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Column: Dismantling natural history

Sometime in the early 1990s, Duke leadership got a bee in its bonnet about elevating the quality of the chemistry department. The idea at the time was that mediocrity in chemistry was hampering the prowess of the life sciences, the one major aspect of the sciences at Duke that has national stature.

Duke brought in prominent chemists from around the country with the goal of enticing one to become the department chair and transform the department.

One of the prospective chairs indicated that he would need $70 million in order for the department to have a shot at cracking the top 20 of chemistry departments nationwide. Duke leadership was dumfounded. They didn't have anywhere close to $70 million to spend.

Major science--fields like chemistry, physics and medical research--costs a lot of money. Duke, with the exception of medical research and associated life science aspects of biology, has never invested heavily in it. The reasons are many. They include the constant financial burden of such an investment, the historical lack of interest in non-medical sciences at Southern universities and the science phobia of Duke leadership both past and present.

While Duke has eschewed much of major science, historically it has done one aspect of small science well, natural history. A dozen years ago, physical anthropology, botany and zoology were strengths at Duke. Geology wasn't strong, but when I came here it was with a promise and a handshake from a dean that there would be significant investment to get it up to snuff.

In 2003, the state of natural history at Duke is weak. Botany and geology have been eliminated. Their core natural history oriented faculty are gradually retiring and are being replaced by those working on cell and molecular biology and environmental problems. Duke leadership has publicly stated that physical anthropology will be gutted.

The doublespeak and distortion of facts used by leadership in its efforts to obscure this gutting are the same as that used during the gutting of botany and geology. I won't dwell on these lapses in integrity and ethics on the part of Duke leadership.

In another five years, the only strength remaining in examining the state of the natural world will be the organismal aspects of zoology in the Department of Biology. It's not clear to me that this aspect of natural history at Duke will still be allowed to thrive.

In 10 years natural history essentially will be gone at Duke. Instead of tens of faculty engaged in this research, there will be less than a dozen. The science that is the basis for natural history museums around the world--those places that have inspired many young students, including yours truly, to become scientists--will be on the back burner. The resources that were once allocated at Duke for natural history are being distributed elsewhere. They are moving away from pure science to applied problem solving.

Why is Duke dismantling one of the few aspects of science in which it had prominence? There are at least three reasons for this decision. All of them point to decision-making that is being corrupted by crass motivations or just plain old ignorance. One reason is that natural history has little or nothing to do with medicine. The School of Medicine has incredible political clout. The fields of science at Duke that don't benefit medical research tend to get crowded out and suffer from neglect.

Another reason is money. The grants that are accorded to natural history research are often modest in size. Unlike the Duke of old, Duke now expects all science to generate large amounts of revenue, something natural history just can't do. For example, in the last external review of BAA, leaders at Duke dwelled on BAA's low grant dollars relative to its office and lab space. The external reviewers were dismayed that Duke was using "dollars per square foot" as a primary measure of success. Duke is dismantling natural history for business reasons not intellectual ones.

But the final reason for this change is perhaps more disturbing than those given above. Duke leadership has little or no understanding of the intellectual value of science. Talk to them about science and their eyes glaze over.

For them science is about dollars and cents and prizes won by faculty. It's not about achievement, but the trappings associated with achievement. I've won prizes. I've raised money through grants. That's not what research is about at all. If I had been motivated by prizes and money, I would have pursued something other than science.

In methodically dismantling what was once one of its intellectual strengths, Duke is making a public statement about its love of money that is as grotesque as the gargoyles that adorn its buildings.

Duke is not only abandoning a field of study in its chase for dollars. It's also abandoning its intellectual mission.

Stuart Rojstaczer is a professor of hydrology. His column appears every third Wednesday.

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