Field Museum cutting costs, losing scientists

Chicago's Field Museum made headlines on four continents this year after researchers discovered a 600-year-old Chinese coin in late December on the Kenyan island of Manda, revealing there was trade between China and East Africa before European explorers mapped that part of the world.

But the anthropologist who co-led that expedition will soon be working at American University in Washington, D.C. Five other tenured scientists, some with decades of experience and others with promising careers ahead, are also preparing to leave the Field staff this year, for a total of six of the museum's 27 tenured curators.

The exodus follows six months of cost-cutting at the Field. The museum has slashed millions from its research budget; merged its anthropology, zoology, geology and botany departments; and sparked fears that it is going — in the words of a curator at Harvard's zoology museum — "from being a major research institution to being a local museum where people go to see things."

Field President Richard Lariviere has repeatedly expressed a commitment to keeping the Field a top scientific institution. "The Field's commitment to scientific research is steadfast," Lariviere said in a written response to questions from the Tribune. "Cutting-edge science is why we exist and what we share with the public in our museum."

He also said that "by restructuring, and reimagining what this institution can be, we are confident that we are creating a sustainable plan that will maximize our scientific impact, as well as engage a new generation of visitors."

The Field has long shouldered a demanding double mission: serving the public with relevant and engaging exhibits while also supporting internationally recognized scientific research.

Lariviere took over the Field in October as it struggled to recover from a decadelong spending campaign during which the museum completed $254 million in capital projects but raised only $150 million to pay for them.

Like many other cultural institutions, the Field Museum took on a heavy debt load around the turn of the millennium, a time of swelling endowments and low borrowing costs. But the Field shouldered more financial risk than its peers and has endured greater cutbacks, offering a window into how ambitious building projects can stress even a well-established cultural institution.

This year, in an effort to keep the Field financially stable, Lariviere has cut the Field's roughly $60 million operating budget by $5 million, with the cuts falling disproportionately on the research side of the museum. The Field's four research departments — anthropology, botany, geology and zoology — and the museum's conservation programs previously had a combined budget of $18.9 million, a spokeswoman said. In merging those entities into the newly created science and education unit, the museum is reducing spending by $3 million, or 16 percent.

"This allows for economies of scale and greater efficiencies," spokeswoman Nancy O'Shea said in a statement. "We have also brought our staffing more in line with our current financial position."

The now-merged departments will lose a total of 18 positions through a combination of early retirement packages, voluntary departures, nonrenewal of contracts and leaving open spots unfilled, O'Shea said. Among the losses are the six tenured curators, who are either leaving voluntarily or accepting early retirement packages.

Of the museum's 550 employees — a figure that fluctuates with projects and seasonal employment — 152 will be science staff. The museum plans to spend some additional money on scholarships for visiting researchers and students, increasing funding from $134,000 in 2013 to $175,000 in 2014.

The tenured scientists planning to leave for other institutions include nationally recognized researchers. Anthropological archaeologist Chap Kusimba and zoologist Leo Smith have accepted positions at universities, and former zoology department chair Mark Westneat said he is in discussions about a university position.

Westneat studies coral reef fishes and helped launch the now 6-year-old Encyclopedia of Life project, a free Web resource to provide information on each of Earth's 1.8 million species. He also researches biomechanics, addressing questions like just how hard an armored, 4-ton Dunkleosteus terrelli fish could bite before it went extinct 360 million years ago.

Kusimba, a two-time Fulbright scholar, was co-leader of a joint expedition by the Field and the University of Illinois at Chicago that discovered the 600-year-old Chinese coin, prompting new revelations about the history of world trade. He will chair the anthropology department at American University.

"For 19 years, the Field Museum was my home and I couldn't wait for daybreak to leave my house and get there to work," Kusimba wrote in an email. "Thus, my decision to leave the museum is one of the most difficult yet."

Smith, who will become an assistant professor at the University of Kansas, researches the evolutionary biology of fishes and co-authored a study establishing that there are more species of venomous fishes than all other venomous vertebrates combined — including snakes.

But he said his proudest moment at the Field was working with the museum's exhibits team on the current "Creatures of Light" exhibit, which examines the natural phenomenon of bioluminescence, from fireflies to glowing deep-sea fishes.

Gonzalo Giribet, a Harvard University biology professor and a curator at the school's Museum of Comparative Zoology, said he was surprised to hear that Smith is trading tenure at the Field for a tenure-track university position. Giribet called it a sign that "the situation in the museum for the scientists there is really untenable."

"Leaving a tenured position for an untenured one," he said, "you really want out of there."