ST. LOUIS — The coronavirus pandemic is stressing the finances of natural history museums, botanical gardens, universities and other institutions across the country, leaving leaders worried that closures and cutbacks will “orphan” biological collections that catalog plants, animals and other organisms.
The potential losses are now threatening science worldwide, from the study of disease to the examination of crop resilience to research on the impact of climate change on species.
“We’re used to kind of subconsciously saying, ‘Well, we can go out and get more of those.’ But that’s not necessarily true,” said Peter Raven, president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden, and an authority on research about alarming modern extinction rates. “We’re obviously hammering away at what’s out there in nature.”
There are well over a thousand biological collections in the United States — more than have fully been counted by a single authority. They can contain specimens of plants, animals, insects, fungi, DNA — even materials such as wolf semen, stored here in St. Louis — that are dead or alive, partial or whole, and are housed at museums, universities, or even in private or corporate hands.
But those very institutions now face sometimes-dire revenue shortfalls: The coronavirus has crushed museum attendance and gift shops, among other incomes. It has reduced college tuition, and it is jeopardizing state payments to public universities.
Raven warned in an October article in the journal Science that the grim financial backdrop wrought by the coronavirus will leave many biological collections orphaned, where the institutions responsible for their maintenance are unable to do so.
“Many hundreds are hanging on by a thread,” Raven said.
Here’s the problem: Collections can’t be neglected. Things such as plant samples are highly susceptible to damage from humidity, insects and pests. Other specimens are kept in liquid, which must be regularly topped off. Collections of tissues, living things and frozen specimens can demand even more attention.
Experts don’t yet know how far the problem will extend, nor which collections will be affected, since many institutions don’t advertise their distress.
“If you’re sitting on the edge of bankruptcy, you’re not going to tell people, because any donors you might have had will walk away,” said Scott Miller, the chief scientist of the Smithsonian Institution, and co-author of the recent article in Science.
It’s also hard to foresee the future for other places with collections, such as public universities, which can be at the mercy of state budget decisions as they filter down through a chain of bureaucracy.
“The collection can’t really see what’s coming until it’s too late,” Miller said.
Both situations can thwart the ability of others to troubleshoot options about possible ways to salvage collections or arrange new homes for them.
“There isn’t much we can do to be very proactive about it,” said Barbara Thiers, a vice president and director at the New York Botanical Garden.
And there’s not much capacity for orphaned collections to be absorbed at peer institutions.
“Most of us are kind of out of space, as is,” said Thiers. “If this sort of happened wholesale, that’s what I really worry about.”
Thiers recently surveyed approximately 1,600 venues with collections in the U.S., and received about 200 responses. Roughly one-third of the institutions that replied said they didn’t know if their collections — or the institutions themselves — would survive. That figure is consistent with another survey from earlier in the pandemic that assessed the financial health of the country’s museums.
An irony, she said, is that recent years have marked a golden age for the nation’s collections, with many millions of dollars invested in large-scale digitization efforts to improve record-keeping and usefulness for research.
But now at least some of that progress could be reversed.
“This feels potentially like a really big step backward for us,” Thiers said.
Plenty of work has already been disrupted.
For instance, institutions such as the Missouri Botanical Garden and St. Louis Zoo have derailed travel, scuttling research needed to further build collections.
And Miller said that earlier this year, university shutdowns in Europe resulted in the loss of locust colonies being studied — work that holds potentially massive food security implications.
“You can’t take a locust colony home and take care of it,” said Miller, noting that the loss happened at the same time that clouds of migratory locusts were ravaging East Africa.
All of this makes some fear that researchers, particularly younger ones, could see the trajectories of their careers permanently altered by the pandemic and its fallout.
A wide range of other research hangs in the balance, depending on the collections that could fail to be preserved.
“They represent the raw material that will be studied by future techniques,” said Miller. “It often turns out to have values that you did not anticipate.”
For instance, researchers are now genetically analyzing old samples of frozen blood from Asian bats in an attempt to trace the origins of the coronavirus. The closest match yet came from a freezer in Cambodia.
And as the planet warms — speeding species extinctions — the preservation, maintenance and growth of the world’s biological collections will be even more crucial for mapping species change and making predictions about the future.
“The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to keep all the bits and pieces,” said Raven, paraphrasing an old quote from the famed environmental thinker Aldo Leopold.
The challenge is to get them now, before it’s too late.
“As one of my colleagues said, ‘If you don’t save them now,’” Raven added, “‘you can’t save them later.’”