Protecting collections by raising the perceived status of systema tics

Gerald R. Noonan carabid at MPM.EDU
Thu Apr 17 10:45:19 CDT 2003

        At this point we need to start forming a plan for protecting
collections. I suggest that the most effective way to protect collections is
to find a strategy to make systematics a discipline that universities want
to support.  There do not seem to be massive cuts at universities of science
positions such as molecular biologists, chemists, physicists, etc.. Nor do
their seem to be massive cuts of disciplines in the humanities such as
history, political science etc. -- at least the newspapers are not reporting
        Chemists have chemical laboratories to support their research and
university administrators understand the need for such laboratories.
Similarly physicists have oftentimes extremely expensive physics labs and
equipment which are likewise understood and supported by university
administrators. The lists could go on and on. But university administrators
do not understand or at least do not support in many instances collections.
I think this is because the administrators and scientists in other
disciplines do not have a high opinion about systematics.

Possible elements of a plan:

1. Devise a totally different strategy for elevating the position of
systematics. Strategies used in the past have not worked.
        A. Survey university administrators about how they feel regarding
systematics and the collections that support systematics. This is something
that might be done by the Natural Science Collections Alliance. It would be
especially interesting to obtain insights from university administrators who
cut systematics. We need to find out what policymakers think as opposed to
what we think they should believe. Once we have a better idea what the
administrators believe and what motivates them to think that a discipline is
important, we might start addressing root causes of the decline in support
for systematics. The survey should also contact scientists in other
disciplines. If the scientists felt more highly about systematics, the
declines would not be occurring.
        B. The root causes of the decline will probably be complex. One
cause may be that other scientists get more grants. However against that I
don't think that historians and political scientists get many grants. But
these disciplines are not being deleted in a concerted nationwide fashion.

2. In the interim I think we need to talk with NSF and requested that agency
to change its collections support programs to target museums that may be at
risk. Remember that the curator of the University of Iowa collection did not
receive from NSF the requested collections support. The inability to receive
such support might have sent a signal to the administrators that NSF did not
think much of the collections.

3. If we can raise the perceived importance of systematics as a discipline,
collections will be automatically more highly valued by administrators.
These people don't chop out large and expensive facilities such as physics
labs and equipment because physics is regarded as important. Collections are
for systematists the equivalent of labs and equipment used by physicists. We
can't do systematics without collections. Collections will be safe if we can
raise the perceived importance of systematics.

4. Even without the survey suggested under item 1 above I strongly suspect
        A. we must sell systematics as a vitally important discipline, and
extremely interesting and productive branch of science.

5. The Natural Science Collections Alliance needs to: retain the full-time
services of a highly skilled professional public relations
expert/fundraiser. Such a person can guide systematists in how to improve
the image of systematics and how to obtain better funding. Systematists
simply are not doing very well on their own as regards selling a discipline.

6. Museums should think very strongly about each making a financial
contribution toward item 5.

7. Both NSF and the Natural Science Collections Alliance need to get
together and work jointly on saving systematics.

8. We need a national organization of systematists that would include
botanists, herpetologists, mammalogists, entomologists, etc.. That
organization should have annual meetings that are highly attended by
systematists. We need to pull together as a group rather than going off into
our own taxon based disciplines.

Well, I took the time to put down these thoughts because I am very concerned
about the increasing rate of deletion of systematics. We need to act rapidly
or we will become the next extinct "species". Things can be reversed if we
can work together.

Gerald R. Noonan Ph.D.
Curator of Insects
Milwaukee Public Museum
800 West Wells Street
Milwaukee WI 53233
e-mail: carabid at
office telephone: (414) 278-2762
fax: (414) 278-6100
WWW homepage:

-----Original Message-----
From: David Richman [mailto:nmbugman at]
Sent: Thursday, April 17, 2003 8:49 AM
To: Doug Yanega
Cc: NHCOLL-L at; taxacom at
Subject: [NHCOLL-L:1895] Re: Threatened Collections

Dear All:

This problem has made it all the more difficult for those of us who
would like to unite our institution's various scattered natural history

Is it worth it to do so when a united collection would just become a
target for cost-cutting bureaucrats!  Is it not better to remain small
collections within a single department and be subject to the whims of
our department heads and at least have a modest chance of survival?

Keep in mind that natural history collections are often looked on as
pork by administrators, who see their own pet projects in need in times
of crisis. There may also be less support among the public as the museum
community seems to support unpopular (at least in many circles) ideas,
such as evolution, climate change and biodiversity. While one cannot
attack these ideas directly (there is always a highly vocal response from
researchers and civil libertarians) there is no reason why one can't cut
off monetary support, or at least allow such cuts to occur on other

These are my opinions alone and not necessarily those of my institution.

David B. Richman
Department of Entomology, Plant Pathology and Weed Science
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, NM 88003

 On Wed, 16 Apr 2003, Doug Yanega wrote:

> Given Gerald Noonan's message, this latest from Roberta Faul-Zeitler,
> and other signs of the coming Apocalypse, one rather immediate and
> urgent question comes to mind:
> If these threats are here and now, then it's almost certainly too
> late for us to be discussing what long-term plans we might make for
> reshaping public and political perception of the role of museums and
> taxonomists. Getting more public support five to ten years from now
> isn't going to help if half the museums in the country are dismantled
> in the next two years. It's like we're all tied to the railroad
> tracks in a big line while a train is heading for us (the first in
> line have already been hit, in fact), and if our best solution is
> calling the head of the railway and asking him to re-route the train
> before it runs *all* of us over, then I think we're in big trouble;
> there's too much inertia and bureaucracy in the way. I can think of a
> few alternatives, but they're very risky, require way more
> cooperation than our community is probably capable of, and involve
> way more public exposure than we're likely to be comfortable with, so
> I don't think they're realistic. Doesn't anyone one else have any
> ideas as to what we might do *now* to improve our odds - essentially,
> a way to cut whatever it is that ties us to the tracks?
> Peace,
> --
> Doug Yanega        Dept. of Entomology         Entomology Research Museum
> Univ. of California - Riverside, Riverside, CA 92521
> phone: (909) 787-4315 (standard disclaimer: opinions are mine, not UCR's)
>    "There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness
>          is the true method" - Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chap. 82

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