Lack of scientists threatens Natural History Museum

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The world-class status of the Natural History Museum in London is in jeopardy because of the dearth of young scientists willing to work there, according to its outgoing director.

Sir Neil Chalmers, who steps down next month after 16 years in charge, said the dire state of regional natural history collections was no encouragement to potential recruits.

Universities were having problems maintaining natural history collections because of the expense that had contributed to a decline in the numbers studying it. Few university syllabuses cover systematics, the naming and classification of plants and organisms in which the Natural History Museum excels. Potential recruits who did get as far as university were likely to be deterred from taking their studies further by comparatively low salaries for an institution recognised as top-rank. It publishes 400 research papers a year.

Sir Neil, one of the museum world's longest serving chiefs, said: "It's a real worry if we're going to maintain our world pre-eminence. I think the Government should be significantly worried." Top scientists earn about £20,000 when they join the Natural History Museum and perhaps £50,000 at the peak of their careers, but can earn considerably more in a related commercial field or in the US. Although the status of its research still made the museum a desirable workplace for many at present, this could not be taken for granted, he added.

He said the threat to recruitment was particularly serious given the growing realisation that bio-diversity is crucial to the future existence of the planet and its peoples. "If we're going to look after the world's wildlife, we've got to know what it is," he said. Only about 12 per cent of plants and animals are thought to have been identified and fully documented so far.

Sir Neil, who is to become warden of Wadham College, Oxford, in the autumn, compared the situation with France, which has an extensive network of thriving and well-funded natural history museums. "We have very few specialist natural history museums in this country. The metropolitan museums, by and large, are general museums that cover many disciplines of which natural history is one," he said. The natural history collections were often "relegated to rather dusty top floors and heavily neglected - not the ideal place for young, ambitious curators". Sir Neil, 61, was well known to be sceptical about the Government's mission to scrap the admission charges that he believed had contributed to driving up standards by making the public more demanding about what they got.

He said last week it would be difficult for the trustees to reintroduce them, but they had to reserve that right. It was not clear that the Government was willing to continue to increase funding to pay for the enormous increase in visitors - up by 65 per cent since 2001 to 2.9 million - that free admission had created.

He has evidently enjoyed his time at the Natural History Museum. "It's a place that grabs you," he said. "There is a real thrill when you come through the front door. But there comes a time when you have to go."

One of Sir Neil's achievements was the establishment of the museum's Darwin Centre which offers visitors behind-the-scenes access to thousands of specimens, all explained by the scientists researching them. The centre's second phase will take several more years, but is well under way. "I've got to a stage with the museum where I can leave in a very confident state about what is going to happen," he said.