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New Report Highlights Value of Biological Collections

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From the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

Critical to Scientific Discovery and Innovation, Biological Collections Need Strategy, Action Center, and Increased Investment

News Release | September 10, 2020

WASHINGTON — The sustainability of the nation’s biological collections is under threat, says a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.  Biological collections — living and natural history (non-living) specimens, biological materials, and data in museums, stock centers, research centers, and universities — need long-term financial sustainability, digitization, recruitment and support of a diverse workforce, and infrastructure upgrades in order to continue serving science and society.

Biological Collections: Ensuring Critical Research and Education for the 21st Century says these collections are a critical part of the nation’s science and innovation infrastructure and a fundamental resource for understanding the natural world. Without enhanced investments and strategic leadership, many small collections could be lost, and even large collections will face challenges in keeping their doors open to the scientific community and the public.

“Many biological collections are at a critical juncture,” said James Collins, co-chair of the committee that wrote the report and Virginia M. Ullman Professor of Natural History and the Environment at Arizona State University. “They are a cornerstone of research and education related to past and present life on Earth. Our study found that biological collections need increased investment to serve us in the way we expect, while at the same time expanding their potential for new uses related to science and society.”

Shirley Pomponi, committee co-chair and research professor at Florida Atlantic University Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, added, “Strategic planning, coordination, and knowledge-sharing are critical for the community of collections directors, managers, and curators as they work to meet complex needs of society and the scientific community.” 

Benefitting Science and Society
Biological collections produce a wide range of benefits for the scientific community beyond the specimens they hold, the report says. Collections are important resources for education, both in formal training for the science and technology workforce, and in informal learning through schools, citizen science programs, and adult learning. Biological collections underpin many basic science discoveries and innovations. Research using biological collections, for example, has advanced our understanding of biodiversity loss, global change, human diseases — including Zika and COVID-19 — and has led to important biotechnology laboratory techniques, including CRISPR and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests.

Securing Financial Sustainability
The report says that sustained support will be paramount in keeping collections open, supporting their growth, and ensuring they are available for research. The needed investments in personnel, infrastructure, digitization, and other upgrades go beyond what annual budgets have historically covered. The National Science Foundation (NSF) should continue to provide stable, long-term funding for infrastructure maintenance and upgrades and expand its efforts to coordinate support with other funders. Individual collections should also explore new revenue streams, such as pay-for-use models, licensing systems, or charging for custom datasets, without creating costs that are prohibitive for researchers. Professional societies should collaborate to develop training for management and planning, and collection directors, curators, and managers should work with business strategists and communications experts to develop business models for financial sustainability and infrastructure.

Cultivating a Highly Skilled Workforce
The report says the workforce pipeline for biological collections is fundamentally different from the broader science workforce pipeline, and is poorly understood. Collections, host institutions, professional societies, and funders should collaborate to develop and strengthen the pipeline. The skill sets of collections managers and directors in particular should be broadened to include strategic leadership, fundraising and donor relations, personnel management, informal education, and public communication.

Ensuring Access to Collections
Making specimens and their data digitally accessible is one crucial component of achieving better access to collections. The report says that while the data that could be gathered and examined by digitizing biological collections are beyond current imagination in terms of size, quality, complexity, and value, gaps in support for digitization mean that collections data continue to be underused. The report recommends that the NSF Directorate for Biological Sciences fund the development of a permanent national cyber infrastructure to connect all types of biological collections, partnering with other directorates within NSF and other federal agencies.

National Strategy and Collaboration 
As the nation’s largest supporter of biological collections infrastructure and management, NSF has a particularly pivotal role to play, the report says. NSF should lead efforts to develop a national vision and strategy, such as a Decadal Survey, for the growth of biological collections, their infrastructure, and their ability to serve a range of scientific and educational needs. As part of its expanded support for biological collections, NSF should also help establish a permanent National Action Center for Biological Collections to coordinate action, knowledge, resources, and data-sharing. This action center should help the collections community develop strategic efforts and nurture research, education, workforce training, evaluation, and business model development. The directorate should expand its partnerships more broadly across NSF and other federal agencies to maximize investment in this effort, and help spread the cost of these major endeavors.

The report also says professional societies and associations can help address infrastructure needs by sharing strategic resources and information across the biological collections community and by creating a national registry to document collections in the U.S. and assess their infrastructure needs. Collection leaders should also develop strategic plans outlining their individual infrastructure needs.
The study — undertaken by the Committee on Ensuring Critical Research and Education for the 21st Century — was sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln.

Megan Lowry, Media Officer
Office of News and Public Information
202-334-2138; e-mail news@nas.edu

About the Ornithological Council
The Ornithological Council is a consortium of 10 scientific societies of ornithologists; these societies span the Western Hemisphere and the research conducted by their members spans the globe. Their cumulative expertise comprises the knowledge that is fundamental and essential to science-based bird conservation and management.  The Ornithological Council is financially supported by our 10 member societies and the individual ornithologists who value our work. If the OC’s resources are valuable to you, please consider joining one of our member societies or donating directly at Birdnet.org. Thank you for your support!

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