Friday, March 18, 2016

National Science Foundation Suspends Funding Support for Biological Collections

I try to avoid issue-related topics here, but this recent development could potentially undermine the foundation of what I do. Researching the subjects of this blog requires that I consult almost daily with personnel associated with entomology collections all over the country. It has just been announced that the primary source of funding for many of these holdings will not be accepting any new applications for fiscal year 2017. The following is meant to inform my readers of who the players are, and how to make your voices heard.

© Natural Science Collections Association (UK)
The Players

Here is a list of recurring acronyms that should prove helpful if you find yourself getting confused.

  • NSF - National Science Foundation
  • CSBR - Collections in Support of Biological Research. This is the NSF grant program being placed on "hiatus" by the NSF.
  • BIO - Directorate for Biological Sciences, one administrative arm of NSF
  • DBI - Biological Infrastructure, the funding component of the BIO
  • STEM - Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math education
  • AIBS - American Institute of Biological Sciences
  • SPNHC - Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections
  • NSCA - Natural Science Collections Alliance
  • ECN - Entomological Collections Network
  • ESA - Entomological Society of America

What will happen?

My sources tell me this is not an unusual event. National Science Foundation periodically evaluates programs to assess their efficacy and impact, and suspending new applications for funding is more or less standard procedure during such an "audit." However, there is the possibility that the outcome of an evaluation could be the reduction or elimination of a program. That is why it is imperative that stakeholders speak to the importance of biological collections, but do so effectively.

Meanwhile, according to Reed Beaman of the CSBR:

"In FY 2017, BIO plans to assess the effectiveness of current DBI programs towards the evolving needs of the biology community, which have become more complex, diverse, and centered on data storage, access, and analysis. Evaluating current programs, assessing where investments can make a difference in the long term resource needs, and developing a robust STEM pipeline will be a priority. BIO will use FY 2017 to reexamine the goals and objectives of many of DBI’s longstanding research resource and human resource programs. Emphasis will be placed on evaluation, impact, and scalability, to gauge where support from BIO makes a difference and can be leveraged. Several programs will be put on a biennial competition schedule during their assessment and evaluation. BIO expects this assessment to be complete in time to inform the FY 2018 budget."

© Natural Science Collections Association (UK)
Crafting constructive feedback

Should you be a member of an organization such as the ECN, ESA, SPNHC, or NSCA, please consult your officers and fellow members for how best to proceed so that a united front is presented. Individuals should consider the following suggestions from Dr. Michael Ivie, Montana State University:


"First, keep in mind that NSF's Federally mandated job is to support leading edge science. Comments like the one on the DBI Blog site that starts out about cultural patrimony will only contribute to the idea we are antiquated and no longer relevant to modern science. Patrimony and history, and wonderful specimens kept safe are not what is important here. Keep comments limited to the impact of the collections served by the CSBR program on innovative SCIENCE. Second, NSF supports non-Federal research. All comments are valuable, but community comments should be led by the scientists who are NSF targets. Third, do not lead with the self-serving. This program is about Infrastructure impact,not about how the program allows the collection itself to be better. Get people not associated with the collection to write and tell stories of how they use the collections. How the collection is critical to training STEM scientists, how the data (specimens) housed there contributed to innovative research findings and provided impactful benefit. Tell stories about how a collection improvement grant led to the discovery of something, anything. How many extra loans to projects supported by NSF were made, how many new species were discovered because of bringing backlogs into the available pool of infrastructure.

Every supporting letter from people outside the collection community is worth two from inside. That does not mean we don't write, and our groups don't lobby, but it does mean we need to reach out. We need to swamp this issue with positive examples of impact on NSF supported science areas. The project impacted does not need to be actually NSF funded, but within an area that NSF funds. Citing the NSF program areas that are impacted by this infrastructure is critical. Writing letters is only half the battle, writing smart letters is what wins."

Where to write

The NSF is accepting comments through only two avenues. One is through this e-mail address:
Remember to replace "at" with "@" to properly send your correspondence.

The other means of communication is by leaving comments on the DBI blog.

© Norma Salcedo, image of Grice Marine Laboratory in Charleston, South Carolina

Watch this space for further developments. Meanwhile, please feel free to "share," mention, or steal this post, whatever it takes to get the word out. This obviously affects every kind of biological collection, so remember to alert botanists, herpetologists, mammologists, and pretty much every other "ologist" community. Thank you.


  1. Thank you Eric. Very useful.

    Jose Padial

  2. I tried to "steal" this 18Mar2016 blog column, but the best I could do was "print screen 4 pages". It might be my "computer ineptitude", but maybe a pdf or other link somewhere to get a clean copy available of this would promote spreading the word?

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Please just link to this post if you will. I had to disable the ability to copy and paste because of so much *unauthorized* theft of my blog content.

  3. Well done Eric! Thanks for breaking down the acronymns that can sometimes by daunting! this is great information that I'm sure will be helpful to a lot of people.

  4. Funding to NSF in general is orders of magnitude too low (especially when you compare it to NIH or DOD).
    Also, why is there insufficient data on the labels for those beetles in image 2?? L. Dyer