Despite what is commonly depicted in books, television, and movies, the state of much of our scientific infrastructure is threadbare:
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).
Today’s example has to do with the unique and rapidly vanishing limestone karst habitat in Cambodia (boldface mine):
Cambodia has almost no botanists and the study of plants in the country came to a standstill from 1970 to 1992 during an extended period of war and unrest punctuated by the trauma of the Khmer Rouge takeover from 1975 to 1979.
The country’s main herbarium is a single room at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. It houses about 12,000 specimens, many of which have not been inventoried and are simply piling up on shelves. They are meant to be kept cool and dry by two air-conditioners, but one air-conditioner is broken and there is no money to fix it.
“You talk about a herbarium in another country and it should be very big, but this is just one room,” said Ith Saveng, who runs the university’s Center for Biodiversity Conservation. “We hope to expand to another room within the next two years.”
Rare plants found in karsts have to be shipped to Vietnam so better-trained scientists can do the precise work of matching species to species.
And we are long gone and forgotten, it’s these sorts of facilities that are future generations’ patrimony.