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Nation's Scientific Assets Poorly Maintained, Study Finds

Behind the Natural History Museum exhibit halls, theaters and food court are large storage rooms full of rare animals, birds and plants collected and archived by government scientists since the 19th century.

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By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 13, 2009; 7:24 PM

Behind the Natural History Museum's exhibit halls, theaters and food court are large storage rooms full of rare animals, birds and plants collected and archived by government scientists since the 19th century but often overlooked and poorly maintained, according to scientists.

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The Bush Administration had requested a formal accounting of nearly 300 collections at 14 federal agencies, including the Natural History Museum's collections, rare seeds stockpiled by the Agriculture Department and moon rocks obtained by NASA. The report was released last week.

The survey underscores the vast size and scope of the nation's scientific assets, but notes the shrinking pool of qualified support staff to maintain and manage them. Scientists on a tour today of the Natural Hisory Museum lamented the declining number of qualified taxidermists able to work with the Smithsonian's large collection.

The museum is bursting at its seams with hundreds of thousands of rare mammals, birds and plants housed in the 100-year old downtown facility and at its five other buildings in Suitland, Md.

"We are definitely constrained by funding," said Robert Reynolds, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, who guided a group of scientists, policymakers and journalists through the storage rooms, past squirrels, marsupials, Central American fruit bats, brown tree snakes from Guam and a gorilla skull donated by Theodore Roosevelt.

Despite the funding constraints, "You literally cannot do a study of the mammals of South Carolina or birds of Virginia without coming to us," Reynolds said.

Several agencies also lack specific funding for the care or management of their collections, according to the report. Many have also improperly documented their holdings, with less than 7 percent of collections fully digitized. The report concludes that the government needs to push harder to get the information online and should develop a collections clearinghouse.

The study is considered a big step towards reminding lawmakers and the general public about the practical health and safety benefits of the government's collections. The practical use of the collections was evident earlier this year when the National Transportation Safety Board and government bird experts used the Smithsonian's rare bird collection to determine the origins of the geese that struck the U.S. Airways flight that landed in the Hudson River.

"We really need to think of this as a gigantic, multifaceted database which scientists all over our country and all over the world are using to improve practical understandings of how our world works," said John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which helped write the report.

View the report online:


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