U.S. natural history collections in crisis

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Posted by Sadie from ? ( on Wednesday, June 04, 2003 at 3:04PM :

Hm... slashing the budgets for museums that promote environmental interests & scientific inquiry into evolution?...
Nature 423, 575 (5 June, 2003

Natural history collections in crisis as funding is slashed


[SAN DIEGO] Natural history museums and valuable university collections of plant and animal specimens are being hit hard by the economic climate across the United States, researchers say, threatening a wide variety of research projects.

Curators are being laid off, departments closed, systematic collections dispersed and library subscriptions sliced as administrators seek to make up budgetary shortfalls often caused by cuts in support from state governments to universities and their museums. Reduced private donations, endowments hit by the stock-market slide and a downturn in revenue from visitors have also hurt.

And programmes are set to suffer more, as state governments try to balance their annual budgets for fiscal years that start in July.

"These collections help us understand the past, and be better stewards of the future," says John Heyning, deputy director for research and collections at the National History Museum of Los Angeles County, and president of the Washington-based National Science Collections Alliance. "But we've done a poor job of speaking in a strong, united voice on our role," he says leaving collections politically vulnerable in the current climate.

Biologists say that the timing of the crisis is particularly unfortunate because researchers are just becoming able to sequence complete genomes inexpensively potentially redefining the study of evolutionary biology and of relationships between species.

"Our collection has extraordinary untapped scientific value," says ecologist Michael Rosenzweig, director of the Museum of Natural History at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. "But we definitely are moving backwards." State budget cuts have forced Virginia Tech to dissolve the museum's 150-year-old collection, he says, dispersing the 1.5 million specimens to various departments and institutions.

At the University of Iowa in Iowa City, budget cuts are prompting the closure of the herbarium, part of which is to be sent to Iowa State University in Ames. "This is our tool for teaching students about the environment," complains botanist Diana Horton, the herbarium's director. Its 250,000 specimens "represent the diversity" of our state, she says, noting that its intensive agriculture makes Iowa "the most altered state in the union". Horton describes the decision to get rid of a herbarium that only costs $25,000 to maintain each year as "a joke" that is being perpetrated "to give the appearance of saving money".

The University of Nebraska, meanwhile, is looking to cut at least $1.1 million next year from the $1.8-million budget of the State Museum in Lincoln, which it runs for the state government. The museum holds 14 million specimens, including a scarab beetle collection on behalf of the Smithsonian Institution. Four out of nine tenured faculty positions at the museum will be eliminated, says entomologist Brett Ratcliffe, its associate research director. Four other tenured professors will be transferred to university departments, he adds.

At the San Diego Natural History Museum, scientists are unable to make full use of a new $29-million extension because the museum is running a $1.1-million deficit on its $7.5-million budget for this. Nine positions including key research staff slots remain vacant, and nine other staff have been laid off.

The future looks bleak to custodians of natural history collections across the country, with most funding bodies in equally dire straits. The treatment of the field is "a slap in the face of the scientific community", says palaeontologist David Gillette, who lost his job at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff only last week.

Nature Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2003 Registered No. 785998 England.

-- Sadie
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