We Need to Restore NSF’s Biological Collections Program

I’ve described many, many, many times how underfunded unglamorous, but vital scientific research infrastructure is:

One of the ridiculous things about many depictions of science in TV and movies is the notion that there’s this huge infrastructure: shiny labs (which are always neat and spacious), high-tech this and that, and an army of workers to solve a problem. The reality is that much of our scientific knowledge in any subdiscipline is held by a few people who are operating on shoestring budgets with inadequate resources. To put it bluntly, we often lose considerable knowledge and materials when an older faculty member or researcher dies or retires (in my own subdiscipline of microbiology, there are several valuable collections that would be lost if a single freezer broke for an extended length of time).

One example: the world’s most comprehensive collection of frog toxins–whose medical effects haven’t been fully explored–is contained in “a geriatric General Electric freezer that shivered as though it were about to give up its refrigerant spirits—Freon no doubt—for good” at NIH.

So this is not good–the NSF has suspended its The Collections in Support of Biological Research (CSBR) Program:

The Collections in Support of Biological Research (CSBR) Program has been placed on hiatus for Fiscal Year 2017 (i.e., is not accepting new project proposals in 2016) by the NSF’s Directorate for Biological Sciences.

During this time, the program has been asked to evaluate its value to the research and education community. As part of this evaluation we welcome feedback from any stakeholders, including individuals, institutions, and professional societies.

When we lose collections, we lose the past. We lose the ability to place in context what we have discovered today. And once these collections are gone, we never get them back. There is a lot of research that requires these collections–think of all of the news articles you read about someone isolating ancient DNA, or looking at changes in organisms from a century ago. Without biological collections, that science never happens.

Here’s what the program does:

The Collections in Support of Biological Research (CSBR) Program provides funds: 1) for improvements to secure and organize collections that are significant to the NSF BIO-funded research community; 2) to secure collections-related data for sustained, accurate, and efficient accessibility to the biological research community; and 3) to transfer ownership of collections.

The CSBR program provides for enhancements that secure and improve existing collections, improves the accessibility of digitized specimen-related data, and develop better methods for specimen curation and collection management. Requests should demonstrate a clear and urgent need to secure the collection, and the proposed activities should address that need. Biological collections supported include established living stock/culture collections, vouchered non-living natural history collections, and jointly-curated ancillary collections such as preserved tissues and DNA libraries.

When you look at the projects that have been funded, you realize how critical this is. There are ‘applied collections’ such as The Bacillus Genetic Stock CenterBacillus is the bacterial genus that contains anthrax, and parasite collections. But there are also less applied collections that are every bit as important: the San Diego Drosophila Species Stock Center maintains 225 species of Drosophila ‘fruit flies’* (Drosophila is one of the key model organisms in biology).

Losing these collections would be so penny-wise and pound-foolish, so, if you’re in a position to do so, please comment. Even if you’re not a scientist, there’s nothing stopping you from writing your congressman or senator, especially if there’s a collection in your district or state.

*Drosophilists have a tendency to go berserk when Drosophila are called fruit flies, but the ‘fruit fly’ is how most people know them.

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