March 30, 2004

On 30 March 2004 the American Institute of Biological Sciences sent a letter to House Science Committee leaders alerting them to the need for increased funding for NSF programs that support natural history collections and collections-based research. The letter should help NSF supporters in Congress illustrate why increased funding for basic biological research supported by the National Science Foundation is important.

The letter was sent to the following members of Congress:

Representative Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-NY), Chairman, House Science Committee
Representative Bart Gordon (D-TN), Ranking Member, House Science Committee
Representative Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), Chairman, Subcommittee on Environment, Technology and Standards
Representative Mark Udall (D-NM), Ranking Member, Subcommittee on Environment, Technology and Standards
Representative Nick Smith (R-MI), Chairman, Subcommittee on Research
Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Ranking Member, Subcommittee on Research

March 30, 2004

The Honorable Sherwood L. Boehlert
2246 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

Dear Mr. Chairman:

As you know, a strong and diversified scientific research enterprise contributes to economic growth and our ability to identify and respond to environmental and public health challenges. Unfortunately, support for natural history collections (museums and herbaria) and taxonomy (biodiversity-related research) has not kept pace with funding for other areas of science. A growing segment of the biological science community is increasingly concerned that this funding pattern is negatively impacting the vitality of natural history collections and the research they enable.

The enclosed article by Andrew Suarez and Neil Tsutsui illustrates the societal benefits derived from natural history collection based research. These priceless and irreplaceable collections allow scientists to answer basic questions about the history and characteristics of life of earth. Collections also are an important tool used by scientists and resource managers charged with addressing applied problems, such as combating invasive species. Unfortunately, as described in the attached Washington Watch column, Are University Natural Science Collections Going Extinct?, a growing number of museums and herbaria are in jeopardy because of tight state budgets, limited federal support, and a desire among some university administrators to encourage faculty to pursue more lucrative research. Some scientists report that facilities are being scaled back in more subtle ways through attrition. When collection curators and researchers retire or leave an institution they are simply not replaced, slowly eroding institutional capacity to care for specimens and support research. The list of at-risk university-based collections extends beyond those described and reportedly includes facilities in Arizona, Arkansas, Michigan, and Virginia.

Natural history collections are an important national resource. Increased federal support for these facilities and the research they make possible is warranted. While support from the National Science Foundation is not the sole source of federal funding for collections and collection-based research, increased support from NSF programs such as the Biological Research Collections program could help secure the future of these facilities. Among the recommendations of a recent workshop attended by representatives of 48 institutions and 31 scientific societies was a call for continued support for existing NSF biodiversity research and training programs, and new funding for NSF to increase the Biological Research Collections program budget.

Thank you for your thoughtful consideration of this important science policy matter. If you or your colleagues require additional information, please contact Dr. Robert Gropp at the American Institute of Biological Sciences at 202-628-1500 x 250.

Richard T. O'Grady, Ph.D.
Executive Director

NOTE — the articles referenced in the letter are:

Gropp, R.E. 2004. Are University Natural Science Collections Going Extinct? BioScience, 53(6): 550

Suarez, A.V. and N.D. Tsutsui. 2004. The Value of Museum Collections for Research and Society. BioScience, 54(1): 66-74.

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