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The Science Museum Wants Their Plastic Samples. They Refused

When a curator from the Science Museum in London asked Deonie and Steve Allen whether they would like their work to be added to the museum’s permanent collection of artifacts, they jumped at the chance. The Allens are two of the world’s top microplastic hunters. The researchers—who are also married—scour the world’s most remote places for tiny specks of plastics. And when they look for microplastics, they almost always find them. The Allens have found these minute particles in Tibetan glaciers, the Pyrenees mountains , and in the air above the French Atlantic coast .Saying yes to the Science Museum was a no-brainer. The museum, which dates back to 1857, houses one of the world’s most significant collections of scientific artifacts and draws in several million visitors each year. “It’s like being asked to write an editorial for Nature—of course we’re going to,” says Deonie Allen. The Allens spoke with one of the museum’s curators about the kinds of materials they might contribute to the collection: the tandem paraglider they were flying when they first noticed plastic particles in the air, filters they use to collect microplastic particles, and photos from their many expeditions. The researchers, who both work at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland, were planning on handing over the materials in November when they returned to the United Kingdom from France.But now the scientists are refusing to hand over their materials in protest against a controversial contract the Science Museum signed with Shell—the fourth-largest oil and gas firm in the world and the sponsor of a Science Museum exhibition about climate change . The Allens object to a clause in the contract between Shell and the Science Museum Group, the publicly funded charity that oversees the museum and four others in the UK. The clause states that the Science Museum Group must take “reasonable care” not to “make any statement or issue any publicity or otherwise be involved in any conduct or matter that may reasonably be foreseen as discrediting or damaging the goodwill or reputation of the Sponsor.” The existence of the clause was first reported by Channel 4 in July.“That was the line in the sand for us. You can’t gag science,” says Steve Allen. The Allens emailed a letter to the curator and to the Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, outlining the reason why they had declined to have their work on atmospheric microplastics stored in the museum’s permanent archive. “When we learned that the museum had signed the gag order from Shell, we were utterly shocked,” the letter reads. “The museum has lost the essential credibility that is vital to its purpose. Every scientific paper has a conflict-of-interest statement which shows who funded the work to prove it was unbiased. The Science Museum would not be able to pass that test.” A Science Museum spokesperson confirmed that the museum had received the letter.A third researcher who was in talks with the Science Museum to donate his samples of plastic pollution has also now backed out of the arrangement. In May, Sedat Gündoğdu, an associate professor at Çukurova University in Turkey, was asked by a Science Museum curator to send samples of plastic waste he had collected that had been removed from the UK and illegally dumped near the city of Adana. “I’m mapping the locations of these illegal activities to understand the environmental impact and effect of this illegal dumping of imported waste,” Gündoğdu says. He went as far as sending a package of samples to the Science Museum at the request of the curator, but they were held up in customs and eventually returned to Turkey.