Micropalaeontology at the Natural History Museum, London

Updated 04/10/2010

Knowing that many of you have been following with great interest and concern the developments at the Natural History Museum in London, with respect to the planned closure of the Micropalaeontology research unit, we felt it important to inform you in this way of the latest news on this matter and their likely consequences.

In June 2010, as part of 5% cut in the cost base of the Natural History Museum (NHM), three of the four micropalaeontologists in the NHM – researchers Dr Jeremy Young and Dr Susanne Feist-Burkhardt and senior curator Clive Jones – were told that their posts were “at risk” and hence that they were likely to be made redundant. Taken together with the earlier decisions not to replace two other micropalaeontology posts which became vacant in the last five years, this proposal amounted to the end of a long tradition of micropaleontological research in the museum and the virtual mothballing of the world famous collections and associated specialist libraries. The timetable for this was to be a three month consultation period (June to September) followed by six month notice of redundancies, if confirmed.

Not surprisingly, this proposal resulted in a very strong reaction from the scientific community in general and The Micropalaeontological Society in particular. Details of these actions have been published in the latest Newsletter of Micropalaeontology. A letter was written to and published in Nature by a group of distinguished micropalaeontologists and oceanographers. In parallel, numerous micropalaeontologists wrote to the museum expressing their concern, and an online petition was signed by 1375 people, primarily professional micropalaeontologists. On behalf of TMS, I have held a formal meeting with Prof. Norman MacLeod, the Keeper of Palaeontology.  Many other scientists raised the issue personally with the museum trustees and the Director, Dr Michael Dixon.

We understand that the level of concern expressed far exceeded that for any other planned redundancies and caused the trustees and most senior museum administrators to request an urgent reassessment of the proposals. In his recent letter of September 28th, addressed to all those who wrote in their concerns, Prof. Richard Lane (Director of Science, NHM), has now indicated that whilst the three proposed post closures will go ahead …. “in their place, two new positions will be created to meet the expressed needs of the micropalaeontological research and commercial community”. These, therefore, would have mixed functions of: collections development; development of post-graduate teaching and training courses; research; and commercial consultancy. Drs Young and Feist-Burkhardt were offered these posts but chose not to accept them, preferring to continue their careers outside the museum. Clive Jones was made redundant without the option of taking one of these posts. We understand that despite the constraints of funding and a possible UK Government moratorium on any new recruitment, the NHM sees these posts as a high priority and hopes to advertise them shortly.

The Micropalaeontology Society does not regard this as a satisfactory outcome and is deeply concerned at the damage that has been done to micropalaeontology in the NHM and the individual scientists concerned, as well as to the museum’s reputation. Nonetheless the Society is pleased that the likely final outcome is substantially better than the original proposal, and TMS will actively support any micropalaeontologists working at the NHM.

Although the campaign has not been entirely successful it has had a real impact. It has greatly increased the likely commitment to micropalaeontology in the NHM and indirectly in many other institutions. More generally, it has raised awareness of the value of micropalaeontology in Earth Science research and in the Petroleum Industry and has highlighted the need for continuing training of micropalaeontologists. We are very grateful to everyone who supported the campaign and especially to Dr. Tom Dunkley Jones (TMS Nannofossil Group Secretary) and Dr. Daniela Schmidt (former TMS Foraminifera Group chair) who co-ordinated the campaign on behalf of the TMS. We will now be watching developments with interest.

Michal Kucera
TMS President