Monday, December 23, 2013

In the case of collections, the humanities seem to have the edge

From colleagues in plant taxonomy I have repeatedly heard anecdotes and rumors indicating that some managers and politicians appear to have a remarkably myopic attitude towards natural history collections such as herbaria or insect collections and towards the research being done within them. Indeed at the conference in Sydney three weeks ago somebody who would know it mentioned that at least one unnamed Australian State Herbarium (!) was in real danger of being shut down.

Apparently there are actually people in governments or science administrations who think that once most of the specimen data from a herbarium are placed into a searchable database the herbarium can be closed down, and that once a flora of a given region has been published all taxonomists studying the local plants have become redundant. Those ideas leave me very puzzled.

Don't get me wrong. I am not at all puzzled by the prospect that people would cut or close down valuable institutions in general. That happens all the time and is, no matter how shortsighted, entirely unsurprising.

No, what puzzles me is why some people come up with these ideas for closing down taxonomic research and natural history collections when they would never in their wildest dreams suggest the same for other, comparable research and institutions outside of biology. Or would you consider it plausible to see the following suggestion from a politician?
Did you hear? All the works of art in our National Gallery have been entered into a searchable image database. That means we can save a lot of money by closing it down. Maybe some other museum elsewhere will take those superfluous paintings and statues?
Or perhaps this out of the mouth of a science manager?
Hey, I only just realized that a book exists that discusses the history of the Roman empire. Great! Now we can fire all historians and archaeologists dealing with that period of history because obviously they will never be needed again.
Of course not. When applied to any other type of museum or research, these suggestions would immediately be recognized as bizarre. Yet from what I hear, they are made in all seriousness for natural history collections, our priceless repositories of preserved specimens from which information can be extracted on biodiversity, evolutionary relationships, morphology, anatomy, DNA, and historical changes in phenology, species distributions, land use, vegetation cover, and weather patterns. Why would somebody consider this type of museum redundant who would laugh at the same suggestion were it made about, say, the National Coin and Stamp Collection? That is what I don't understand.

It is a common assumption that the natural sciences get all the money and that the humanities are not taken seriously. But in the case of collections and collections based research, the humanities actually appear to have more support. Weird.

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