The Smithsonian Institution has an insect problem. Not the kind that requires an exterminator, though—this one involves lawyers.
The Smithsonian wants a federal judge to alter the terms of an endowment left by Carl Drake, a professor of entomology and zoology who became a researcher at the Smithsonian in the late 1950s. The institution filed a petition in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Dec. 30.
When Drake died in 1965, he left a collection of an order of insects known as hemiptera-heteroptera to the Smithsonian, as well as an endowment designated primarily for buying more bugs.
But according to the Smithsonian, the endowment's growth over the next forty years outpaced the number of insect collections available for purchase. The institution said it used the endowment to fund fieldwork to collect insects, but that work had declined since 2005 due to mounting regulatory and permitting challenges.
The endowment's current market value is around $4 million, according to court filings. The Smithsonian, represented by the U.S. Department of Justice, wants to alter the terms of Drake's will to use the money to support insect-related research, pay for the collection's maintenance, and benefit the rest of the institution's collection of hemiptera-heteroptera insects.
The institution also wants to merge Drake's collection with the rest of the hempitera-heteroptera collection at the National Museum of Natural History, which houses the Department of Entomology, and make his collection available for scholarly loans.
Requiring the Smithsonian to adhere to Drake's original will would be "impracticable, impossible and/or wasteful," Jennie Kneedler, a DOJ lawyer, wrote in the Smithsonian's petition. The proposed changes would be consistent with Drake's intentions in bequeathing the collection, they said.
A spokeswoman for the Smithsonian did not immediately return a request for comment.
Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor of philanthropic studies at Indiana University, said the Smithsonian's predicament is one routinely faced by universities and museums.
"It sounds to me that the Smithsonian may have a case to make that it's bought all the bugs it can buy and the proposed uses are close to the original intent and would be more feasible," he said. Still, he warned that courts tend to take a cautious approach in such cases.
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is assigned to the case. No hearings have been scheduled.