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The Erosion of Collections-Based Science: Alarming Trend or Coincidence? - The Plant Press

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10/28/2014

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All these sad news reflect a general change of focus in academic institutions: employment of stupid bureaucrats to produce trival knowledge for an uneducated audience

Extremely lucid and enlightening. Zoological collections are also experiencing this widespread neglect, perhaps with more serious consequences in terms of specimens being lost forever. I wonder if the solution is to fire all the business managers and let scientists explain to society at large what is important.

When I was hired by a certain natural history museum in 1970, the new director hired 6 Ph.D.s and the Museum became known as a “small research-based museum,” a nice title, and the Curators had some say in what was going on. We even met a few times with the Board.

In the 1990’s, however, a new director came on who used Drucker’s management by objective and we were then focused on planning. Not results, just planning. Every year we had to come up with a new great-looking plan. He doubled his salary, talked big about getting in an IMAX theater, and hired consultants to tell us what our “audience” was, which was of course young couples with small children. He began to tear out long-loved exhibits and replace them with ill-conceived distance learning and kiddy teaching modules in the halls. He closed the library after selling the Audubon folio and valuable books. Special Curatorial funds were broken and sent to the general fund. He sold anthropology material of value (Chinese ancient vases) that did not quite have complete provenance. He emphasized block-buster exhibits. He left when the money began to fail.

A new director then began with Total Quality Management, team-work and pro-activeness. Teamwork broke up long-established internal power blocks (he eliminated the Curatorial Department), and insistence on pro-activeness eliminated direct responsibility of the administration for bad decisions. He focused on education but then eliminated the education department and fired anyone with expertise in teaching, instead hiring part time college kids to set up hallway kiosks. He doubled his salary. He eliminated all the old departments and instituted new departments that emphasized teamwork, like the “Experience Group.” He then fired all the curators, keeping only the dinosaur expert as part-time. External “research associates” are listed as scientific staff. He left when the money began to fail.

The new director after him is an ex-manager from an entertainment company. He is there now. The particularly fine 50,000 specimen herbarium with much mid-1800's material is “curated” by an amateur group allowed in one day a week. The excellent library is closed except for a few hours a week on appointment when a non-librarian finds time to stand watch.

I am glad to say that we were recently able to endow our systematist position to ensure that we will always have the position at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden (~150,000 specimens in our herbarium). Efforts like this are essential to mitigate against the vagaries of changing donor desires or, for Government funded institutions, cutbacks in funding. Beyond trying to build endowments to support these positions, this trend means that we must do a better job of explaining why maintaining a scientific natural history collection is important in ways that the general public (and more importantly donors) will understand. Some institutions have great examples of this, others have still been unable to make the case. The days of significant financial support for general botany or science are long gone. With this shift, it has changed the way we need to raise money to support these efforts. We have to tell stories about how our herbaria are used in a way that makes them relevant to the issues that the donors care about -- food supply and sometimes conservation are leading issues. Exploration and discovery are not issues that resonate as they seemed to in the past.

Don't (just) blame shortsighted administration for these cutbacks and layoffs -- we should also hold accountable the researchers who have been unable to make the case -- even within their own botanical institution -- for why their jobs and fields of study should be preserved. I know the leaders of many of the institutions mentioned above and I can guarantee that no one set out to eliminate their science or research programs, but as the funding climate changes in 2008, difficult choices had to be made. And while the economy has rebounded we have not seen a change in funding patterns. In a situation with rising costs and shrinking revenue, difficult choices will be made. It is the responsibility of the researchers to help make the case for their field of study as heartily as the educators and others within our museums are making the case for their disciplines, and to help the administration raise the money needed by explaining (in way that will at least convince the inner circle at the museum) that curation of objects still matters in an increasingly digital age.

With the current possibility of extracting DNA, metabolites, toxins, pollutants etc from specimens, I do believe herbaria, and other biological collections, really ought to be experiencing a renaissance. The ability to peer back into the genetics and chemistry of organisms, decades or centuries old and often with localities and dates, is enormously exciting - and will be important for an immense range of research areas, within and outside biology. Yet in the actual world today - with exceptions of course - there does seem to be a general attack on herbaria and other biological collections. I wonder if this is an obsolete response to a perceived (N.B. not actual) lack of relevance, dating back a decade or two, to before the new era of sequencing and molecular characterization. Herbaria have always been important - just, I do find RIGHT NOW to be a particularly strange time for funders and administrators to fail to notice this.

There are rumors that the herbarium at San Francisco State University, which houses the largest collection of fungi west of the Mississippi, may be axed following the retirement of its current director, on the flimsy and narrow-minded basis that more profitable uses of the space exist. Direct action has been sworn by more than one student/researcher. A school with as strong a history of protest and civil disobedience as SFSU will surely live up to its reputation if that day ever comes.

Your essay is very timely but the irony of the current situation must be emphasized. We are living in an age of public and political concern about the decline of biological diversity. For example, members of the North American Pollinators Protection Campaign receive weekly messages about opportunities for research and/or community projects. What seems to be missing, outside such specialty groups, is the obvious and essential link between the validity of funding various public/political efforts to promote diversity by maintaining staff and collection programs at museums. You can't have one without the other. The "health" of environments must always be measured, in part, by the identification, location, dating and quantification of specimens.

How do we get this message across to the voting public and to private industries and philanthropists? You can't maintain diversity and quality of private/public gardens, refuges, state/federal parks etc. without space and salaries allocated to the identification, care and educational exhibit of specimens. The public and the politicians have either forgotten this or were never informed. Your photos indicate there are good models of museums with healthy budgets for staff and space. What can we learn from them? How do we emulate them and how do we best inform those in a position to make positive changes?

The objective of museums is research, not entertainment. The actions by the aforementioned administrations are blatantly contrary to this fundamental objective of museums. The new wave of administrators clearly don't understand this fact, and it seems are not even biologists. The California Academy of Sciences for example is not titled the California Themepark of Sciences, yet. What will happen to these incredible and important collections are shuttered by administrations more focused on making money than actually fulfilling the societal role of museums?

Perhaps biologists will have to found new, uncorrupted institutions.

Assuming that Richard Zander is talking about the same museum, there was no single ‘firing’ of all curators with the exception of a dinosaur specialist that I know of. There was a termination of some research curators before I joined the museum in 2002 that occurred along with loss of other positions (so the reduction was not purely one directed at curators). When I arrived, or soon thereafter, there were (including myself) three research curators (entomology, anthropology, geology) (and an additional curator emeritus). Then the museum underwent a further overall reduction of all staff due to severe financial conditions. This left only two full time curatorial positions and a contract research position for the geology curator. The anthropology position later became vacant but could not be filled due to a subsequent reduction of government funding. Later a new ecologist management position was created for the nature preserve (which was definitely needed). Then a decision was made to end all research related positions, including mine and the contract position. Collections management had earlier been removed from research curatorial oversight and staffing was expanded. Interestingly, the American Association of Museums assesses museums for the collection maintenance, but not research maintenance.

I wanted to take a moment to reassure you that the California Academy of Sciences is not reducing its focus on collections-based science. Quite the opposite. All of us here believe that -- in the midst of rapid and dramatic changes to our planet's biodiversity -- there has never been a more important time to conduct collections-based science. (This is one of the reasons that we took the lead in authoring a response to Science a few months back about the importance of collecting scientific specimens!) Because of the specimen collections that we curate and study, institutions like ours are uniquely equipped to provide baseline data about the health of our planet's ecosystems, identify the most important regions to protect, and partner with governments and conservation organizations to address some of the most pressing sustainability challenges of our time.

Since 2000, the California Academy of Sciences has hired nine new curators and has doubled its direct funding of scientific research. At a time when many similar institutions have reduced their research staff and expenditures, we have done the opposite. Yes, some of our longest-tenured curators elected to participate in an enhanced voluntary retirement program earlier this year. While we will never be able to replace them (and are fortunate to still collaborate with them as Emeritus Curators), we have already begun the process of reinvesting in our research program by searching for new members of our team. For instance, we are currently accepting applications for a new Schlinger Chair of Arachnology.

The new curators we hire will have the same general job description as all of the scientists here at the Academy -- to add to our understanding of life on Earth and to share what we learn with the people (including policy makers, community members, and the next generation of scientists) who will shape its future. We believe wholeheartedly that excellent scientists can and should also be excellent science communicators! Yes, social media is one way that we share our findings and hope to inspire change. So are interacting with visitors on our public floor and on our website, building partnerships with governments and conservation organizations, and participating in educational outreach activities in the communities in which we work. Discovery, through both field work and lab-based collections work, is the foundation of everything we do here at the Academy, but our work doesn't stop with discovery. We are also committed to applying what we learn to addressing critical sustainability challenges.

Margaret (Meg) Lowman, PhD
Chief of Science and Sustainability
Institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability
California Academy of Sciences

Thanks for all the interesting and useful comments. I am going to prepare a response, including some information that has come in via email so if anyone else has anything to say, examples to add, or things they disagree with please let me know. I should say that recent information from some folks at Kew indicates that the numbers are changing a bit and so the dust has not completely settled. There should be some new numbers soon. Let's hope he administration at Kew is moderating their stance. We await further development. Vicki

Unfortunately in these times of government spending cuts, the importance and value of herbaria are easily overlooked by the unenlightened public, elected officials, and institutional administrators. It is a low hanging fruit, a sitting duck waiting to be cut for austerity budgets. The word needs to be spread about this folly and those responsible need to be held to account and shamed for their tunnel vision. The scientists and other directly affected stakeholders need to spread the word so this gets into the public debate before it's too late. I'm very sad to see these venerable New York institutions being gutted by the penny wise and pound foolish Cuomo administration. THANKS Vicki for raising the issue!

Vicki, your comments are timely and most important. Here in Brazil we feel we still have room to conduct research in systematics, enhance our collections, etc. But trends from the developed world always hit us, and at the moment many negative trends are popping up. One is the dominance by ecology experts or other specialists that are not systematists in leadership roles in government and science policy, instituting one-sided metrics to judge productivity, visibility etc. In other words all the current negative trends of research in developed nations -- those that focus on selling science to the general public, market-value, PR, over-reaching conclusions, exaggerated implications of studies, etc. -- are finding a niche here too. As one viewer commented, such irony…. Thanks Vicki!

Marcelo de Carvalho
USP, São Paulo

The University of Iowa decided around a decade ago that we didn't need our herbarium, and they transferred it to our sister institution, Iowa State University, over 100 miles to the west in Ames, Iowa. There were few if any faculty in Biology and related sciences that objected. So much of their current work hinges on molecular biology, so who needs a plant collection and curatorial staff? I saw this happening elsewhere too. Disgusting!

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