The life-sized replica of a blue whale is one of the more famous icons of New York's American Museum of Natural History.

The life-sized replica of a blue whale is one of the more famous icons of New York's American Museum of Natural History. Flickr user Glen Scarborough

National Science Foundation Funding Freeze Hits Museums Collections

NSF has paused a grant scheme that keeps biological collections afloat, and scientists are mad.

Think about the collections of natural history museums, and you might picture drawers and jars of stuffed and preserved animals, sitting in darkness and gathering dust. Far from it: as I wrote last month, museum collections are biological treasure chests. They are full of new species—the greater monkey-faced bat, sacred crocodile, and olinguito have all been found by rummaging through preserved specimens. They’re “time capsules that contain records of past ecosystems that are rapidly changing or disappearing.” They’re “archives that provide clues about raging epidemics, environmental pollution, and hidden extinctions.”

They’re also in trouble.

On March 16, the US National Science Foundation indefinitely pressed the pause button on the Collections in Support of Biological Research (CSBR) Program—a scheme that funds the care, organization, maintenance, and cataloguing of biological collections. That includes everything from museum specimens to tissue banks to stocks of laboratory flies or fungi.

The CSBR “has been placed on hiatus as of March 2016,” the announcement said. Existing grants would be honored; new proposals would not be accepted for at least 2016.

It didn’t go down well.

Museum curators, biologists, and other concerned parties lamented theannouncement on Twitter and other online spaces, billing it variously as “short-sighted,” “incredibly short-sighted,” and “horribly short-sighted.” They feared that it signaled a disinvestment in natural history collections. “I’m very surprised by the decision given that natural history collections are, if anything, increasingly relevant and important,” says Hopi Hoekstra, curator of mammals at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology. 

“These funds are so important to keeping these collections accessible—from maintaining specimens in conditions amenable to long-term preservation, to digitizing skeletons so the data is available to researchers worldwide, to recording collecting location in large databases so that researchers can look at global patterns of change,” adds Hoekstra. “Because of these recent advances, collections are getting more use than ever before, so why pull the plug now?  It just doesn't make sense.”

Although the NSF invests a lot of other money into cataloguing and studying life on Earth, the CSBR is unique in funding the infrastructure behind natural history museums. It pays for unglamorous but essential things like basic specimen care and storage. Typical grants are worth around $3 to 5 million, and collectively, they amount to just 0.06 percent of the full NSF budget. And yet, they’re crucial.

“The CSBR is special because it gets to the root of the issue—the collections,” says Prosanta Chakrabarty, Curator of Fishes at the Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Sciences. “Without the collections, there are no long-term natural history studies.”

After many failed attempts, Chakrabarty finally got one such grant just before the hiatus was announced. Rather unglamorously, it’s mostly for new shelving units that roll on tracks. “It’s hard to tell people how excited you are for shelves,” he says. “But these will triple or quadruple our space and shelving allow us to grow for the next 20 years, rather than having to hold back our collecting or, worse yet, donate part of them to a larger museum. It is a big deal for us. A cancellation would be devastating.”

But nothing’s being cancelled yet. “We’re in a flat budget year, so we were directed to really examine our programs carefully,” says Muriel Poston, director for the NSF’s Division of Biological Infrastructure. Her team administers the CSBR program, as well as two other relevant programs—one supporting postdocswho “are using collections in innovative and exciting ways,” and another focused on digitizing museum collections. “This was a moment to figure out how best to support CSBR in light of these two newer initiatives.”

This has happened before, she adds. The CSBR was put on hiatus in 2013 and “came back in 2014 as a much stronger, more focused, and more effective program”—one that included not just preserved specimens but also living stocks of laboratory organisms like fruit flies, worms, and yeasts.

But some curators argue that even a year-long hiatus could be a disaster, especially for smaller collections. “I know folks who had a year to get their collections in order or the fire marshal was going to shut them down for not being in code,” says Chakrabarty. Such crises would warrant special consideration, says Poston. “We have a responsibility to respond to any collection that would be at risk during this year of hiatus. If there was an emergency, we would look at that very carefully.”

She isn’t speaking from a place of bureaucratic aloofness. Among various roles, Poston was once curator of the herbarium at Howard University (and she loved my colleague Robinson Meyer’s recent piece on a herbarium at the University of California, Berkeley). She recognizes the value of collections, and she’s on the same team as those who are fearing for their specimens. And she recognizes that the NSF hasn’t been clear enough in their communication about the hiatus. “We’ve been a bit slow to respond because we had unfortunately not anticipated the immediate response of the community,” she says. “There’s been... quite a bit of feedback.”

Her team are now actively soliciting more, and they’ll soon release guidelines on their blog about the kinds of information that would be most helpful, and the criteria that they’ll use to evaluate the programs, and the steps of the process. “We’re taking the advice of the community as it comes to us,” says Poston.

Shout from the rooftops, urges Emily Graslie from the Field Museum in Chicago. “We need students interested in natural history collections to speak up about budget cuts for collections and let those in charge know that we are paying attention,” she wrote on her Brain Scoop blog. “We cannot let cumulative delays snowball into an overall apathy towards collections and their importance across disciplines.”

She added, “We don’t keep museum collections like stamps or baseball cards – they need to be cared for, used, and they need life.”

(Image via Flickr user Glen Scarborough)