Budget Cuts Force Biodiversity Program to Close

January 12, 2012

Budget cuts have forced a key biodiversity database to close, leaving scientists and researchers without a unified tool to access biological data from across state and federal agencies.

The U.S. Geological Survey's National Biological Information Infrastructure program and its popular Web site will shut down on Jan. 15 due to the elimination of the program's 2012 federal budget. The program's closure follows a series of drastic cuts that reduced its budget to zero in 2012 from $7 million in 2010.

Created in 1994 within what was then the National Biological Service of the Department of the Interior, the program gives researchers a direct link to biodiversity information that would otherwise be spread across a range of government agencies. With a few clicks, researchers can access a variety of environmental data, from taxonomic information about plants and animals to news covering the spread of wildlife diseases. Experts said the futures of some databases supported by the program are now uncertain, even as efforts are under way to archive the material.

Researchers "could do one-stop shopping with NBII", according to Henry L. Bart Jr., a professor of ecology, evolution, and organismal biology at Tulane University who directs a biodiversity research institute there. But after the program closes Sunday, he said, "they'll have to use a new resource." Mr. Bart said he expects the closure to have a significant effect on researchers who rely on the site to browse data sets outside their areas of expertise.

Maria A. Jankowska, chair of the American Library Association's task force on the environment, said she was "shocked" to learn of the impending closure. By the time she received the news in late December, she said, it was too late to protest: Her associations's midwinter meeting, at which she could have proposed a resolution on behalf of the closing program, meets five days after it is scheduled to shut down.

Frederick W. Stoss, an associate librarian at the University at Buffalo, said the resource is part of a "soft underbelly" of government programs that is easy for outsiders to criticize, but actually provides vital information on some of the most pressing environmental problems. Mr. Stoss said some institutions are trying to work together to preserve the material, but they are unlikely to match the convenience and breadth of the program's resources. Researchers looking for biodiversity data in the future will likely have to hunt down individual sources instead of visiting a single access point.

"Someone has to go back and essentially reinvent the wheel because somebody has hidden the wheel," Mr. Stoss said.

Before the closure, the Geological Survey is working with its partner organizations to ensure that some of the data sets available through the program will be maintained, though long-term access remains uncertain, according to Michael McDermott, the agency's deputy director of core science, analytics, and synthesis. But Mr. Stoss said even if the agency's partners are able to sustain the data over the long term, the information will still be more difficult for scholars to locate.

"It just makes the search for the information and data that much more time-consuming, if it can be done at all," he said.