Change in roles set stage for NC science museum scientist Meg Lowman’s departure

akenney@newsobserver.comNovember 25, 2013 

— In three years at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, Meg Lowman won fans with an accessible advocacy for science, and she became one of the museum’s public faces.

By the end of the year, her office will be packed and her tenure at the museum over. Lowman was tempted away first and foremost by a big new opportunity in San Francisco, at the California Academy of Sciences – but a change in her job description set the stage.

Lowman, who holds a doctorate in botany, had been director of the museum’s Nature Research Center but was shifted this summer to a brand new job as director of “global initiatives and academic partnerships.”

Her new job still hasn’t been completely defined, Lowman said – and that made her decision to depart easier.

“I was trying to help define (the new job),” Lowman said. But “nothing is firm ’til it’s firm. And, obviously, in these kind of times, you’re sort of wondering apprehensively how everything’s unfolding when it comes to science.”

Starting Jan. 6, Lowman will be chief of science and sustainability for the California Academy of Sciences, which just completed a $500 million renovation. As she leaves Raleigh for San Francisco, she’ll be moving into a role that is clearly defined.

“In this case, the academy had a carefully executed strategy, approved and endowed,” Lowman said.

Speaking by phone from the Raleigh-Durham International Airport last week before leaving on a trip to photograph pythons in Florida, Lowman said her goal is “to try to make a difference in the shortest amount of time. And the California Academy, I think, right now was a good chance to do a lot of that good work on the West Coast that we had already initiated here on the East Coast.”

Lowman, who has written science columns for The News & Observer, is something of a scientist celebrity. The Wall Street Journal wrote in 2011 that she “pioneered the science of canopy research.” Her career had taken her to Scotland, Australia and Florida before she came to North Carolina in 2010 as director of the new Nature Research Center, the 80,000-square-foot wing of the museum that features research scientists and their work.

That job became obsolete as the museum’s new administration tried to consolidate management of its various parts, according to museum officials.

Lowman said she did not seek the job in California. A search firm contacted her in October, she said.

“It was totally out of the blue. I was so shocked,” Lowman said. “I thought, at the time, ‘This is probably off my radar.’ I love North Carolina.”

Praise for Lowman

The academy offered Lowman her new job early this month. Lowman informed Emlyn Koster, the museum’s director, of her departure on Nov. 17, and the California Academy of Sciences announced her hiring the next day.

Koster praised Lowman.

“The intersection of her career with the 134-year history of the remarkable N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences has been a noteworthy one, for which many are very grateful,” Koster said in an email to museum employees.

Museum administrators have not decided when or even whether to replace Lowman. Her $218,000 state salary is split between the museum, which pays 58 percent of the bill, and N.C. State University, where she is a research professor. She will maintain her NCSU affiliation on an unpaid basis, she said.

If museum officials do seek a new hire, Lowman said, they may face some difficulty because of a recent move by Gov. Pat McCrory’s office.

McCrory’s administration reclassified almost 1,000 state employees to “at-will” status, meaning they no longer have the right to protest being fired. Lowman and a number of museum staffers were among them.

Politics and science

The change meant that “a loyalty to the governor or other elected department head in their respective offices is reasonably necessary” for Lowman’s position, along with those of Koster and the deputy museum director for operations, according to state law.

That political requirement could turn off scientists, said Lowman, who contested the change in her job classification.

“I don’t believe it would have affected me personally,” Lowman said. “But scientists rely on having their work be totally independent of politics, and making a connection like that could make a precedent that could be viewed unfavorably.”

Mark Johnson, a museum spokesman, noted that an “exempt” status didn’t discourage numerous qualified international candidates from applying last year to be the museum’s director.

Koster said Friday that the museum has not been ill affected by the “exempt” status for its director.

“The mission of the museum prevails – that good science is good science – and in no way has the thinking or action of this museum been in any way modified,” Koster said.

As she prepares to leave, Lowman said, she sees a state different than when she arrived. From the scientific viewpoint, she said, it hasn’t been an improvement.

“I think we probably are responding a little more slowly to some important issues,” Lowman said, referring to state government. “It would be great if we could use that intellectual scientific capital for the greatest good.”

But looking forward, she said, the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences has a chance “to push the envelope” with “the amazing talents within those walls.”

Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC

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