Federal agencies have taken steps to improve the management and accessibility of scientific collections
This article is a reprint of an original article posted on the White House blog, 9 December 2016. The original post can be found here.
Scientific collections—collections of physical specimens such as animal and plant specimens and their tissue and DNA, microbes, geological minerals and moonrocks, even air and water samples—are a vital part of the infrastructure for science in the United States and globally. They also play important roles in supporting public health and safety, agriculture, homeland security, trade and economic development, medical research, and environmental monitoring. Federal departments and agencies own and maintain hundreds of diverse scientific collections, many of which are being used for applications beyond their original use. Many of these collections grow at regular, predictable rates, and all require ongoing maintenance to preserve their value and utility.
To improve access to information about these collections and expand opportunities for their use, Federal agencies participating in the Interagency Working Group on Scientific Collections (IWGSC) are cataloging their scientific collections in a newly established Registry of U.S. Federal Scientific Collections (USFSC) managed by the Smithsonian Institution.
The registry provides unprecedented access to information about the scientific collections that are owned and operated by Federal departments and agencies. It currently contains information about more than 125 scientific collections managed by more than 475 Federal institutions, and agencies will continue to add collections to the registry over the coming months. Among the collections already listed are:
- The National Pollinating Insects Collection, which contains georeferenced specimen data from 1.2 million insects. It was essential for identifying which bumble bee species have experienced precipitous declines and for monitoring species abundance.
- The National Animal Germplasm Program collection, which consists of 885,000 germplasm samples from 44,400 animals: livestock, poultry, aquatic species and insects. It provides a secure backup of genetic resources in the event of catastrophic events. It is a source of genetic variability readily available to reintroduce genetic variation into specific populations and to provide researchers with genomic material for a wide array of experimentation.
- USDA’s Soil Sample Archive contains over 212,000 soil samples with associated analytical data and site metadata. It is playing an essential role in developing mid-infrared spectrometry techniques that farmers can use for rapidly identifying the soil properties that guide decisions about irrigation and fertilizer application. It is also used as to develop a method for identifying hydric soils that do not develop the color patterns typically used to identify wetland soils.
- The thousands of samples of natural wood and wood from archaeological and other sites on National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife lands are housed for the Department of the Interior bureaus at the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona. Research on these archaeological and biological specimens focus on environmental change and long-term human interaction with their environment.
- Archaeological collections at the Bureau of Land Management Anasazi Heritage Center in Colorado have been subjected to chemical isotope analysis to understand how people’s access to food changed over time as human populations grew—work that has implications for managing resources today.
- The U.S. National Herbarium in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History is used primarily for research on taxonomy, systematic biology and ecology. It is also proving useful for other research needs: lichens collected more than a century ago have proved to be a unique source of historical information on airborne pollutants, including lead.
- The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the Department of Health and Human Services has a repository of close to 1 million samples from the civilian non-institutionalized population dating back to 1988. More than 100 studies have been conducted to-date using these samples.
- The Department of Veterans Affairs Biorepository Brain Bank contains post-mortem brain specimens from veterans with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). It is one of the largest resources of ALS brain/central nervous system in the world and has been used for numerous projects to help bring an end to this terrible disease.
- The National Institute of Standards and Technology’s 30 year collection of specimens from marine animals contains samples from marine mammals, seabirds, sea turtles, coral and coral ecosystems. It has been used to determine geographical and temporal trends of contaminant concentrations in marine species throughout the coastal U.S. The collection provides baseline levels of environmental compounds and trace elements for quality assurance purposes, and contributes to establishing nation-wide baseline levels of contaminants for animal health evaluations.
In addition to making these collections easier to find, Federal departments and agencies have also taken steps to improve the management of these and other Federal scientific collections, to help ensure they will remain viable and expand as needed to support future research and agency missions. Following guidelines developed by the IWGSC, more than a dozen Federal departments and agencies have developed policies specifying approaches for managing their institutional collections, meaning the sets of objects collected and preserved for research, analysis and other aspects of their organizational missions. Several more agency policies are being finalized. Completed policies are posted on the IWGSC clearinghouse.
The launch of the Registry and the development of agency policies for scientific collections represent significant steps in improving the management and utility of Federal scientific collections. These accomplishments are responsive to directives from both Congress and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Based on recommendations included in the IWGSC’s landmark report, Scientific Collections: Mission-Critical Infrastructure for Federal Science Agencies, these directives called for agencies to develop policies for the management, budgeting, and use of Federal scientific collections and establish an online clearinghouse for information on the contents of and access to Federal scientific collections.
In coming months, agencies will add more collections to the Registry, and more agencies will complete their collections policies. The IWGSC also plans to find ways to strengthen the contributions of Federal scientific collections to priority areas of national interest, such as emerging infectious diseases, food security, soil health, microbiome research, and open science. It will seek opportunities for greater coordination internationally among institutions that maintain scientific collections. These are among the tasks the IWGSC will continue to pursue as it continues its efforts to maximize the returns from the Federal investment in important scientific collections.
Jerry Sheehan is Assistant Director for Scientific Data and Information at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
David Schindel is Chair of the Board of Scientific Collections International and Executive Secretary of the Consortium for the Barcode of Life, both based at the Smithsonian Institution.
Scott Miller is Deputy Under Secretary for Collections and Interdisciplinary Support at the Smithsonian Institution and co-chair of the Interagency Working Group on Scientific Collections.
Ann Bartuska is Deputy Under Secretary for USDA's Research, Education, and Economics mission area and co-chair of the Interagency Working Group on Scientific Collections.