The Natural History Museum Annual Review 2003 | 2004
 
Introduction The Director's Review Our Year World Class Science
Opening Up the Collection Darwin Centre Innovation 3 Million+ Visitors A Place for Learning
Working for Us Looking Ahead Our Supporters Financial Review
Corporate Governance Previous Years' Reports
(Annual Report Home - graphics and PDF)
 
World Class Science
The Natural History Museum has long been a world leader in the study of systematics, the science of naming, describing and classifying the natural world. We are continuing to refine our research agenda to ensure that we meet the future expectations of the public, the international scientific community and government.
 
Powerhouse of Knowledge A Unique Research Infrastructure Science Partnerships SYNTHESYS
Creating Knowledge Understanding the Natural World Conserving Biodiversity Making the World a Better Place
 

Powerhouse of knowledge. Our community of more than 300 scientists and curators is an international centre of research expertise. Our skills in taxonomy and systematics have never been more relevant than they are today. Governments and public bodies around the world are directing funds towards priority work in such areas as biodiversity conservation, environmental quality and biomedical research, where our knowledge can make a vital contribution.

The Museum is a global enterprise, with projects and partnerships in over 60 countries. Nearly 11,891 scientists visited us to study our collections, to use our facilities, or to work alongside our researchers - an increase of 33% on the previous year.

In August 2003 we welcomed Dr Richard Lane back as our new Director of Science. Dr Lane spent much of his career at the Museum, latterly as Keeper of Entomology, with spells at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and The Wellcome Trust, where he was Head of International Programmes. He is a past President of the Royal Entomological Society and holds posts on WHO Expert Advisory Panels and the Council for the International Congress of Entomology.

Dr Lane's appointment followed the retirement of Professor Paul Henderson. We owe a great debt to Professor Henderson - as Director of Science from 1995 he played a key role in defining the Museum's science policy, while strengthening its international links, building collaborative networks, and opening up new sources of funding. We wish him well in his retirement.

A unique research infrastructure. During the year we initiated a new science vision that emphasises the importance of the collection as an international scientific resource. The collection is more than an historical archive - it is a research infrastructure. The 70 million specimens together constitute a model for the Earth's biological and geological diversity, and our research community is an 'institute for biodiversity', using the collection to gain deeper understanding of the complexities of the natural world. There are many urgent questions that scientists have not yet addressed - we are now defining what these 'big questions' are for the Natural History Museum, and focusing our resources to better identify some possible answers.

Science partnerships. Our scientists and curatorial staff work with a broad range of government, academic and commercial partners. For example, in the UK our palaeontologists are collaborating with a consortium of institutions to uncover insights into the early history of humans in Britain, in a major five-year project funded by the Leverhulme Trust. Our botanists are working with social scientists, public bodies and amateur groups in an extensive programme of initiatives to monitor and defend UK biodiversity.

In Europe, we are participants in many EU-funded projects. Our entomologists are part of the BIOASSESS programme which is working in seven EU countries to identify changes in biodiversity under different land management regimes. Through the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Mineral Studies (CERCAMS), which was set up by the Museum in 2002, our mineralogists are collaborating with scientists from Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia and China to coordinate research on mineral deposits.

Another major European project is the Biological Collections Access Service for Europe (BioCASE), which is making collections-based information more widely available online. Through BioCASE, which is funded by the European Commission, we are contributing information to a wider drive to share biodiversity data globally - the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). Already the GBIF data portal (www.gbif.net) has nearly 24 million specimen data records.

SYNTHESYS. The Museum is coordinating and managing SYNTHESYS, a new EU-funded network of 20 leading European natural history institutions. SYNTHESYS builds on the success of the SYS-RESOURCE programme, which it has replaced, and aims to create a single 'virtual' museum service comprising the institutions' physical collections and analytical facilities together with integrated databases of collections-based information. SYNTHESYS will help to stimulate work in key areas of research such as biodiversity and the environment. The Museum led the bidding process on behalf of the consortium of institutions, and won the award against intense competition for European Commission grants. The consortium members will benefit from £8.7 million of funding.

Creating knowledge. Every year members of our science group publish the results of their work in books and articles that create new knowledge about the natural world. We look at a small selection of their work in the following pages - for a full list of peer-reviewed publications in learned journals, please visit our website at www.nhm.ac.uk/science.

Mamen Peña - Research Assistant, Central American Plants.
'The Museum has been wonderful for me. I've learned so much here - there is such a lot of interesting research going on, and working with scientists from so many different disciplines is fascinating.'

Mamen Peña's first job at the Museum was in 1991, when she worked as a volunteer in the Herbarium while studying English. After completing an MSc in tropical botany she was back at the Museum in the mid 1990s and is now Dr Sandy Knapp's assistant.

Her work involves regular trips to Latin America, where she has been able to develop her fieldwork and communication skills. She works closely with local communities, helping to enlist their support for biodiversity initiatives and preparing identification guides. 'Much of my work is about making scientific information easy to understand and accessible. It's a great privilege to be able to work with the people of Latin America and help them defend their amazing biodiversity.'

Understanding the natural world. Working with colleagues around the world, our researchers are gaining insights into past and present patterns of life on our planet.

An international team of 32 palaeontologists led by the Museum's Dr Andrew Ross recently won an EU INTAS grant to study the fossil fauna and flora of the Insect Bed on the Isle of Wight. The fine-grained limestone of the Insect Bed is famous for its exquisite preserved insects and spiders, organisms which are rarely preserved as fossils. The Museum has an important historical collection of fossils from the bed, much of it collected in the nineteenth century, but many species have still to be described and some earlier descriptions need to be revised. The team of palaeontologists will study existing material and collect samples in order to interpret the climate and ecology at the time the limestone was deposited 33.5 million years ago.

Our collection of meteorites is one of the best in the world. Multi-partner research is currently underway to study the fine grains of dust that circulate at great speed in space. In one project funded by the European Space Agency, our researchers have analysed dust impact damage on the Hubble Space Telescope. Electron microscopes have revealed that the surface of the telescope's glass solar cells are pitted with tiny holes from dust collisions, some of which have smashed through the hard glass. By firing high-energy beams of electrons into the impact holes, we have established that two types of dust cause the damage - artificial space debris such as grains from the smoke of rocket launchers, and a variety of natural dust grains which probably originated in the asteroid belt and passing comets.

The collections are a major scientific resource, and so too is the information about the specimens and species that we have assembled over many decades. An example is our card index of the names of butterfly and moth (Lepidoptera) species, which is an essential reference tool for entomologists around the world. The index contains around 290,000 cards, and electronic images of these are now available via the LepIndex online database (www.nhm.ac.uk/ entomology/lepindex). LepIndex includes details of the scientific names of more than 137,000 living and fossil species, and when fully operational will be the only readily accessible comprehensive catalogue of this important group of insects. LepIndex will be the core of a future web-based encyclopaedic information system for world Lepidoptera species.

Conserving biodiversity. The international demand for our taxonomic expertise has intensified as governments around the world recognise the urgency of the threats to their flora and fauna, and strive to meet their obligations under the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Reliable information is the essential foundation for effective biodiversity policies. Even in well-documented regions such as Europe, taxonomic data is surprisingly scattered and incomplete. To rectify the situation, the European Commission has established Fauna Europaea, a four-year project to identify and catalogue all 120,000 multicellular land and freshwater animal species in Europe. Several Museum scientists are among the experts contributing information, and four are group coordinators - Dr Geoff Boxshall (Crustacea), Dr David Gibson (parasitic worms) Peter Barnard (Tricoptera) and Dr John Noyes (parasitic wasps). The resulting database will be readily accessible and will underpin future science and conservation initiatives across Europe.

Conservation projects seldom succeed without the support of local communities. Museum scientists are active in many biodiversity-rich countries, engaging with local people to raise knowledge and awareness. For example, botanist Dr Sandy Knapp is working with institutions in Argentina and Paraguay on an innovative project in the Humid Chaco ecoregion to produce an inventory of biodiversity together with user-friendly field guides. The project, which is funded by the UK Government's Darwin Initiative, will provide UK-based training in identification and information management as well as training courses in monitoring and assessing biodiversity for local people. This is the first time that private landowners have been involved in biodiversity studies in the region.

In Sri Lanka Fred Naggs and colleagues have been collaborating with scientists from the University of Peradeniya and the Department of National Museums to survey and catalogue Sri Lanka's snail fauna. Sri Lanka is a global biodiversity hotspot and most of its land snail species are unique to the island - around a third of the 150 species encountered during the project were new to science. The study also revealed a number of previously unrecorded introduced snail species which pose a major potential threat to the native land snails. The project, which was funded by the UK Government's Darwin Initiative, has produced the first ever multilingual colour identification guides for the island's snail species and has established new reference collections and databases in Sri Lanka.

Making the world a better place. Our zoologists and entomologists are working in several countries to understand the processes that drive the spread of animal- and insect-borne diseases such as malaria (mosquitoes), onchocerciasis (blackflies) and schistosomiasis (water snails).

Dr Paul Ready's group studies sandflies as transmitters of Leishmania, the parasitic protozoa causing the disease leishmaniasis. Some 12 million people worldwide suffer from this sometimes fatal skin condition. In Mediterranean countries it is often associated with HIV infections, complicating the prognosis for both diseases. Using DNA markers, the team is mapping the distributions of the different species and genetic races of sandflies responsible for disease transmission in Europe. This will establish the environmental requirements of each sandfly species and help to predict how they might spread leishmaniasis following changes in climate and land use. The work is part of the European Union-funded Emerging Diseases in a Changing European Environment (EDEN) initiative, which involves scientists from 42 institutes in a coordinated drive to understand and monitor several parasitic diseases that threaten the health of people in Europe.

Our scientists are also helping to improve environmental quality. For example, a multidisciplinary team of Museum scientists has successfully completed a major three-year, European Union-funded study of sustainable development in the heavily-polluted South Urals mining region of Russia. The Museum team, which led the environmental assessment programme of the project, included mineralogists, botanists and entomologists. Working alongside Russian and European institutions, our researchers helped to develop tools and methodologies for evaluating mining-related risks to the environment and identifying new, less toxic mineral deposits. Their work has also contributed to a series of recommendations for measures to limit human exposure to toxic elements.

Pollution is an issue in the UK too. For many years, Dr William Purvis and colleagues at the Museum and Imperial College London have been monitoring the effects of atmospheric pollutants by studying lichens in the London area. Lichens are bioindicators that provide important information about changes in air quality - low levels of lichen biodiversity usually imply high levels of pollution. Much valuable data has been assembled which charts the gradual improvement in air quality. This has resulted from a shift in fuel use from coal to gas in the London area and beyond, which has helped to reduce levels of sulphur dioxide and other pollutants. New indicator scales are being developed appropriate for London, where traffic emissions are now the major cause of pollution. We hope these scales will be used by school children as part of science and environmental projects, and that the results will be fed into the policy-making process. Mosses, which are also excellent bioindicators, are now being considered for use in the monitoring programme.

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