The suspension of the Collections in Support of Biological Research (CSBR) Program was announced by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in mid-March. That program is the only source of significant extra-mural funding for biological collections infrastructure and as such vital for the long-term survival of university collections like ours in the USA. The so-called ‘CSBR hiatus‘ generated great concern within the museum and collections community. The funding hiatus reached the big scientific and media outlets like Science, Nature, The Atlantic, and the NY Times, just to name a few.
How long is the hiatus for? Is this the first step towards cancelling the CSBR program? Will the program be revamped/re-purposed, and if so, what will its new purpose be? Those are some of the important questions in our minds right now. Even a one-year break in this program will likely have a very negative effect on long-term maintenance of irreplaceable biological collections around the country.
Why should anyone outside of the collections community care about this? I’ll describe the impact of NSF funds for collection infrastructure on the Triplehorn Insect Collection over the past 25 years in hopes that our experience will provide some insight.
Historically, space was always at a premium and the specimens in the Triplehorn Insect Collection had always been packed very tightly. It was a relief when, in 1992, the collection was relocated from the rooms and hallways of the old Botany & Zoology Building to the more modern and spacious Museum of Biological Diversity. At that time, Johnson and Triplehorn were able to secure funds (Award #9123439) from NSF’s Improvement to Biological Research Collections Program (the previous name of the CSBR) to purchase new cabinets, drawers and trays. That allowed for the replacement of the very old wooden cabinets for new steel cabinets and the proper storage of at least part of the large amount of material packed in Schmitt boxes. This was before computers became a thing in biological collections so we were not concerned about that.
Fast forward to 2004. Driven by our current research interests, the Hymenoptera portion of the collection had been re-curated (moved from the old drawers and trays to new ones) and the specimen data for that group was gradually being digitized. After re-curation and specimen level databasing the hym collection increased by 50%. We were also mounting parasitoid wasps that were newly collected or being sent to us for identification from all over the world, and the storage space was disappearing fast.
Meanwhile, we were still trying to transfer the specimens that remained in the miscellaneous Schmitt to proper trays and drawers. That operation ended up taking ten of our 25-drawer cabinets — almost all the available empty cabinet space — simply to accommodate existing material. By the end of 2005 we were almost out of storage space and we had very little space to accommodate the people and equipment necessary for specimen level databasing. Our hands were tied.
As I mentioned in another post, beetles are one of the most extensive, well-studied and heavily used groups of insects held by the Triplehorn collection. As such the beetles are at the top of our curatorial and databasing priorities. But in order to re-curate and database the beetle collection, we had to tackle the issue of space.
We turned to the NSF again, and in 2008 we received another infrastructure grant (Award #0749705) that allowed for the installation of a compactor system (movable shelving) and the purchase of new cabinets, drawers and supplies. With the new system we had a 66% increase in storage capacity with the added bonus of a 30% reduction in the collection footprint (space the cabinets occupy). As part of the same project we also curated and databased all our more than 3,000 primary type specimens. All the data are freely available online.
With more physical space, more storage space, and some resources available, we could at last start tackling the much needed upgrade of our beetle collection in preparation for the specimen-level databasing we wished to accomplish. We started with Carabidae (ground beetles) and Tenebrionidae (darkling beetles).
At the Triplehorn collection we keep the specimens in holding trays or ‘unit trays’ for short, inside USNM style glass-covered wooden ‘drawers’ which are in turn kept stored in tightly sealed 25-drawer steel cabinets. A large number of our drawers and trays are still the same ones from Joe Knull’s time (curator between 1934-1962), and therefore at least 50 years old. The real thorny issue to address is the unit trays.
A unit tray is the basic storage unit in the collection – it holds and protects the pinned specimens. Our old ones are lined with cork and many specimen pins, deeply lodged into the cork, have corroded and are now practically cemented to the trays. To makes matters worse, due to the chronic lack of space, most of the old unit trays are, and I cannot overstate this, very tightly packed with specimens. Handling these over-packed trays is a very damage-prone, not to mention nerve-wracking, operation. It takes us months to train (and trust) a curatorial assistant to do that kind of job.
Prior to databasing, more than 100K carabid and tenebrionid specimens were carefully moved from old to new trays. Some specimens were damaged during the process and had to be repaired, some specimens had to have the corroded pins removed and replaced by new, stainless steel ones. Only then we were ready to add a unique ID label to the specimen and to transcribe the specimen data.
The real burning question is: do we need to do this? Do we need to move the specimens, replace trays and drawers, add unique IDs, and capture the specimen data? One quick answer is obviously ‘no’. We don’t need to do any of this if we don’t want to make our specimen data available to science and the general public. But we do want that! In fact, I firmly believe we must do it! And doing it requires work far beyond the so-called ‘normal operating procedures’ that collections are rightfully expected to self-fund. In fact, with the crippling erosion of local funding and personnel that afflict biological collections, the definition of ‘normal operating procedures’ could soon become so limited that before long many collections might not make their specimens available for study at all anymore. That, my friends, would be an unmitigated disaster for science, and consequently for human society.
Many people, and here I include some scientists, don’t know or understand the role of collections in the systematic study of the world around us that we call ‘science’ and, consequently, the critical importance of collections to all of us.
A common misconception is that biological collections want money to add more space to continue growing ad infinitum. This could not be further from the truth! Curators are very conscientious and mindful of their facility, space, and budgetary restrictions. We all endeavor to live within our very limited means and facilities. But like the hospitals (or any other business) that are now replacing their old paper records with new computerized systems, standards best practices continually evolve. In order to provide high quality service to our users and to best preserve the specimens that are entrusted to us, collections must keep up with these new curatorial standards, adopt new best practices, and replace substandard materials.
Unlike for-profit businesses, collections provide services to the scientific community and to society for free, or nearly so. As a result, there is practically no cash-flow, part of which might be allocated to long-term investments. That’s where federal grant funds are needed to come in and support those upgrades.
In the case of the Triplehorn collection, the two infrastructure grants we received from NSF enabled the more efficient use of our available physical space, allowed for upgrades in the quality of materials, and the application of modern curatorial standards. Without those grants, numerous research projects (see examples listed below) that we have been involved with, that resulted in numerous scientific publications, would never have been possible.
Biological collections and natural history museums in general need funding in order to continue to fulfill their mission as critical sources of scientific data that support research in numerous areas of science, from medicine to agriculture to forestry, from ecology to conservation to climate change. These are not just buzzwords that we throw around for effect. This is real! Collections are used daily by scientists to help solve problems that affect all of us. It is our responsibility, as citizens, to do our best to support and maintain collections in the long run.
Let’s please keep writing to the National Science Foundation requesting that they end the CSBR hiatus & renew their support for the long-term funding of biological collections infrastructure. Make your voice heard by sending your comments to NSF via email: DBICSBR@nsf.gov.
Infrastructure grants received by the Triplehorn Insect Collection:
Award #9123439 (1992) Modernization in the Care and Use of the Systematic Entomology Collections at The Ohio State University.
Award #0749705 (2008) Increasing Efficiency of Space Utilization for the Triplehorn Insect Collection (OSUC).
Research and databasing grants resulting in part from infrastructure grants received by the Triplehorn Insect Collection:
Award #0344034 (2004) REVSYS: Classification, Phylogeny, and Biology of the Parasitic Wasp Family Scelionidae
Award #0614764 (2007) PBI: Diversity and The Parasitoid Life History Strategy – The Superfamily Platygastroidea (Hymenoptera).
Award #1503659 (2015) Digitization PEN: Integration of data from the Triplehorn Insect Collection with the Southwestern Collections of Arthropods Network.
About the Author: Dr. Luciana Musetti is and Entomologist and currently the Curator of the Triplehorn Insect Collection.