Science and international development

Written evidence submitted by the
Natural History Museum (Int Dev 09)

Background and interests

1. The Natural History Museum (NHM) has a mission to maintain and develop its natural history collections to be used to promote the discovery, understanding, responsible use and enjoyment of the natural world.

2. The NHM’s statutory obligation under the British Museum Act 1963 is to care for and give access to the nation’s natural history collections. The collections comprise over 70 million specimens, ranging from international collections of biodiversity and minerals to DNA samples from mosquitoes collected and stored using the latest technology. The Museum, through its collections, research and knowledge exchange, is part of the UK’s science base and a major intellectual infrastructure that is used by its own 350 scientists and over 8,000 annually from across the UK and the globe to enhance knowledge on the diversity of the natural world and addresses some of the major challenges society faces, from biodiversity loss due to climate change to the spread of parasitic disease and to the sustainable use of natural resources. The NHM is the pre-eminent institution in a wide international network of collaboration and common purpose with respect to the diversity of the natural world and its uses by humans. The NHM also makes significant expertise and information resources available for different needs, together with training, education and public engagement programmes. It cares for and develops these collections for future generations to use in ways not currently possible to help answer future scientific questions of importance.

3. The NHM is a recipient of Darwin Initiative funding from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) for a range of projects that assist countries that are rich in biodiversity but poor in financial resources to meet their objectives the three major biodiversity Conventions: the NHM is particularly active in working with international partners under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).


Question 1:  How does the UK Government support scientific capacity building in developing countries and how should it improve?

4. The Museum as a scientific research institution is active in over 70 countries, collaborating on scientific research, collections development and capacity building, and providing commercial scientific consultancy services. The NHM collection is a major part of a network of collections in both developed and developing countries that is essential for scientific research and its effective application in managing the environment, public health management and sustainable use of biodiversity. The capacity building we undertake is primarily around research in the form of joint research projects, field projects, community partnerships and postgraduate education; and collections and information development and management in the form of training courses and network development, standards and access development, mobility of collections and information repatriation. This assists scientific development in-country and provides long-term access and collaboration for the Museum – the research, collections and skills of all the partner institutions develop as a result of this activity, resulting in shared benefits.

5. The Museum has also been active in discussion and development of initiatives under the CBD in partnership with developing countries: staff have provided advice and expertise to Defra, the CBD secretariat and other agencies and have undertaken needs assessments for taxonomy in developing countries.

6. The Museum also has a commercial exhibition design consultancy service which supports the development of exhibitions and museums in a number of countries: it has, for example provided expertise for the master-planning of a new natural history museum in Malaysia.

7. The Museum’s principal funding comes from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. However, our scientific and public engagement activities contribute to a number of other Government Department’s agendas, including those of the Department for Education, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development.

8. The Museum’s scientific research in taxonomy, classification and evolution underpins all the life sciences. Without this understanding, it would not be possible address a number of major challenges, including biodiversity loss due to climate change of the control of parasitic diseases. The Museum’s history, and that of the UK, means that it holds an international collection and expertise of major value to many developing countries. Addressing the most productive and interesting research questions means working internationally and capacity building in research and collections is an essential element of this work to strengthen current and future collaboration and value to the UK. Partnership with governments, universities, NGOs and others in developing countries is now a standard practice.

9. The Museum is currently reviewing the strategic alignment of its research with Government and other priorities. This will include consideration of collaboration and funding generation and application with other UK and foreign organisations, aiming at improving effectiveness of scientific programmes, which include capacity building. 10. The Museum welcomes discussion with Government on an ongoing basis on the Museum’s contribution to the UK response to international imperatives for development of scientific capacity, such as under the CBD or the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

Question 2: What are the most effective models and mechanisms for supporting research capacity in developing countries?

11. Research capacity in developing countries differs widely as a result of historical investment and development and access to current resources. For some countries with established university systems that conduct research; with collections institutions such as natural history museums and botanic gardens; and with a capacity for application of research findings, the Museum has often many years of collaboration, respect and exchange of mutual benefit that actively supports research capacity through partnership. The limiting factor in such cases is often resources both in the UK and in the developing country that constrain the scale, frequency and output of collaboration.

12. For other countries, there may be very limited research capacity, few resources for collections institutions or infrastructure where these exist and limited engagement with policy. In some cases, the Museum may hold definitive collections from the past that would be needed for effective research. In such cases, the Museum can work with local partners to deliver some benefit but active external funding from sources such as the Darwin Initiative is essential to have significant impact. Even if funding for a number of years is available, policy and funding support from within the country are essential for a sustainable research capacity even in narrow areas of science. There is potential for exploring regional networks for the development of research capacity and infrastructure across a number of countries: this has been relatively rare to date, with a focus on certain information products such as digital collections, rather than research capacity as such.

13. Continued support for actors such as the Museum is essential and the current model is the most effective, if limited by resources. However, there is potential for better co-ordination to allow for the better sharing of intelligence and a more accurate measurement of value to Government. Specialist institutions like the Museum have a critical role to play in building scientific capacity, literacy and civil society, which can be perhaps more effective in specific areas then through direct Government involvement. However, recognition is required of this work across Government.

Question 3: How does the Government monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the scientific capacity building activities it supports? Is further assessment or oversight required?

14. If the Government wants a complete assessment of this type of work that it funds then it will need to broaden its oversight to include organisations like the Museum. The Museum would welcome discussions on research capacity and infrastructure development.

15. Specific Government funding programmes such as the Darwin Initiative include effective monitoring and assessment.

Question 4: What role does DfID’s Chief Scientific Adviser play in determining priorities and in the development and assessment of capacity building policies?

16. The Museum is unable to answer this question, however, we would welcome the opportunity to discuss our contribution to this area with the Department and its Chief Scientific Adviser.

Question 5: How are government activities co-ordinated with the private and voluntary sectors?

17. The Museum is not able to answer this, but it does work with organisations in each of these sectors, particularly the latter, in developing research capacity in developing countries.

Natural History Museum

15 December 2011

Prepared 22nd December 2011