Think about the collections of natural history museums, and you might picture drawers and jars of stuffed and preserved animals, sitting in darkness and gathering dust. Far from it: As I wrote last month, museum collections are biological treasure chests. They are full of new species—the greater monkey-faced bat, sacred crocodile, and olinguito have all been found by rummaging through preserved specimens. They’re “time capsules that contain records of past ecosystems that are rapidly changing or disappearing.” They’re “archives that provide clues about raging epidemics, environmental pollution, and hidden extinctions.”
They’re also in trouble.
On March 16, the U.S. National Science Foundation indefinitely pressed the pause button on the Collections in Support of Biological Research (CSBR) Program—a scheme that funds the care, organization, maintenance, and cataloguing of biological collections. That includes everything from museum specimens to tissue banks to stocks of laboratory flies or fungi.
The CSBR “has been placed on hiatus as of March 2016,” the announcement said. Existing grants would be honored; new proposals would not be accepted for at least 2016.
It didn’t go down well.
Museum curators, biologists, and other concerned parties lamented the announcement on Twitter and other online spaces, billing it variously as “short-sighted,” “incredibly short-sighted,” and “horribly short-sighted.” They feared that it signaled a disinvestment in natural history collections. “I’m very surprised by the decision given that natural history collections are, if anything, increasingly relevant and important,” says Hopi Hoekstra, the curator of mammals at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology.