Starving science: a petty, shortsighted national "strategy"

This image taken approximately 438 miles above the earth's
surface provides a spectacular view of the Lena Delta in
Russia. Image courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey, whose
 images are all in the public domain.
150 years ago, passenger pigeons were so numerous that they could black out the sky when their flocks passed overhead. The last passenger pigeon, a female named Martha, died in the Cinncinnati Zoo in 1914. All we have left of this species are specimens held in museum collections.

One of the most extensive collections of animal specimens in the world is managed by a tiny unit of the U.S. Geological Survey, called the Biological Survey Unit. A small group of curators maintains a collection of more than one million animals collected over the past 130 years by scientists and ordinary citizens across the U.S.

Now, for reasons that are at best mysterious, the USGS is planning to eliminate the Biological Survey Unit. The BSU has a very small budget, a mere $1.6 million out of the USGS's budget of $1.1 billion, and an even tinier fraction of the country's $4.4 trillion budget.

What the heck are they thinking? Shutting down the Biological Survey Unit won't save enough money in the vast government budget to even be noticed, but the loss of its precious collections will reverberate through the decades. Does someone in the USGS or the Department of the Interior have a grudge against the BSU? Or are they just petty?

The BSU's collection resides in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, one of the great museums of its type in the world. The collection contains some 370,000 birds, 300,000 mammals, and 390,000 amphibians and reptiles, many of them dating back to the late 19th century. These specimens represent a unique view back in time, illustrating the natural history of our continent and the animals that have lived on it over the years.

It's only through collections like this that scientists can understand how human activities have affected our natural world. For example, historical collections of eggs from wild birds allowed scientists to document the thinning of eggshells caused by the pesticide DDT, which was made famous by Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring.

Just a few weeks ago, the presidents of three of the leading animal science societies in the U.S. wrote a letter to Science magazine pleading for the USGS to continue funding its Biological Survey Unit. So far, the USGS has not responded to them.

Museum collections may not be as flashy as some areas science (perhaps we need a new Indiana Jones movie to raise their profile), but that doesn't mean they are not critically important to our understanding of the natural world. Once the BSU disappears, it's not coming back: the curators will retire or find other jobs, and the collection will become inaccessible, even if it still exists somewhere in the bowels of the Smithsonian.

The plan to shutdown the Biological Survey Unit seems indicative of a larger trend of neglecting investment in our future. It may reflect a particular form of neglect by the USGS, as pointed out by Cynthia Ramotnik in a 2015 article. It also reflects the severe cut to the USGS budget proposed by Donald Trump last month: he requested a total budget of $860 million, which represents a 20% cut from the current year's budget of $1.08 billion. But in the case of the BSU, the budget impact is so small that it seems worse than neglectful to cut it: it is shortsighted and petty.

When asked by the Washington Post, former House speaker (and current Trump enthusiast) Newt Gingrich admitted that the cutting the BSU's $1.6 million budget wouldn't matter to the larger budget, but he then went on to comment, “if this collection is that valuable, there are probably 20 billionaires that could endow it.”

Great: let's hand over our national resources to billionaires, and if they're not interested, well, it must be that the resources weren't that valuable in the first place. Not.

This is ridiculous. We're still a rich country, and we shouldn't be eliminating projects like the Biological Survey Unit just to give a massive tax cut to rich people, or just to make a point about budget cutting, or whatever the reason that the USGS and the Department of the Interior might offer. (The USGS hasn't responded to my inquiries.) Maintaining our museum collections not only shows respect for the thousands of people who built them over the years, but it benefits the countless scientists, educators, school children, and others who will learn from these collections in the future.

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