The US National Science Foundation (NSF) has quietly reinstated its programme to support biological specimen collections that are important for studying disease, invasive species, climate change and conservation. Scientists had protested against the agency’s decision, announced in March, to suspend the programme pending an evaluation that is due later this year.
The cabinets of the Field Museum in Chicago hold a collection of eggs that led to one of the most famous conservation discoveries of the twentieth century: that the pesticide DDT was causing widespread nesting failures in birds of prey.
But such specimen troves — which are used to identify species, track diseases and study climate change — have lost a valuable means of support. Last week, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) announced that it would indefinitely suspend a programme that provides funding to maintain biological research collections.
The primary act of social media—whether Twitter, tumblr, or Instagram—is virtual curation. Around the turn of the 20th century, though, the curation fad was literal: people roamed fields and forests to collect plant specimens and preserve them in plant libraries called herbaria. Now those old specimens are helping scientists reconstruct how trees have responded to shifts in the climate.
Scientists have recently gleaned data from New England herbarium specimens on historical timing of leaf-out—the time in spring when leaves unfurl, an important biological indicator of climate change.