Herbarium funding and universities

Herbarium funding and universities

Brent D. Mishler
Director, University and Jepson Herbaria (UC/JEPS)
University of California, Berkeley

Here's a few thoughts on herbarium funding at universities, on the eve of yet another round of budget cuts in California. As hard as it is sometimes, we need to avoid the paranoid thought that someone is out to get herbaria. Herbaria are not the only university units under pressure -- so are all other research units and academic departments. Just ask the chair of your music department on campus, for example. Campus politics reminds me of a bunch of people treading water in a pool, each constantly trying to push others under while rising themselves. Not a pleasant scene, but we have to participate to keep afloat.

State funding is dropping off across the board, across campus, everywhere in the country. And we all know that NSF funding had to fight to keep level under the current administration, and while it hopefully will increase soon, it will never be enough to fund more than a fraction of exceptional herbarium projects, never basic herbarium operations. Here's a thought we need to accept (certainly not agree with, but accept as realists in order to survive): we'll never again be able to get sufficient support from governmental sources.

This is one of these issues where the maxim "think globally, act locally" applies. Each herbarium (like each academic department facing the same squeeze) has to generate its own justification to survive. University administrators are not particularly biased against herbaria (it gives them way too much credit to assume they know the content and value of all the fields they supervise!) -- they care about three things: (1) publications, (2) money raised, and (3) publicity. Any field is fine in their eyes if it has those three things. So each of us needs to do these things, and be sure our administrators find out about everything we do through aggressive educational efforts (e.g., first thing I do when we get a new administrator at some level in the food chain is get them to come for a tour of the herbaria).

1. Publications (including web products, etc.) are a given, that is what we do as academics -- my one suggestion here would be to be sure there is a broad view of herbarium-based research on your campus. Cultivate your colleagues. Herbaria are not just for systematics or floristics. Involve ecologists, population geneticists, plant biologists, pollination biologists, even comparative genomicists as collaborators, curators, or associated faculty (we have recent successes in all these areas at UC/JEPS, and it really increases visibility and fund-raising options).

2. Fund-raising is going to be increasingly from private foundations and donors, for all state university units (the very concept of a state-supported university is going extinct, unfortunately). In a way, we at state-supported institutions have been spoiled over the years. Free-standing museums and herbaria have always had to scramble much harder for funding. What is happening now across the country is a trend to make us all free-standing -- we must band together more than ever, share ideas, and collaborate. We each need a friends organization, and to get active in development, public outreach, etc. You can build up slowly with small donations and volunteer efforts until your reach a point where you can hire a fund-raiser / outreach coordinator on soft money, then that person can raise more money to pay their own salary plus more...then you're off and running.

3. Publicity comes hard to many academics, but we all need to seek and encourage it. Cultivate a good relationship with your campus news people, and local writers. Invite them for a visit, take them out to lunch, let them know when something cool happens. For example, the recent news about the use of herbarium specimens from the Consortium of California Herbaria to model the fate of more than 2000 California endemic plants with respect to climate change has gone ballistic with the public, with the help of our campus PR folks (Google News reports 90 newspaper articles and TV stories in the last couple of days). This and similar research can be used to demonstrate how incredibly important, timely, and modern herbarium collections are!

Another maxim in closing: "the best defense is a good offense." The only way to ensure we aren't dispensed with is to make ourselves indispensable. Each of us is responsible to try as hard as we can to do this for our own herbarium. Regional and national efforts are important too, but it all starts locally...

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