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Biodiversity and the Future

To a university administrator anxiously looking for ways to save money in a time of fiscal conservatism, the contents of natural history museums have become an increasingly attractive target for reduction or even elimination. Thus in recent months we have heard of drastic reductions in museum staff and content of the collections at the University of Nebraska, and of similar prospects facing the University of Arkansas; doubtless many other university biological collections are facing a similar fate. Certainly the prime mission of any university is to educate students, but the broader consequences of its decisions, whether to close hospitals or de-emphasize collections, need careful consideration in relation to the common good.

In many states, Nebraska and Arkansas included, the university collections constitute the basic material that documents the plants, animals, fungi and microorganisms on which the healthy functioning of its natural systems are based. A knowledge of these organisms and the communities and ecosystems that they comprise is necessary for managing the woods, field, pastures and wetlands on which our livelihood depends. The U.S. is estimated to be home to at least 500,000 kinds of organisms other than bacteria and viruses; of these, perhaps half have been described and named. For many groups we have only rudimentary knowledge, and these include many that are ecologically and economically of great importance, such as nematodes, mites and fungi.

As the era of molecular biology matures and our ability to sequence genomes accelerates and becomes less expensive, it will be comparisons between organisms and their genes that are most informative for the development of basic science and for facilitating practical advances as well. But if no one can recognize those organisms, find documentation of their ranges or understand how they function in ecosystems, how shall we achieve these advances? And how can a state or nation beneficially use or preserve its natural capital if there is no institution in which its diversity is practically documented?

States and nations that understand, sustainably manage and appreciate their biodiversity are going to do better over the long run than those that ignore it to feed a fashionable "no tax" frenzy. Universities that have accumulated important collections of biological, geological or anthropological objects through the hard work of their faculty over decades have an obligation to provide for the proper care of these collections. Some universities have capitalized on those assets and are training the comparative biologists of the future. If others decide not to take such a direction, they should encourage action at a state level to preserve the assets and make them available.

In view of this growing crisis, I call on Sigma Xi chapters to consider what cuts in university budgets mean to the people of their states, and to make their informed conclusions known to the appropriate officials. "Increased administrative efficiency," while highly desirable, will not fund what people need forever, and those who sacrifice permanent values for short-term political expediency must be held accountable for their actions.

Peter H. Raven
President, Sigma Xi

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