Thursday, June 28, 2018

Funding ornithology (and science) for fun and profit

I believe with Thomas Jefferson that one of the chief duties of a citizen is to be a nuisance to the government of his state. - J.B.S. Haldane, 1962
After years of editing Wikipedia entries on the biographies of ornithologists, naturalists, and examining topics in Indian natural history, it strikes me that modern scientists do not reflect enough on the history of institutionalized research. Perhaps the growth of unemployment, particularly among the highly educated will have at least one positive effect, by pushing more people to understand why history, economics, politics matters, and more importantly, how being a better citizen matters to science. The trouble with "citizen science" (especially in India) is that it is hard to get scientists to be good citizens.

Historically, individual achievement in ornithology has been a function of available leisure which in turn depends on wealth and financial security. It plays out in so many ways, the ability to travel, publish, read, be members of scholarly societies, and in the past to hold private collections. Institutionalizing scientific pursuits began in the Victorian age - and it is a situation that has perhaps not had enough reflection among the powers-that-be. Even in colonial India, the ability to institutionalize scientific pursuits depended on the kind of returns offered to the higher powers - sometimes the justifications were pretty devious - the Archaeological Survey of India (founded in 1861) was established by one enthusiastic digger, Alexander Cunningham who wrote in 1851 to W.H.Sykes (of Sykes' lark and warbler fame who had become a director in the English East India Company):
..would be an undertaking of vast importance to the Indian Government politically, and to the British public religiously. To the first body it would show that India had generally been divided into numerous petty chiefships, which had invariably been the case upon every successful invasion; while, whenever she had been under one ruler, she had always repelled foreign conquest with determined resolution. To the other body it would show that Brahmanism, instead of being an unchanged and unchangeable religion which had subsisted for ages, was of comparatively modern origin, and had been constantly receiving additions and alterations; facts which prove that the establishment of the Christian religion in India must ultimately succeed...
Knowing the land was an obvious requirement for colonial control and the surveys of land through the establishment of the Survey of India began quite early in 1767. Establishing botanical gardens (Calcutta botanical garden at Sibpur founded in 1786), the study of botany, and setting up the Botanical Survey of India (founded in 1890) was also somewhat easy considering the obvious economic value of plants and their produce. Geology, with the importance of coal for shipping and for the railways was also of obvious value and the Geological Survey of India (founded in 1851) was one of the oldest research enterprises in India. The Forest Department was established essentially to manage timber supplies for the massive needs of the railways. Medical research, sanitation and public health was something that became institutionalized thanks to rampant disease. Building scholarly societies, managing communications, creating institutional collections/museums, and printing journals were often initiated by groups of individuals. Government support usually came later, after  demonstrating longevity - as with the Asiatic Society of Bengal (founded 1784) (and the Indian Museum established in 1814). Institutions enabled the participation of people from outside the wealthy strata - a notable example in zoology being Edward Blyth although the Indian Museum's primary focus at the time of his recruitment was on antiquities - indeed Blyth lamented that he was "accused" of being an ornithologist! Entomologists managed to make a profession within applied fields relating to health and agriculture but demonstrating the utility of general zoology was hard. The Zoological Survey of India thus was only established in 1916. Their early research clearly indicates a struggle to appear to be utilitarian, with studies on such topics as the damage caused by molluscs to ships or termites to wood. Under these circumstances it seems that early pioneers of bird study in India like Allan Octavian Hume (and older ones like T.C.Jerdon, Hodgson and W.H. Sykes), who knew colonial governance intimately, probably knew that schemes to find monetary support for ornithology would not fly. They knew that they had to rely on their own funds for their hobby.

Salim Ali came from a reasonably well-to-do family and was able to make ornithology into a profession for himself, but it definitely was not easy. A document available in the National Archives of India (and happily now available online) shows how a 1934 proposal for economic ornithology, seeking funds from the government, met its end. In his proposal Ali notes "the Bureau of Biological Survey is a branch of the United States Department of Agriculture which employs at great expense a permanent staff of experts to investigate, among other things, the life-histories of birds with special reference to their economic aspect... over many years, a great deal of information has accumulated which is now proving of inestimable value to Agriculture, Forestry and Horticulture, besides being of the greatest importance to pure Science." [underlined emphasis mine] Ali's proposal is fully endorsed and supported by the director of Zoological Survey of India - Baini Prashad. C.G. Trevor of the Forest Research Institute notes that the proposal is restricted in scope to agriculture and that the "entomological branch of the Forest Research Institute has full information on all that has been published on the economic ornithology of India and analysis reveals that it amounts to very little of practical importance." Ali's proposal essentially sought to work along the lines of a 1912 study by Mason and Lefroy which involved the examination of gut contents of birds. This required specialists capable of identifying insects and plant material in the gut and the skills required for this was noted by Trevor as being hard to find. The proposal was also examined by F.J.F. Shaw, the director of the Imperial Institute of Agricultural Research (now Indian Agricultural Research Institute) who forwarded it to the Imperial Entomologist (in 1935 that would have been Hem Singh Pruthi but the document is not signed). Pruthi declares that the principal investigator needs to be an entomologist and generally hints that Salim Ali was unfit to conduct the research. Shaw died of a heat stroke in 1936 and it would be safe to assume that the proposal did not get any further. Ali finally found sponsors for his research through the patronage of the Princely States - which is almost a throwback to medieval times when art and culture could only flourish under royal patronage. In the mid-1960's the ICAR finally began an all-India coordinated research project on birds but it would seem like Ali was not very closely involved. With the growth of aviation and the risk of bird-hits Ali found a new sponsor for bird research.

The only socialist / government institution in India to deal specifically with ornithology was/is the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON) at Coimbatore. But it turns out that establishing institutions is the easier part. Staffing, nurturing long-term research, collaborating, communicating, demonstrating value, and building institutional values that are independent of government and personal tenure are all skills that are undocumented, intangible and ones that Indian academics seem to fail in. Rigid rules for personnel selection, qualifications, and a general lack of vision that does not see a need for a multi-disciplinarity approach ensure that such specialised government-controlled organizations fare badly or are driven into ruts.

Most of the Survey institutions were established in colonial times when universities were more for teaching than research. With the growth of universities for research, ornithological research in India did briefly do well but revolving around key personnel and often these research groups dissolved - thus there have been spurts of research on physiology, parasitology, behavioural and ecological study. How much of the funds for these studies came from the tax-payer is hard to establish but one can be safe to assume that it was insignificant as far as funds for research go. 

With the growth of neo-liberalism - the idea that the free-market will "sensibly" decide what needs to be funded it is clear that research on birds will be further threatened. Indeed it would be hard to discover what good do birds from the point of view of any potential funding industry. When most bird habitats are threatened by industry, the only potential purpose in funding would be for green-washing. Birds and the threats they face through pollution, fragmentation of habitats by roads, railways, logging, fires, human disturbances are definitely not what industrialists would like to learn about or fund.

It is in this light that calls for "citizen science", especially from private players but also those run by governments, need to be evaluated more carefully than ever before. Whether citizen science projects can help evaluate the impact of the threats to birds such as fragmentation by roads, rails and other projects is largely undemonstrated (in most cases, the systems and the databases are outright unsuited for carefully tailored data gathering) and yet these are precisely the kinds of issues where government- and industry-funded research cannot be trusted. These are the kinds of issues that ought to be examined by good "nuisance-creating" citizens.

Collecting information that directly impinges on ecosystem health cannot be left to people with leisure - indeed people with leisure are probably the ones that distance themselves most from  habitats at risk. So who are the powers that are promoting citizen-science and is it really empowering citizens? Food for thought hopefully.

  • The part on utilitarian roots of institutionalized science in India and the problem of doing ornithology in India is largely drawn from the scheme of a talk I gave at the South London Botanical Institute, London on 11 August 2014.
  • Some years ago I tried to examine what one could learn from Victorian science in a talk at the Regional Museum of Natural History, Mysore on 7 October 2016. [Slides]
  • Salim Ali's 1935 proposal can be found online on the National Archives of India (Registration required) 
    • Identifier: PR_000003020572 
    • File number: Education And Health_Agriculture_1935_Na_F-37-6_35A
A 2017 book looks at how government support altered the field of paleontology. 
"In the 19th and early 20th centuries, North American and European governments generously funded the discoveries of such famous paleontologists and geologists as Henry de la Beche, William Buckland, Richard Owen, Thomas Hawkins, Edward Drinker Cope, O. C. Marsh, and Charles W. Gilmore. In Patrons of Paleontology, Jane Davidson explores the motivation behind this rush to fund exploration, arguing that eagerness to discover strategic resources like coal deposits was further fueled by patrons who had a genuine passion for paleontology and the fascinating creatures that were being unearthed. These early decades of government support shaped the way the discipline grew, creating practices and enabling discoveries that continue to affect paleontology today."