notes that these data are used for a broad range of applications, from food security, to predicting the spread of human pathogens and conserving endangered species.

Other countries support museum research

Even though museums are acknowledged as highly trusted sources of knowledge, they do face challenges when it comes to sustainability. Unlike our counterparts in the U.S. and Europe, museums in Canada cannot apply directly for federal grants for research, science infrastructure, or digitization.

The Canadian Museum of Nature spends 25% of its $36-million annual budget on research and collections care, far below the recommended standard of between 30% and 40% for research-intensive museums. For comparison, the Museum of Natural History in Berlin, Germany directs nearly half of its budget to research.

Natural history museums are important contributors to scientific discovery. The Canadian Museum of Nature’s work in both the field and the lab has led to the discovery or classification of 39 species in this past year alone. Our scientists are currently involved in 20 research projects, 18 field expeditions, and collaborations in over 100 cities around the world. In 2018, they published over 90 peer-reviewed scientific papers.

Most curators and researchers today are scientists with PhDs and many are cross-appointed at universities. They work with graduate students on interdisciplinary projects—often in partnership with universities, other museums, governments and international collaborators. Canadian Museum of Nature scientists conduct fundamental research to better understand the past, life on the planet now and provide the baseline knowledge from which future change can be projected.

In one project our scientists are studying 3.5-million year old camel fossils from the High Arctic, when global temperatures were two-to-three degrees warmer than they are today. The research is providing a window into our climate future and how our ecosystems could change when global temperatures rise two degrees as predicted.

There was a time when Canada’s main research granting agencies did not fund research at colleges and polytechnics. Today, colleges and polytechnics receive grants through the tri-council College and Community Innovation program. This could become a model for supporting research at natural history museums.

Funding for research would allow the Canadian Museum of Nature to train more university students, and collaborate more with researchers across Canada and internationally. Funding for infrastructure would give us the means to digitize massive specimen collections, creating a formidable scientific resource for documenting and sharing critical evidence about our natural world that can educate society, inform policy and advance research.

Canada has a unique opportunity to leverage the excellent science and credibility of natural history museums to preserve the record of the natural world for future study. Together, we can continue to inspire the next generation to think differently about how they live in balance with our natural world.