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Are University Natural Science Collections Going Extinct?

AIBS Washington Watch, June 2003

Robert E. Gropp

Across the United States, university natural science collections are scaling back programs or closing their doors. The cutbacks are attributed largely to poor state budgets, but some biologists believe the problems illustrate the bias of many university administrators toward molecular biology.

According to the National Governors Association, nearly all states are in a fiscal crisis, requiring policymakers to scour budgets to find money to fund education, health care, and public safety programs. University natural science collection managers are not quietly allowing their programs to be dismantled, however. The Natural Science Collections Alliance (NSCA), a Washington, DC—based association of natural science collections, has stressed the importance of collections to scientists working on conservation and environmental issues. Terry Yates, vice president of NSCA, testified before a University of Nebraska—Lincoln planning committee considering severe cuts to the University of Nebraska State Museum (UNSM), stating, in part, that the university has an obligation to assist in training the next generation of systematists.

Despite the effort of Yates and other internationally recognized scientists and museum directors, the chancellor of the University of Nebraska has announced the elimination of several collections and all research divisions at UNSM. Museum supporters have not capitulated, however. In early May, amid growing faculty tension and national media attention, the chancellor announced he would put his planned cuts to a vote of the faculty. If a majority agree with the chancellor's budget plan, it will take effect; if not, he will resign, he says, and university deans will make budget cuts. Scott Lyell Gardner, curator of parasitology and the Harold W. Manter Laboratory of Parasitology at UNSM, remains "cautiously optimistic" that, somehow, current and planned research will continue.

The future is less promising for the University of Iowa Herbarium. Despite commitments from a campus environmental studies center and alumni to pay the cost for maintaining specimens of Iowa native plants, the university has announced it will close the herbarium and transfer all 250,000 plant, bryophyte, and plant fossil specimens to Iowa State University. According to Iowa spokesperson Steve Parrott, "the herbarium is too small to secure federal funds" and "it is too expensive to build space for it in the new biology building."

Diana Horton, director and curator of the Iowa herbarium and associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Iowa, fears the impact that the transfer will have on research and education. Like Yates, Horton is concerned about the recruitment and training of the next generation of systematists. Horton and others question how many students will pursue a career in systematics or as a curator if they have no exposure to a herbarium as an undergraduate.

Others wonder about the impact that cuts to natural science collections will have on national-level infrastructure for biological research. Kent Holsinger, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut, contends that "healthy museums and herbaria are vital collaborators" for future large-scale, coordinated data-sharing research initiatives, such as the National Science Foundation's proposed National Ecological Observatory Network, or NEON.

Some collection managers worry that state budgets are merely a ruse that some university administrators are using to reorganize biology programs. Horton, for example, asserts that the closure of Iowa's herbarium is "a function of Iowa's biological sciences department's desire to focus on molecular genetic aspects of biology." A broader trend away from organismal biology is afoot, critics maintain. National data from NSF's Science and Engineering Doctorate Awards: 2001 may support this perception: Over the past decade the percentage of biological science doctorates awarded in molecular biology has increased, but the percentages in more morganismal fields such as botany or zoology have declined.

Various university administrative practices discourage the pursuit of organismal research, according to Lynn S. Kimsey, professor of entomology and director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology at the University of California—Davis. Kimsey warns that policies that limit the amount of faculty time available for curatorial work, for example, and a faculty reward structure that fails to recognize the services provided by collections researchers are "marginalizing organismal biology."

Whatever the reason, many collections face hard times until economic conditions improve, though some researchers believe a balanced federal funding policy might improve the sustainability of some institutions. Kimsey, for one, speculates that "additional funding for NSF will help a great deal." As NSF's ability to fund research grows, the reasoning goes, long-needed grant resources will become available for the organismal biology supported by NSF.

Through the NSF Reauthorization Act of 2002, Congress stated its desire to double funding for NSF-supported research. It is unclear, however, whether the federal government will meet this goal or whether funding will come in time to save other university natural science collections.

Robert E. Gropp (e-mail rgr...@aibs.org) is the AIBS senior public policy representative.

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