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Editorial: UNM’s biology museum worth continued funding

The National Science Foundation’s decision to suspend indefinitely a grant program that many universities, museums and other agencies depend on to maintain irreplaceable natural history collections – including those at the University of New Mexico’s Museum of Southwestern Biology – is justifiably being questioned by biologists and researchers nationwide.

The UNM museum, for example, has more than half a million tissue samples, including from mammals, amphibians, reptiles, arthropods, birds, fish, herbs and parasites – some of which are now extinct. It would seem that preserving such a collection would be reason enough to give the grant program a higher priority.

Each year the foundation, through its Collections in Support of Biological Research program, doles out between $3 million and $5 million in grants to preserve, organize and catalogue biological collections. The Museum of Southwestern Biology, for example, is using such a grant to switch from electric freezers to a liquid-nitrogen system that does a better job of preserving tissue samples with 60 percent greater energy efficiency.

While UNM has been assured enough money to start the conversion, it would take money from future grants to complete it.

Since the mid-1990s, the Southwestern Biology Museum has received nearly $2 million in CSBR grants for projects ranging from the acquisition of a space-saving collection rack system to obtaining an “orphaned” collection of parasites that could no longer be maintained by another museum.

Biologists and researchers are quick to point out that biological collections are the bedrock of many contemporary sciences and, once lost or compromised, often are irreplaceable.

Although the National Science Foundation is reaching out to the scientific community for feedback, it has yet to say how long the CSBR grant program will be on hold, leaving many museums scrambling for increasingly scarce funding elsewhere.

Surprisingly, Muriel Poston, director of the foundation’s Division of Biological Infrastructure, which oversees the CSBR program, said a review of the program that was completed in 2013 made it “a much stronger, more focused, and more effective program.”

Biologists and researchers, and the future scientists who rely on collections like the one at UNM for their studies, can only hope the hiatus is short-lived and that the National Science Foundation quickly resumes this invaluable support.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.