Research Careers at Natural Science Museums in Canada


Everyone has some idea of what a museum is. But the official definition is not so certain. It has been thought about in great detail and is still debated fervently by committees and large professional groups. According to a current Canadian definition, a museum is "an institution which collects, documents, preserves, exhibits and interprets material evidence and associated information for the public benefit." 1 This general definition can be useful to all kinds of museums, in Canada and elsewhere. For a natural science museum, a facility that concentrates on the earth sciences, zoology, and botany, the museum definition can be translated as a place that makes natural science more understandable to everyone.

When a scientist works at a museum, the research is somehow collection-based, and there is a continuous obligation to create new knowledge and communicate that to peers and to the many venues in the public domain. A museum scientist has special challenges that do not exist in the academic or private research communities, as well as different, satisfying rewards.

I began doing scientific research 23 years ago. Experimental biology on fishes was my chosen field. Although I didn't know it at the time, my training and experiences were preparing me well to work at a museum. I worked in freshwater and marine systems all over Canada and studied a broad variety of animals. In addition, I had a keen interest in collecting techniques and an avid interest in natural history and ecology. My initial position as a curator at a public aquarium in Vancouver allowed me to continue to do scientific research and learn about the curation of a collection and how to run a museum.

I quickly discovered that the essential skills needed to work in the museum environment, aside from my chosen scientific interest, are a broad knowledge of the natural sciences and an ability to communicate openly and frequently to the public, the popular media, staff, managers, and science peers. To do this well requires excellent interpersonal skills and the ability to find credible scientific information, to know who the experts are in a broad range of science disciplines, and to be able to translate complex scientific messages into language that can be understood across the dinner table. This can be a tall order for a researcher who is an authority in a narrow field and is accustomed to communicating only with the scientific community.

Most museums do not employ research scientists; instead, they employ curators, who are integral to developing the collection and caring for its long-term survival, to do research with the collection and to make sure that it is available to scientists and the public. Some museums, such as the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, Canada's national natural history museum, specifically employ scientists with a prime role to generate new knowledge through research. However, those scientists spend at least half of their time interacting with the public, working closely with collection care experts, and doing many other tasks that help run a museum and further develop scientific disciplines. Museum workers also have strong associations with the university community, and many take an active role in teaching, mentoring, and supervising students.

When museums hire new science staff, they are usually looking for a specific talent. For example, they may need someone with knowledge of invertebrates, such as an expert in the systematics of mollusks, Diptera, or scarab beetles. Systematics research involves naming and describing species, recognizing and interpreting the great variety of form and function, and studying the evolution and ecology of those forms. A newly schooled scientist would be an expert in molecular techniques in systematics, and the ideal candidate would also be familiar with traditional techniques and have general knowledge about the many other phyla of invertebrates and how to collect and preserve them. Perhaps most important today and for the future, museum scientists should be well aware of database technology and how to apply it to the collection; it is vitally important that new generations of researchers be familiar with this realm of science.

An emerging field of natural science research is specimen conservation. (Conservators are more common for art and artifacts than for natural science specimens.) Plant, animal, mineral, and fossil collections can be stored for hundreds of years, but they require continual thought, based on research findings, about the best possible storage conditions. In a zoo or an aquarium, the equivalent position is a reproductive physiologist, veterinarian, or behaviorist.

There is a real concern that systematics experts are decreasing in number in Canada 2 and worldwide. This trend is so serious that the Convention on Biological Diversity is promoting the Global Taxonomy Initiative 3. The central issue is the decrease in the number of jobs for these experts. Museums everywhere find it increasingly difficult to maintain budgets that provide a balance of research, collections, and education programming. It is also true that universities are less inclined now than in the past to hire systematics experts as part of science faculties.

Scientific work within a museum setting poses significant funding challenges, demanding a certain level of creativity, strategic partnering, efficiency, and demonstrated effectiveness of results. For museums that are affiliated with a government administration, there is no clear route to getting federal science grants. Direct proposals to the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) are not successful. This is not the case in the United States, where the National Science Foundation has a number of programs to assist in museum operations.

Museum scientists in Canada often seek university adjunct professorships, allowing a venue for federal grants to support graduate students. I was an adjunct professor in a university biology department for many years. The association provided teaching opportunities, interaction with students, and a chance for others to learn about my interests and perhaps study in my lab. These opportunities are challenging and kept me fresh and sharp. However, teaching and supervising students is time-consuming and is often in addition to other museum-oriented tasks. Furthermore, proposals to granting agencies through an adjunct association must be in the context of well-established research programs because of the great competition for funds. Funding for research operations comes in part from the museum, through partnerships with colleagues, and from foundations and endowments. Philanthropic support for museum-based research through endowments and foundations is significantly more prominent in the United States than in Canada.

There are some excellent museums associated with universities in Canada (for example, the Royal Ontario Museum, associated with the University of Toronto; the University of Alberta collections; the Lyman and Redpath museums at McGill University in Montreal; and the entomology collection at the University of Guelph). These university affiliations make research funding possible for associated faculty members through the annual NSERC, CIHR, and SSHRC competitions.

Because museums demand very diverse activities and broad involvement from their science staff, a museum career is exciting and stimulating. A museum scientist who is interested in management and business can also get training and experience to lead a staff or an entire museum. During my career I have been fortunate enough to help rear a baby killer whale, explore coastal regions of Canada with eager ecotourists, administer dietary supplements to 50-kilogram snakes, and survey the demise of gigantic freshwater clams by lethal, fecund zebra mussels. I have also had the challenge of helping an organization change direction in strategic planning, helping share a multimillion-dollar budget, and negotiating collective bargaining agreements with unions. Perhaps most enjoyable is being able to tell these stories in scientific manuscripts, Web sites, and talks.

During my science training, I did not plan on getting a museum job; it was opportunistic and career-changing. My choice to work in science-based public education facilities has enabled me to continue to learn, challenged me in new ways, and allowed me to present works of science to so many people other than just my peers.

1 J. G. McAvity, "Views From Elsewhere: What Is a Museum?" Museogramme, the newsletter of the Canadian Museums Association, 28, 1 (2001).

2 Federal Biosystematics Group, Systematics: An Impending Crisis (Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa, 1995).


Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers