The Republican War On Natural History

I’m a bit late to this, but Republicans have decided that the Biological Survey Unit needs to go (boldface mine):

More than 100 years later, the historic division is targeted for closure, part of a sweeping budget-cutting campaign by the Trump administration. With lawmakers poised next month to approve new priorities for agency funding for the first time since the president took office, the bureaucratic bloodletting can officially begin.

The Biological Survey Unit is hardly the only entity facing extinction. Dozens of long-standing programs are slated for termination, and every agency, large and small, has submitted a plan to the White House for reorganization…

Today the office has an annual budget of about $1.6 million and six researchers, who help maintain nearly a million bird, reptile and mammal specimens, which are kept in climate-controlled vaults at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural ­History.

Those opposed to the bureau’s termination say closing it would impede public access to an important collection that reveals changes in the variety and distribution of species across North America, as well as shifts in climate, habitat and contaminant levels over time. DNA samples kept there continue to shed light on how myriad species have evolved.

“They’ve made a decision to mothball a reservoir of basic research, much of the baseline information on the fauna of the United States,” said David Schmidly, a former president of the University of New Mexico, Oklahoma State University and Texas Tech University, who has tapped the collection during six decades of research. “And that, to me, makes no sense.”

Here’s a small taste of the damage the cuts would do:

  1. The world’s largest mammal collection will lack a curator. The curator helps the Air Force figure out bat-plane collisions.
  2. The Curator of Reptiles/Amphibians, has published over 150 papers and is an expert on reptile and amphibian biodiversity & extinction in the neotropics. He’s also an expert on how to monitor reptile populations.
  3. It produces authoritative species lists used in federal policy such as CITES, Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

It goes without saying that vertebrate biologists think this is really short-sighted and stupid.

But never fear, Newt Gingrich is here!

Supporters of Trump’s proposed budget cuts say such collections no longer represent cutting-edge research. They argue that private collectors and institutions should pick up the slack.

Gingrich, a passionate naturalist, said he does not know whether it makes sense to eliminate the Biological Survey Unit. Cutting the $1.6 million program, he acknowledged, would hardly make a dent in the nation’s $4.4 trillion federal ­budget.

But “if every six-person office is sacrosanct, then nothing can be done,” Gingrich said. “If this collection is that valuable, there are probably 20 billionaires that could endow it.”

Or we could tax the rich people and pay for it (TEH SOCIALISMZ!!! AAAIEEEE!! Or something).

Because it’s our national heritage, not a rich guy’s hobby.

Increasingly, we are losing knowledge about the natural world because we simply are not training enough biologists who have the skills to identify and determine basic organismal biology–to the point where stopping animal invasions is relying on part-time hobbyists.

How cutting the Biological Survey Unit helps stem the problem of biological ignorance is a mystery. Of course, if we lack enough biologists trained in natural history, then inconvenient things like the Endangered Species Act become much harder to enforce…

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4 Responses to The Republican War On Natural History

  1. Mark says:

    Maybe when Mar-a-Lago is overrun by marmorated stinkbugs, the administration will be concerned enough to think maybe it would help to have some biologists around.

    • Fred says:

      The stink bugs would likely be the most pleasant living things there (having not inspected the kitchens).

  2. jonolan says:

    On the other hand, Mike bills himself as a biologist. If one reads any random sampling of his posts one can easily see why any Republican would want to see him and his in-group removed from positions of power, authority, and/or prosperity.

  3. Jane Hay says:

    I ran into this mindset in the ’80’s, when molecular biol was the new hot thing …taxonomy and natural history have only lost ground since. I got to see the downside in action when one molecular dude at the Univ. wanted to collect a certain local species of salamander, but had no idea where to find them and couldn’t seem to keep the various species straight. He had to ask us ecology/naturalist peons for help lol

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