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Coquerel's sifakas at the Duke Lemur Center are cared for in part by the Collections in Support of Biological Research program, which was just suspended by the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Coquerel's sifakas at the Duke Lemur Center are cared for in part by the Collections in Support of Biological Research program, which was just suspended by the U.S. National Science Foundation.

David Haring/Duke Lemur Center

Biologists ask NSF to reconsider plan to pause collections funding program

Leaders of U.S. natural history collections yesterday asked the National Science Foundation (NSF) to reconsider a recent decision to suspend a key funding program for a year, warning that a “vital resource is at risk.”

Agency officials, however, say the move is part of the agency’s periodic efforts to assess the effectiveness of its spending, and they played down worries that NSF will abandon its support for maintaining collections of both dead and living organisms that are important to biologists and ecologists. "It's premature to assume that this particular program will disappear, given that the collection program has gone through this process in the past and reappeared as a very vital and important part of our research resource activities," says Muriel Poston, director of NSF’s Division of Biological Infrastructure (DBI) in Arlington, Virginia.

Last week, DBI officials alarmed some researchers when they announced that NSF would suspend and reevaluate the program, called Collections in Support of Biological Research (CSBR). Created in 2011, CSBR has awarded about $3 million to $5 million per year in recent years to projects such as upgrading freezers for tissue samples, tending stock colonies of fruit flies, and providing new cabinets for plant specimens. One role of the program is to rescue “orphaned” collections, moving them to new institutions when their former homes can no longer care for them.

Specifically, NSF said CSBR would not be accepting proposals this year for the 2017 fiscal year, which begins 1 October. In part, the move appears to be part of preparations for a proposed decrease in funding for the biological infrastructure division. NSF’s 2017 budget request, released earlier this year, calls for a $9 million, 6.2% cut in DBI spending, to $136 million. But DBI’s infrastructure program—which includes CSBR—would take a bigger hit, with a proposed $13.5 million, 16.8% cut to $66.7 million.

Although CSBR would take a hiatus in 2017, NSF notes two newer collections-related programs are still going strong. One puts images and information about specimens on the Internet, whereas the other supports young researchers studying biological specimens.

That’s little solace, say the signers of the 24 March letter to NSF. “These organizations and the many scientists that use these specimens feel strongly that [CSBR] is an important program that should instead be invested in more vigorously, rather than being cut or stalled,” states the letter, which is signed by the leaders of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC), the American Institute of Biological Sciences, and the Natural Science Collections Alliance.

In particular, they worry that the agency is planning to invest in research and digitization at the expense of the collections infrastructure. “Digitized images and data are a vital asset to research and education efforts, but they are not a substitute for actual collections,” they wrote. “Once lost, physical specimens (i.e., historic biological samples) and the ancillary data associated with them can never be regained.”

NSF’s Poston says the agency isn’t trying to discriminate against collections infrastructure. “That is not our intent at all,” she told ScienceInsider before the letter was sent. “In point of fact, [the CSBR evaluation] is really looking at how better to leverage our resources and to understand how to serve the program adequately, given that we have these three entities." If valuable collections face immediate danger during 2017, she adds, NSF will still step in to save them, using an emergency funding program called Grants for Rapid Response Research.

CSBR has survived a hiatus before, Poston points out. In 2013 NSF shifted proposal deadlines from every year to every 2 years, creating a 1-year gap for submissions. But it then switched back to an annual cycle. (Before NSF created CSBR 5 years ago, the agency had supported collections infrastructure for decades through other programs.)

Now, NSF wants feedback from individuals, institutions, and professional societies to help them “evaluate [CSBR’s] value to the research and education community.” But researchers say it’s not yet clear what that feedback should consist of. “The request for comments is a bit vacuous, since there is not yet any specification of what [the] input is needed for,” reads one public comment posted on DBI’s blog item announcing the hiatus. Amanda Stanley, conservation science program officer at the Wilburforce Foundation in Seattle, Washington, says she is putting together a joint letter from multiple foundations in support of CSBR, but her efforts have stalled because she doesn’t know what NSF wants.

NSF isn’t sure yet either. "We're developing the criteria for assessment now, and as soon as we have defined that, we're going to make that available to the community,” Poston says. DBI’s leadership has been a bit distracted, she says, by the outpouring of “helpful response” they have already received. Indeed, social media abounds with researchers and curators urging each other to write to DBI on behalf of the suspended program.

Physical collections are crucial for studying everything from climate change to brain function to disease transmission, says Anne Yoder, director of the Duke Lemur Center at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, which has received CSBR grants both to care for its lemurs and to adopt an orphan collection of primate fossils. Researchers typically use collections for free, though in the face of dwindling budgets, some institutions are discussing charging researchers for access, says Andrew Bentley, ichthyology collection manager at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, and president of SPNHC, who helped write the joint letter. The day-to-day budgets of most collections come from states or institutions, but when old facilities start to break down or run out of room, the institutions often can’t pay for expansions and upgrades.

“All the stuff that we have accumulated for hundreds of years could potentially be at stake because we don't have enough money to keep on going,” says Akito Kawahara, an entomologist and assistant curator of a vast collection of butterflies and moths at the University of Florida in Gainesville that relies heavily on a funded CSBR grant. “It’s really shocking to all of us that the CSBR may potentially just disappear completely.”

The collections community hopes that won’t happen, SPHNC President Bentley says. “Our budgets are being hacked, and the first thing that goes is infrastructure money,” he says. “CSBR is one of the few avenues that we still have.”