Catalog vs curate, present/future scenarios

Julian Humphries jmh3 at CORNELL.EDU
Wed Sep 20 11:41:09 CDT 1995

> Una Smith asks several questions, and it sounds like they're directed at
> me, so I'll take the bait (it's near and dear to my heart, so forgive my
> long-windedness). Also note that I've crossposted, as folks on nhcoll-l
> seem to want in on this thread:
> >Last week on TAXACOM, Doug Yanega <dyanega at DENR1.IGIS.UIUC.EDU> offered
> >these scenarios:
> >
> >> [snip]

Una and Doug raised a number of issues that I would like to address.  The
complexity of Doug's answers (responses to responses) makes
cross-referencing difficult, I will just bluster, at length, on. (Apologies
to non-USA readers, most of this concerns our own funding situation, you
might be interested though)

Todays funding levels:  this is a fixed sum game. There is not very much
money and there are high demands for what exists.  I would guess that fewer
than 25% of the proposals submitted to NSF get funded and those at far
below the levels they requested.  So, you are a funding agency trying to do
the best you can for the nation's collections.  What are your priorities?
Some possibilites:

1.  Spread it around broadly and thinly, and hope that everyone can hang on
for better times.

2.  Spend it all on collection maintenance (jars, alcohol, cabinets)

3.  Spend it all on curation,  poorly curated groups first

4.  Spend it all on curation, well curated groups first

5.  Spend it all on cataloging (really means databasing these days)

6.  Spend it all on well curated, widely used collections and taxa, but
split amongs maintenance, curation and cataloging.

I would bet that then entire RCSE budget could get allocated to requests that
fit in *any one* of these catagories.  How does a national funding agency
maximize its impact?  Remember, you can't simply say we need more money,
something or somebody is going to be left out.

For me, choice 6 seems clearly the only choice we can make.  It has the
most impact on the users of collections, it rewards those collections and
institutions that have spent money to keep their collections in good shape,
it pays attention to what is most actively needed by users.  Will some
collections go under?  Probably.  What choice do we have?  We have built a
national collections infrastructure that simply can't be fully supported
in the current (political/scientific/social/whatever) environment.

<soap_box on>What can we do about this?

If you accept the assumption that the status quo is not a long term stable
solution, then there are only two solutions (really only one):  change the
pool of money available to your collection or change the climate so that
more money is available to all collections.  I believe that there simply is
no way curators, systematists, and those responsible for collections can
continue business as usual and expect any substantive change in funding.
Does anyone believe that higher support for systematics/collections can be
achieved by arguing we are more deserving than some other scientific (or
other) enterprise?  We are going to have to try new ways of doing our
science, our business, find new supporters (moral and financial) for
collections  For the most part this means new users and today the biggest
pool of new users accessible through the Internet.

Whether we are talking education, conservation, policy (local, national,
international) there is a huge potential new audience for our expertise.
But, and this is a big but, we are simply not prepared to deal with the
kind or manner of delivery these new "customers" expect.  On line catalogs
start the process, those of us with large amounts of catalog data
electronically available can attest to the interest even this modest
investment brings. ERIN in Australia provides a even better example. It
has created a role for itself that is now considered indispensable to
national policy making and planning.  Despite a richer biota and much
smaller biological collections, they have a far superior ability to assess
the status (present and future) of theirs nation's biodiversity.  We can do
likewise, assuming we act collectively to transform our incredible
collection resources into an easily accessible, broadly useful form. New
forms of electronic publication, links to additional environmental data
(e.g. GIS), K-12 educational materials, etc are examples of strategies we
can take to directly or indirectly broaden our financial base.   Who is
going to "do" this new stuff?  Good question. Somehow we are going to have
to either do what we already do more efficiently, or sacrifice part of our
current mission.  This has no easy answer, but technology can help with
efficiency. The rest will be hard choices. <soap_box off>

Enough rambling,
Julian Humphries
Ecology and Systematics
Cornell University

Friends come and go, but enemies accumulate.
                                   THOMAS F. JONES, JR.

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