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New President Finally Chosen for Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia

Philly's Academy of Natural Sciences finally has a leader, but the head of Hawaii's Bishop Museum, William Brown, (scientist and lawyer) doesn't start 'till February, 2007.

New hand to steer Natural Sciences
By Faye Flam
Inquirer Staff Writer

The Academy of Natural Sciences pinned its hopes yesterday on a new president named William Brown, a lawyer and environmentalist whose background - first as a zoologist and more recently a dynamic fund-raiser - meshes with the museum's own distinguished history and current financial troubles.
Since 2001, Brown has presided over the Bishop Museum in Hawaii, where he reversed budget deficits and expanded the century-old natural history museum.
"He stood out because his experience at Bishop is very similar to what's going on here," said R. James Macaleer, chairman of the board of trustees at the academy, which is nearly two centuries old. "He's no shrinking violet when it comes to getting out and telling people why philanthropy for his cause makes sense."
Founded in 1812 and opened to the public in 1828, the Academy of Natural Sciences is the oldest natural sciences institution in the Western Hemisphere. It houses vast collections of plant and animal species, including some picked up by Lewis and Clark. Scientists on its payroll go everywhere from the Arctic tundra to the Amazon to study and catalog forms of life both living and extinct.
But the museum has been losing money for years, with annual budget deficits averaging $700,000 since 1993. In 2005, the academy laid off about a third of its scientific staff. Last month, it announced the sale of a 123-year-old mineral collection to raise money.
Yesterday, Brown said he thought he could turn the situation around by increasing endowments and improving the public displays. Helping the troubled museum, he said, represents what he likes to do most - "strengthening institutions devoted to studying and preserving biodiversity."
He made clear that the academy's history, research, and collection of specimens make it one of the best institutions of its kind in the world. Brown, 58, said he likes the East Coast, and Philadelphia is a bit closer than Hawaii to Washington, where his wife now works.
In an earlier Hawaiian tour, as a zoology student, Brown lived on a deserted volcanic island off the windward coast of Hawaii tracking the mating habits of two local seabird species. After earning his Ph.D., he decided to devote his career to conservation and thought he'd be more effective with a law degree, which he got from Harvard.
He later worked on environmental protection policies for the government, at one point serving as science adviser to former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. Brown also has worked for the Environmental Defense Fund and the World Wildlife Fund.
He decided a few years ago that he wanted to run a natural history museum.
"I have an emotional attachment to them that goes back to being a kid," Brown said, adding that old museums such as the academy particularly intrigue him.
Researchers at museums have responsibilities beyond those of university scientists, he said, because they catalog species and keep track of their populations and how they're distributed. Brown said he was impressed that the academy also works in environmental conservation.
"For me, that was a real draw," he said.
Brown will take over in February, succeeding D. James Baker, whose contract was not renewed.
Brown said he's already thinking about ways to improve the museum displays - possibly by finding a way to give the public more access to the impressive drawers full of specimens that now stay behind the scenes.
He is confident not only that he can help make the academy bounce back but also that there's hope for the natural world in general. He said he agrees with famed Harvard naturalist E.O. Wilson that if you don't wipe a species completely from the face of the Earth, it has a chance to bounce back.
"There's potential for recovery of our lost biodiversity," he said. "But it all comes down to what people care about."

Contact staff writer Faye Flam at 215-854-4977 or fflam@phillynews.com

Patti Kane-Vanni
Bala Cynwyd, PA  19004
pkv1@erols.com or paleopatti@hotmail.com