Saturday, July 30, 2011

A few quick updates...

It's been another lousy month for me where blogging is concerned, but before July fizzles out I wanted to draw your attention to a couple of interesting things. First, there's been another addition to the growing list of natural history collection blogs, in the form of Elee Kirk's 'Stuffed Stuff: Adventures in Natural History Museums and Taxidermy'; it's fun, and if you're at all interested in the weird and wonderful side of our profession, I certainly urge you to go take a look.

Next, Carl Zimmer kindly drew my attention to this excellent conference. Sadly, I shall be attending another meeting in late October, but if you live in Pennsylvania and believe that you share your beautiful state with large, hairy, non-human primates, this is the meeting for you. As a bonus, you get to hear about aliens as well!

While we're on the subject of cryptozoology, it's summertime, which invariably means British big cat sightings. As you may recall, we've discussed this phenomenon in an earlier post; no need to rehash it here, other than to note that the British big cat cryptozoology community was dealt a body blow two weeks ago with the closure of its professional journal, the News of the World. Anyhoo, it's my home state that has been making the running in the puma stakes recently.

First, puma sightings in Greenwich, CT back in May turned out to be - amazingly - a puma! Then, even more amazing, it now seems that it walked here from South Dakota. Apparently young males often disperse long distances in search of mates. This one apparently took a wrong turn, hiking 1,500 miles in search of sex, only to be run down by a car. As my colleague Greg noted, this was the feline equivalent of Spring Break.

There are a few points here that set this apart from a British big cat story, and any readers of a cryptozoological bent might want to take note of them. First, there was "evidence," in the form of 140lbs of dead puma, rather than a blurry photo of next door's cat. Next, "science" (as opposed to the preferred crptozoological methodology of "guess") was used to show that the animal was actually from a known population of cougars, rather than some long-lost population of the Eastern cougar that had survived since the 1930s without anyone noticing.

Third, cougars are actually native to North America and this one walked here, an option not available to any cougar wishing to colonize Britain. Finally, despite the fact that we live in a heavily wooded state, with nearly 60% forest cover and abundant deer, this thing still ended up dead on a highway with an empty stomach. So how long do you think it would have lasted in, say, Gloucestershire?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

But We Should Be Glad We Have It At All

Yesterday I was driving into Niantic, CT, behind a large black SUV. It's always interesting when someone's vehicle provides a comprehensive summary of their socio-political beliefs. In this case, we had military (Maine veteran's plates, USMC sticker, "support our troops" sticker, Vietnam Vet sticker), religion ("Keep Christ in Christmas," "Abortion Stills a Beating Heart," "106.7 The Promise FM," "Knights of Columbus"), 2nd Amendment (NRA sticker, "Just Try and Take It" superimposed over the silhouette of an M-16), and the catch all "I Love The USA!" No Discovery Institute sticker, so I guess there's the faint hope that they're opponents of equal time for ID, but I wouldn't put money on it.

People like this tend be big fans of the sort of "exposé" recently published by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK). The Coburn Report pupports to demonstrate how NSF is wasting taxpayer funds on worthless research. Now don't get him wrong. Sen. Coburn is not anti-science; he just wants NSF to fund useful science (my guess is that this encompasses bigger bombs and cures for the various afflications that affect his aging constituency of angry white male voters; lumbago, prostate cancer, and erectile disfunction are biggies, I suspect). NSF does do this, the report grudgingly acknowledges, but it also spends too much money on "indulging the curiosity of scientists."

Setting aside the fact that "the curiosity of scientists" is what has generated all of the useful science that Sen. Coburn claims to be a fan of, the report is an object lesson of some of the challenges faced by agencies like NSF. It is a masterpiece of dissembling. Even assuming that the examples of research cited by the report are "wasteful," they amount to a tiny fraction (<0.01%) of NSF's annual budget. Is everything else "wasteful?" Well, we don't know. What we *do* know is that everything that was funded went through peer review, which is a far more vigorous process of assessment than the review carried out by the wonks in Coburn's office.

That is not to disparage Coburn's staffers because they clearly have considerable talents in the black arts of politics. Note how the report takes NSF's principal strength - the claim that it funds "transformative research" - and turns it into a weapon. OK, the report asks - how much of the research  funded by NSF is genuinely "transformative?" The answer, of course, is not much. By its very nature, transformative research tends to be both rare and difficult to identify in advance. For a funding agency to claim that this is its primary objective is both an ambitious goal and a hostage to fortune, something that Coburn and his staff quickly recognized.

One way to counter arguments like this is to find new ways to talk to the taxpaying public through education and outreach. The risk, of course, in developing rap videos for kids that explain scientific concepts (See Money 4 Drugz) is that it's terriby easy to point to this as a misuse of taxpayer funds for an apparently trivial activity. The fact that the $50,000 quoted by the report didn't actually pay for this video or any others (it was a networking grant looking at novel outreach methods) is by-the-by. It's possible to shoot down pretty much every claim made in the report - see here for a point-by-point rebuttal by one of the researchers cited by Coburn - but it takes time and it's unlikely to be read by the man in the black SUV.

Does this matter? Absolutely. It's likely that in the near future the US House of Representatives will be looking at the fiscal year (FY) 2012 appropriations bill that will fund NSF. Less money for NSF means less money for ADBC, CSBR, and all the other programs that we care about. So if you are a U.S. Citizen (be you Republican, Democrat, or Independent) reading this and you care about any of the things that I've been described in this blog over the past couple of years, follow this link and do something about it.

[OK, that's it with the US-centric stuff. Normal service will be resumed shortly]

.... While the Other Taketh Away?

We're all grateful for ADBC, of course, but what to make of the merging of the Improvements to Biological Research Collections (BRC) and Living Stock Collections for Biological Research (LSCBR) programs into a single, new program, Collections in Support of Biological Research (CSBR). At first sight, it seems like there's nothing too alarming in here. The total funding for the new program is a bit less that the combined total for the two former ones ($6.5M vs $7M) but then cost-cutting is very much the flavor of the hour and it can't really be argued that NSF have robbed Peter to pay Paul by taking funds away from BRC to create ADBC. Or can it?

The solicitation for CSBR makes it absolute clear that, for natural history collections, it "requires that the activities funded through this Program interface with the soon to be announced national Home Uniting Biocollections (HUB) established and supported by the Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections (ADBC) Program." And if that weren't explicit enough - "As a part of the improvements to collections, all specimens handled---if not already digitized--- should be digitized and the data linked to the national resource for digitized biocollections." So the aims of CSBR are very explicitly tied to ADBC.

Is this a bad thing? Yes and no (you can tell I'm Libran, right?). In developing the national strategy for collections digitization, it was always clear that no one program, or agency, would be able to support this process, so maximizing bang for buck by having other, related programs contribute to national digitization objectives is a good thing. On the minus side, BRC was one of the major sources of support for capital upgrades to collections and this role may now be jeopardized.

How so? Well, consider this. There was a ceiling of $500K for single institution BRC grants which has carried over into the new CSBR program. This sounds like a lot of money, but it gets spent surprisingly quickly. With fringe benefits and indirect costs, a single new staff member can eat half of this. While we all hope that new technologies and improvements to collections workflows will make our lives easier, the fact remains that the biggest barrier to large scale collections digitization is the availability of staff. If you spend funds on new staff for the mandated digitization component of your CSBR project, how much money will be left for new cabinets, compact storage systems, etc?

Prioritization is a good thing, and it was important to prioritize digitization as a national objective because of its potential to massively increase the scope and impact of collections as a resource for the support of science. But at the same time, it would be a pity if this were to bring a halt to the great strides that have been made under BRC in improving the physical wellbeing of collections.

One Hand Giveth....

[I apologize to my non-US readers for a flurry of postings that will be of limited interest to them. Rest assured that I will be back to writing about bogus puma sightings in Devon in the very near future]

For the last few months, rather like Britain and France during 1939/40, we've been engaged in a bit of a Phoney War; everyone knows that something big is coming, but nothing has actually happened yet. So it's with a sigh of relief that I can finally report that the first round of grants under NSF's Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections (ADBC) program has been announced. You can read all about them here, but in a nutshell there are now three large-scale collections digitization networks, focusing on invertebrate collections, insect/plant interactions, and North American lichens and bryophytes. Hopefully these will be the first of many.

The whole program will be coordinated by a national center at the University of Floride, known as iDigBio, under the direction of Larry Page. They have some exciting plans, which you can read all about on their new blog. They were also kind enough to include PoH on their blogroll, which would have earnt them a plug even if this weren't a very important program for all the reasons that I've mentioned over the past year or so (click on the "digitization" tag in the tag-cloud on the right if you want to rehash all of this).

One of the most impressive aspects of this first round is the sheer number of collections that are involved in the first round - 92 institutions in 45 states. This breadth of coverage is important, because from an early stage it's been clear that one of the biggest challenges for a national digitization program is going to be engaging and motivating all those collections who don't get any direct funding under ADBC. So community engagement will need to be a big part of the work of iDigBio.

For the sake of full disclosure, I should probably mention that I was part of an unsuccessful proposal under ADBC, so this has all been something of a bittersweet experience - great satisfaction to see the program up and running in such a short period of time, anticipation for what will be achieved, and regret that I'll be watching it happen from a distance rather than participating directly. On the other hand, I do get to spend more time in my garden....