According to a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), biological collections - living and natural history specimens, biological materials, and data in museums, stock centers, research centers, and universities - are in need of long-term financial sustainability, digitization, recruitment and support of a diverse workforce, and infrastructure upgrades.
The report, Biological Collections: Ensuring Critical Research and Education for the 21st Century, which was sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), argues that biological collections are an “invaluable, and often irreplaceable, component of the nation’s scientific enterprise.” Collections provide a wide range of benefits for the scientific community, including important resources for formal and informal education. Collections research is also responsible for many basic science discoveries and innovations, including advancing our understanding of biodiversity loss, global change, and human diseases.
“Many biological collections are at a critical juncture,” said Dr. James Collins, a past-president of AIBS and co-Chair of the report committee and Virginia M. Ullman Professor of Natural History and the Environment at Arizona State University. “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.”
The committee articulated the following vision for the biological collections community in the next decade: “To provide long-term support for collections-based scientific research, instill a culture of proper stewardship for and access to biological specimens, build and grow biological collections to better represent global biodiversity in space and time, promote access to biological collections as important educational resources for the general public, and encourage the exchange of biological resources and knowledge.”
To achieve this vision, curators, collection managers, directors, and users of biological collections will need to address four interrelated issues: upgrading and maintaining the physical infrastructure and the growth of collections; developing and maintaining of the tools and processes needed to transform digital data into an easily accessible, integrated platform; recruiting, training, and supporting a diverse workforce of the future; and ensuring long-term financial sustainability.
According to the report, “sustained support will be paramount in keeping collections open, supporting their growth, and ensuring they are available for research.” The committee recommended that NSF continue to provide long-term funding for infrastructure maintenance and upgrades. The report suggests that individual collections should explore new revenue streams, such as pay-for-use models, licensing systems, or charging for custom datasets. To secure financial sustainability, the collections community must collaborate with professional societies, business strategists, and communications experts to develop management training programs and strong business models.
The panel called for professional societies and associations to “collaborate and combine efforts aimed at addressing community-level infrastructure needs of the nation’s biological collections,” including creating a national registry to document the location, size, and holdings of the collections in the United States. Opportunities and benefits of greater professional association engagement in collections are also a topic that received attention during the 2019 AIBS Council Meeting, Beyond Specimens (https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biaa084).
The report suggests that the workforce pipeline for biological collections is underdeveloped and calls for cultivating a highly skilled workforce. This requires collections, host institutions, professional societies, and funders to 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.”
To ensure access to collections, specimens and their data need to be digitized. The report calls for the NSF Directorate for Biological Sciences, in partnership with other directorates and federal agencies, to fund the digitization of biological collections and the development of a “permanent national cyber infrastructure” to connect all types of biological collections.
According to Dr. Shirley Pomponi, co-Chair of the panel and research professor at Florida Atlantic University Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, “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.”
NSF, the largest supporter of biological collections in the country, has a critical role to play. According to the report, “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.” NSF should also help establish a permanent National Action Center for Biological Collections, the report states, to coordinate action, knowledge, resources, and data-sharing.