Collaboration requires long-term thinking. That’s where universities, libraries, museums, and research organizations often eclipse for-profit companies. Pressure to generate quarterly returns can compromise long-term value, particularly at publicly-held companies. With less pressure to deliver immediate results, research-driven, non-profit organizations can focus more on creating long-term value. Maybe it’s a new take on history or a scientific discovery. Regardless, the work product may remain relevant hundreds of years from now.
That said, competition internally and within fields of study can prove more ferocious in the research arena than in corporations—whether it’s competing for limited grant dollars or for publishing articles in academic journals. Like corporations, the best research organizations mitigate unhealthful competition by thinking and acting towards creating long-term value. In this realm, long-term value can extend into eternity.
Knowing the collaborative mindset of the California Academy of Sciences, I accepted an invitation to attend a briefing and preview tour last Thursday of the Academy’s new Extreme Mammals exhibit, which runs through September 12, 2010. For background on architectural collaboration in the Academy’s building design, see my February 17, 2009 post.
San Francisco is the Extreme Mammals exhibit’s second stop after opening at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Over tea and cupcakes, I had a compelling pre-tour conversation with Greg Farrington, the self-proclaimed “chief penguin” or executive director of the Academy. Farrington, a chemist, is the former president of Lehigh University. “You might think everything in the world has been discovered at least twice, but it hasn’t,” Farrington noted. Touring the exhibit confirmed Farrington’s point.
The exhibit features extinct, living and recently-discovered mammals including the striped rabbit identified as a new species in 1999 and the gray faced sengi or giant elephant shrew discovered in 2008. Galen Rathbun,
a behavioral biologist at the Academy and Francesco Rovero of the Trento Museum of Sciences in Italy and other collaborators discovered the gray-faced sengi in the Ndundulu Forest in Tanzania’s Udzungwa Mountains. It was the first new species of giant elephant shrew discovered in 126 years.
Rathbun accompanied us on the tour and later took a small group behind several locked doors to view a collection of shrew specimens shelved inside fireproof cabinets in the Academy’s research collections. The collections include 26 million specimens of animals, insects, reptiles, birds, plants, fish and gems. Rathbun noted that several collaborating research institutions had loaned shrew specimens to the Academy for research.
One participant asked birds and mammals curator Jack Dumbacher if we could look inside the special cabinet that contains extinct animals and so-called “type specimens” of newly-discovered mammals. Dumbacher obliged, and we walked down the aisle past many rows of cabinets until we reached a shorter cabinet set apart from the others. As Jack unlocked the cabinet, he unleashed a ripe odor along with a feast for the eyes of preserved birds, rodents, and bats. The treasures also include the largest egg in the world from the elephant bird of Madagascar. A model of the egg is on display in the Academy’s public area.
Back to the public galleries and the Extreme Mammals exhibit. Scientists and administrators from global institutions have collaborated on the show, which the American Museum of Natural History organized. Collaborators shared knowledge, pieced together skeletons and gathered skulls, fossils and taxidermy specimens for Extreme Mammals. The result is a compelling experience for visitors who gain insight into the extreme variety of mammals and the awesome biodiversity of our planet.