‘Thrown away’: More concerns over SA Museum research plan

After the SA Museum revealed plans to abolish research positions, academics have voiced concern about the institution’s direction  – but the CEO says research investment won’t be cut.

Mar 13, 2024, updated Mar 13, 2024
SA Museum plans to shake-up it research program has prompted warnings from academics and a former director. Photo: Liam Jenkins/InDaily

SA Museum plans to shake-up it research program has prompted warnings from academics and a former director. Photo: Liam Jenkins/InDaily

The museum last month announced plans to abolish all 27 ongoing positions in the Research and Collections Division.

But former director and acclaimed scientist Tim Flannery told InDaily the reforms could “result in the death of an institution – one of the most important institutions in the state”.

The museum proposes to replace the current research positions with 22 new positions focussed on curatorial and collection management.

In a statement previously provided to InDaily, SA Museum CEO Dr David Gaimster said that “[w]e will not reduce our investment in research, but will obtain better outcomes from it, particularly for the public”.

“At the moment we are serving a narrow range of research interests. Going forward, we want to be at the heart of the knowledge economy,” he said.

“The museum remains fully committed to research and the promotion of matters of scientific and historical interest but this must be translatable for the benefit of all South Australians.”

Dr Robert Hill, a former Head of Science at the South Australian Museum, said he agreed with Tim Flannery’s assessment.

“Not very long ago (the SA Museum) could claim to be the strongest research museum in the country. For the sake of petty cash, that’s being thrown away,” Hill told InDaily.

He is currently a professor at the University of Adelaide in the School of Biological Sciences, researching the evolution of Australian vegetation from fossil records, and has published more than 200 journal articles and 35 book chapters.

Hill said research at the museum was being “deliberately downplayed and treated with contempt”.

He cited examples of research carried out at the museum including identifying fish species to work out if they are legal to harvest, mineral exploration, and identifying species at risk of extinction.

“Museums are absolutely primarily placed to be able to tell how many species we have in the first place because there are still a lot of species out there that haven’t been described,” he said.

“You need people who are working on the fairly backbreaking process of going through the very large numbers of specimens that come in and try and get an estimate of just how many species are out there and which of them are genuinely at risk and which aren’t.”

Hill said museums are also important because they are one of the only places where collections can be guaranteed long-term safety because universities are poor at long-term care of collections.

“If we come up with a new species and want to describe it, we need the help of the museum to make sure we do that and record it in the correct fashion,” he said.

Speaking about the importance of museum research, Hill said “right at the moment, we’re going through a period of massive environmental change and it’s going to get a lot worse in the future”.

“If we don’t have a group of really well-trained people who are monitoring what’s going on, who can talk with authority…[then] we’ve lost our ability to protect against what I think will be one of the major challenges for future generations,” he said.

The South Australian Museum. Photo: Charlie Gilchrist/InDaily

Dr Kate Sanders, an Associate Professor at the University of Adelaide, also said that museums and their collections play a key role in understanding climate change.

Sanders gave the example of genomics, which allows us to understand how populations responded to environmental change in the past.

“We’re in an environmental crisis – the Titanic is sinking – and the SA Museum really is one of the lifeboats,” she said.

“It’s a repository of knowledge that is essential for understanding not just what we have – our heritage – but how that’s very quickly changing under environmental pressures and that really doesn’t exist anywhere else.”

Sanders is an evolutionary biologist specialising in marine snakes, whose research has led to discovering new species.

She has undertaken research using the SA Museum collection and said she benefitted from the research culture at the museum.

“That community of curators and collection managers have expertise that just doesn’t exist anywhere else, including at the university,” she said.

She also said that collections-based research is foundational to scientific research.

“The collection managers and curators at the museum over the decades have very carefully, painstakingly constructed a sort of jigsaw that represents our understanding of Australia’s biodiversity – our biological heritage,” she said.

“It feels like that jigsaw puzzle is being swept aside with no care for where the pieces land.

“There’s a human side to this, for me particularly because these are my colleagues, so to see their expertise and their passion undervalued – I’d like to see them properly represented and having the credit for the work they’ve done.”

Another academic, Dr Andrew Austin, said “what the restructure is going to do is actually turn the museum into a 1960s version of what museums used to be and not what museums are currently doing and contributing to the national science agenda”.

He said other Australian museums are currently expanding their research programs.

“I think it is an absolute tragedy for so many reasons and it’ll be a blight on South Australia; we’ll be the only state that doesn’t have a museum that has major and credible research programs,” he told InDaily.

Austin was a Professor in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Adelaide and is the Director of Taxonomy Australia – the peak body for biodiversity research in Australia.

He has had close collaborations with researchers at the SA Museum for over 25 years, with his research focusing on the discovery and documentation of new species of insects and other Australian invertebrates.

He said “the new positions at the museums, the new curator positions, have very, very little research time and they’re all at very low promotional levels, much lower than the current staff”.

Austin said “museums are the primary research organisations in Australia that are involved in biodiversity discovery – the discovery and documentation of new species,” which has relevance to the conservation of rare and endangered species.

“One thing that most people don’t realise is that in Australia the biota – all the plants and animals – about 70 per cent of species in this country don’t have a name,” he said.

“When I talk to people who aren’t biologists, they’re fascinated by what happens behind the scenes in museums in terms of the research they do. I mean, they’re almost hungry for information.

“Museums are fantastic places for doing research and then delivering that information to the wider public.”

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