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One herbarium’s thorny future: Duke to close century-old 'gem' of biodiversity research

A photo features a woman standing in front of a cabinet filled with stuffed folders, orange and blue in color.  The woman, director Kathleen Pryer, holds a paper with a leafy looking specimen on it, called the Gaga monstraparva
Chris Hildreth
Duke University
Duke Herbarium director Kathleen Pryer holds a specimen called the Gaga monstraparva. The Duke Herbarium contains over 800,000 specimens that can aid biodiversity research.

Duke University is closing its herbarium, a move that’s drawn criticism from faculty and researchers nationwide. Established more than a century ago, the Duke Herbarium is one of the largest herbaria in the country, containing more than 800,000 specimens of fungi, plants and algae.

A close-up image of the pink lady's slipper, a pink flower of similar shape to a snapdragon
Ryan Hagerty
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Using data from Duke and other herbaria, a high school student found that the pink lady's slipper flowers 17 days earlier than it used to, which herbarium director Kathleen Pryer said can be attributed to climate change.

Scientists across the country use Duke's herbarium to conduct, for example, climate change research.

Duke Herbarium director Kathleen Pryer has a high school student who's using herbarium data to research the pink lady’s slipper.

“It's a very distinctive, cute plant that everybody who's gone for a hike has probably seen in May,” Pryer said. “The pink lady's slipper in North Carolina flowers 17 days earlier than it did 150 years ago, and that can be attributed to climate change.”

The project is just one of the many ways scientists across the country can use the contents of Duke's herbarium. Pryer said more than 200 institutions across the world currently have Duke Herbarium samples on loan.

However, Pryer said she was told in February that Duke would be closing its more than 100-year-old herbarium. That’s largely due to funding, according to Duke officials, who said it would cost about $25 million to maintain the herbarium.

A media relations email statement attributed to Susan Alberts, Duke’s dean of natural sciences, said the closure was a “difficult decision.”

Pryer said faculty were given up to three years to relocate the contents to new homes, which she described as “an impossible task.”

“Nobody has room for the entire collection,” Pryer said. “Even if somebody did, it would take them at least 10 years to build a facility that could accommodate it, to raise the money, to write the grants. That's sort of the message the administration repeats over and over, that ‘we want it to be protected and moved somewhere.’ It's protected now. It's fine now.”

Our ability to continue responsibly hosting such a valuable collection at Duke would require the investment of significant, long-term resources to support both substantial facilities renovations and expert personnel at the expense of other urgent priorities. — Susan Alberts, dean of natural sciences

A matter of money. And priorities.

“Change is hard. That's really the bottom line,” said professor Mohamed Noor, a former dean of natural sciences at Duke.

According to Noor, these funding decisions typically come down to the department and college leadership. The current dean of natural sciences, Susan Alberts, was unavailable for an interview at the time of reporting.

The $25 million figure in projected costs comes from a few places. Noor said the two buildings that house herbarium specimens will need renovations in the coming decades. And, he said herbarium faculty will need to be endowed in the future.

Duke faculty member, Kathleen Pryer, photographed in the Herbarium in the basement of the Phytotron on October 6, 2023. She walks through a long hallway with white fluorescent lights and a greenish floor. Books cover one wall, and what looks like cabinets line the opposite wall.
Chris Hildreth
Duke University
The basement of Duke's Phytotron contains nearly half a million of the herbarium's specimens. Duke officials said the cost to maintain the herbarium accounts for facility renovations and faculty endowments.

“Maintaining a herbarium of this size and value would absolutely require that we hire faculty specifically to study its collections, consistently and without any lapses,” Noor said, which he added limits departmental flexibility. “The department could not maintain the facility without losing the freedom to hire other faculty based on new areas of scientific discovery.”

Funding the herbarium positions through an endowment would free up other funding, Noor said, allowing the department to hire faculty in those other desirable areas.

Apart from funding, Noor said the closure is really a matter of priorities.

“We do prioritize natural history,” Noor said. “But deciding what specific sub-areas of natural history that Duke biology will follow up on in the next 100 years can't be locked into what it has been doing in the past 100 years.”

Director Kathleen Pryer disputes that $25 million price tag, as she said herbarium faculty have never been endowed before. As for one of the herbarium's buildings, with almost half a million specimens — “Most institutions would die to have a herbarium that well set up,” Pryer said.

Relocating Duke’s ‘gem’

Relocating the herbarium’s collection may ultimately mean dividing it up, which Pryer said risks specimens being lost. That could be a problem, Pryer said, considering the grants Duke has received from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“As infrastructure, we're concerned with how long any improvements that we're funding are going to last,” said Reed Beaman, a NSF program director. Its current funding program is called "Capacity: Biological Collections."

“Anyone writing a proposal to the Capacity program is expected to address issues of how the collection will be sustained over time and made available to the community over time,” Beaman added.

Beaman said relocating the contents of Duke's herbarium doesn't violate that sustainability criteria or disqualify Duke from receiving future awards. But Duke does still need to make sure the collection is accessible.

Given the size of Duke's collection, Beaman said relocation is going to be a challenge — one where Duke needs to ensure herbarium contents are properly protected and not lost as a resource.

Former dean Mohamed Noor emphasized that access is a key consideration with all of this.

“Duke isn’t destroying the herbarium,” Noor said. “Duke is not limiting the scientists’ access to the herbarium. We're just moving the collections to other facilities that are more prepared to preserve them for posterity.”

But director Kathleen Pryer said moving the herbarium's collection is ultimately risking Duke's legacy.

“I love Duke,” Pryer said. “What it's doing is a terrible mistake. And it needs to realize that this is a gem that has to stay here. Otherwise, its value will be destroyed.”

Pryer said she's going to continue fighting to keep the herbarium open, stating that its future shouldn’t rest in the biology department, but rather as an entity that reports directly to the provost. Such an entity could fundraise and would no longer compete with departmental interests, according to Pryer.

Meanwhile, an online petition urging Duke to reconsider the closure has garnered over 18,000 signatures.

Sophie Mallinson is a daily news intern with WUNC for summer 2023. She is a recent graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill, where she studied journalism. Sophie is from Greenville, N.C., but she enjoys the new experiences of the Triangle area. During her time as a Tar Heel, Sophie was a reporter and producer for Carolina Connection, UNC-Chapel Hill’s radio program. She currently is heavily involved in science education at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.