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.