The link (below) will open a PDF version of a draft document entitled: “Establishing a National Digital Biological Collections Resource: A Strategic Plan”
I think the writing team has done an excellent job of taking the feedback and discussions from the blog and workshops and drafted an excellent strategic plan for collections digitization.
My comments are mainly grammatical/wording: Objective 2 (p6) doesn’t read quite right to me. How about: Develop new web interfaces, visualization and analysis tools, data mining tools, and georeferencing processes and make all available for using and improving the collections resource. (added words after data mining)
P8 2nd paragraph, first sentence is a bit of a run-on; and in last sentence how about “recommendations for the initiative” instead of “requirements for the initiative”
p11, 4th para, “Insuring the long term success…” should be “Ensuring the …” (I think).
p. 12 DOA para, there is an “and” missing before “control damaging vertebrates…”
p. 12 Commerce para, here you are sometimes just using “collections” where elsewhere you were using things like “the nation’s biological collections”. In my first read I wasn’t sure if collections meant NOAA’s collections or the nation’s collections.
May 25, 2010
Dr. Robert Guralnick
Digitization of Biological Collections
Dear Writing Committee Members:
The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) appreciates the opportunity to comment on the proposed Final Draft Strategic Plan for Establishing a National Digital Biological Collections Resource. AIBS strongly endorses the Final Draft Strategic Plan and looks forward to working with the Working Group, National Science Foundation, and other agencies and stakeholders to finalize and implement this important initiative.
It is important that all Federal agencies participate in this effort. We encourage the Working Group to solicit the support and involvement of various Federal agencies. Many departments maintain their own collections; however, most also rely upon non-Federal collections or have formal or informal curatorial arrangements with non-Federal collections. A coordinated national effort is required and all agencies should contribute resources.
As outlined in the proposed plan, this effort will drive innovation and increase access to important scientific specimens and data. For these reasons, in April 2010 AIBS urged the President to include digitization of science collections among his Grand Challenges for the 21st Century. AIBS wrote: “The United States should strive to discover and document all living species within its borders and to work with international partners to do the same throughout the world. A key aspect of these efforts will be the digitization of object-based scientific collections, which will provide researchers and students with greater access to specimens and data. Additionally, if we were to digitally capture the specimens and associated data currently in our nation’s scientific collections, this knowledge could be made available to students learning in the digital libraries envisioned by the President.”
AIBS is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) scientific association headquartered in Washington, DC, and dedicated to advancing biological research and education for the welfare of society. Founded in 1947 as a part of the National Academy of Sciences, AIBS became an independent, member-governed organization in the 1950s. AIBS is sustained by a robust membership of individual biologists and nearly 200 professional societies and scientific organizations; the combined individual membership of the latter exceeds 250,000. AIBS advances its mission through coalition activities in research, education, and public policy; publishing the peer-reviewed journal BioScience and the education website ActionBioscience.org; providing scientific peer review and advisory services to government agencies and other clients; convening meetings; and managing scientific programs.
Once again, AIBS commends the Working Group and encourages the National Science Foundation and other agencies to include this important initiative in the fiscal year (FY) 2012 Federal budget. If we may provide any further information or assistance on this or related matters, please contact AIBS Director of Public Policy Dr. Robert Gropp at 202-628-1500 x 250.
American Institute of Biological Sciences
Dr. Robert Guralnick
Writing Committee, Digitization of Biological Collections
Via email: Robert.Guralnick@colorado.edu
Re: Comments on the Final Draft Strategic Plan for Establishing a National Digital Biological Collections Resource
Dear Dr. Guralnick and Members of the Writing Committee:
The Natural Science Collections Alliance (NSC Alliance) commends the Writing Committee for its dedication and commitment to the development of a Strategic Plan for the Establishment of a National Digital Biological Collections Resource. The NSC Alliance appreciates the opportunity to comment on the Final Draft Strategic Plan. We strongly endorses the proposed initiative and look forward to working with the Writing Committee, Federal agencies, non-governmental organizations, and the scientific community to develop and implement the National Digital Biological Collections Resource.
The Natural Science Collections Alliance (NSC Alliance, http://www.nscalliance.org) is a Washington, DC-based nonprofit association that supports natural science collections, their human resources, the institutions that house them, and their research activities for the benefit of science and society. The roughly 100 member institutions of the NSC Alliance are part of an international community of museums, botanical gardens, herbariums, universities and other institutions that house natural science collections and utilize them in research, exhibitions, academic and informal science education, and outreach activities.
Evidence of the need to digitize the nation’s biological collections was provided in May 2010 when a fire swept through Brazil’s Butantan Institute. As media reports have chronicled, the fire destroyed one of the world’s largest collections of snakes, spiders, and scorpions. As at least one news report noted, the collection in Sao Paulo contained roughly 500,000 specimens collected over 100 years. The specimens were preserved for research into the creation of serums and vaccines. However, given threats to biological diversity in many areas of South America, it is likely that the fire not only destroyed specimens essential for medical research, but also specimens that demonstrate and explain biological diversity that is no longer found in nature.
Biological collections in the United States are also in jeopardy. A fire, flood, earthquake, or other disastrous event could easily destroy irreplaceable biological collections held in facilities across the nation. Data from the 2005 Heritage Health Index report illustrates how ill-prepared many collections are to protect specimens from catastrophic events. Although not a substitute for the original collections, digitized resources do provide a record of an institution’s holdings and data. Thus, if physical specimens are lost, a record would remain and some research would still be possible.
As discussed in the Strategic Plan, a National Digital Biological Resource would contribute to technological innovations. This effort would also build a national platform that would provide scientists, students, and decision-makers (public and private) with access to specimens and data that will advance science, improve education, and provide for informed policy development. Thus, the NSC Alliance recommends that any national plan to digitize collections have the appropriate support and participation, both financial and technical, of all Federal agencies that maintain collections or have collections housed at non-Federal facilities.
Again, the NSC Alliance enthusiastically supports the Draft Strategic Plan for Establishing a National Digital Biological Collections Resource. The NSC Alliance looks forward to working with all stakeholders to implement the proposed plan.
William Brown, Ph.D.
A note to readers that the final version of the report has been posted and is available from:
June 10, 2010
Dear Rob and Barbara:
This is a response to “Establishing a National Digital Biological Collections Resource: A Strategic Plan. We apologize for its tardiness but we have both had other major obligations.
We are concerned that the single most important element of a national natural history museum digitization effort, the curator, is barely mentioned in the document. At a time when we estimate 30% of plants are undescribed, when estimates of species biodiversity range from 3 million to 15 million, lack of knowledge severely limits the value of most current inventory efforts. At the same time, the number of taxonomists that can recognize and formally name species is dwindling as universities and colleges are not replacing retiring taxonomists with people having these abilities. Any broad scale plan to document our museum holdings in digital form must address the curatorial issues of naming new taxa, correctly identifying current holdings, and educating a new generation of students to carry on this effort.
As the field of systematics has turned toward phylogenetics and clade discovery, we foresee a time in the near future where we will simply lack the expertise to make intelligent use of, let alone contribute, high quality data from our current museum holdings. The pattern we see across the nation is loss of organismal classes, university collections being given away to other institutions and not available for students and researchers, and a general reduction in the number of people who can address issues in field and organismal biology that require knowledge of the organisms involved rather than (or in addition to) their clade membership or ecological attributes. We must develop the “human infrastructure” of our cyberinfrastructure if the next generation of scientists is to be able to make appropriate use of the information in our collections. In order to address this situation, the “strategic plan” should put the taxonomic/curatorial scientist at the center of the effort, to facilitate their work and to help them train the next generation of curators/taxonomists. Without a primary focus on people, we fear that this digitization effort will not generate the high quality information necessary to understand the Earth’s biodiversity.
We are also concerned about other aspects of the document. We strongly support the grand vision of this strategic plan but there must be a reasonable understanding of the steps that are needed to achieve it and how much they will cost. If funding is obtained that will only support administrative costs, software development and robotics, then this project will lead to greater skepticism as to the value of collections and the ability of systematists to operate in a real world as well as frustration and bitterness among those involved in collections. Similarly, setting a time frame before there is a clear understanding of what will be required to convert the vision to reality is unwise and counter-productive.
What most of those involved with herbaria have learned is that:
1. Most of those in charge of collections are interested in making their collections available, but need support for doing so – both psychological and financial.
2. Detailed “how to” information needs to be available on the web and demonstrated in person. Many people associated with herbaria are excited about 21st century curatorial approaches and want to take part in the process; they do not want it done for them. Why do they want to be doers? Because they want to be engaged – not treated as incidental personnel that need to be placated. Given that small institutions generate a disproportionate number of our graduate students (unless the situation has changed in the last 20 years), we should rejoice in this interest.
3. Reliance on development of super software is ill-advised and counter-productive. At a herbarium workshop in 1984, curators were told that they should wait until knowledgeable people developed an appropriate database system rather than attempting to develop their own database. Fortunately many ignored the advice. The pattern we currently see in the natural history community is the rapid development of many time saving programs that will assist in generating high quality databases with compatible information for data mining, etc. Establishment of the DarwinCore+ fields has contributed significantly to standardization and the importance of authority files is now well recognized. The multiplicity of database systems is a bit of a problem, and some are better than others – but there would not be as many US herbarium records in GBIF as there are if all curators had waited for the approved system. Collaboration, including among software developers, is always good; an “all eggs in one basket” approach to software development is not.
4. Software development is no longer the major bottleneck to digitization. This is not to say that no improvements can be made, but acquiring imaging equipment, funding to support student assistance, and appropriate server access are probably bigger problems for most herbaria. Once imaging is started and communities formed, it will be relatively easy to disseminate and deploy new approaches. In the meantime, considerable progress will have been made.
Comments on other aspects
1. Development of robots. For what? One really must be able to identify a task that will need to be conducted at a sufficient number of institutions to justify the development costs. Libraries have robots for fetching books – but books are more uniform and require less careful handing than biological collections. Even so, handling of rare books, we suspect, always involves humans. Stores have robots in their warehouses, but items in warehouses are carefully packaged so that they can withstand such handling. Until areas in which robots would be both useful and welcome for the digitizing of natural history collections have been identified, it is is premature to say that money needs to be devoted to their development. Industry is not always a good example to follow because industry can charge to cover development costs. Moreover, successful industries do not invest in developing robots until they know what the robot will be doing.
2. Community support. A quick count of the number of institutions in Vertnet suggests that less than 1000 are involved. For the sake of argument, let us say that there are 1000 herbaria, some of which belong to federal agencies and let’s say they all support the initiative. Together Vertnet and herbaria account for, at most, 20% of the 10,000 biological collections estimated to exist. That is not a very high percentage, given the size of the task and its cost. We believe the first task must be to form networks beyond the easy groups, have people in these networks determine what information and imaging will be useful and feasible to provide via mass production – and for which it would be pointless. From what the earthworm chap said, it would be pointless to image his organisms – what he needs (and may have) is the ability to place informative and diagnostic images on the web for the specimens he dissects. On the other hand, other people working on Haplotaxids might say an external image would be valuable. Until the majority of worm people agree, one cannot say there is community support for digitizing worm collections.
• Develop networks for all groups, taxonomic and/or regional. Membership in multiple groups should be expected. Groups should provide the personal interaction that will benefit the project. Groups should determine what is reasonably feasible.
• Minimize administrative overhead. At this stage, a full time paid executive director seems excessive.
• Focus on finding out how many natural history collections there are, where they are, how many organisms they contain, and how their curators think they should be digitized. Different groups count differently. This will have to be reflected in the data requested. Until this information is available, it is impossible to provide a realistic assessment of what the grand vision will require. Do not ask for a lot of detail. There have been too many surveys asking for too much detail that are prefaced with “your response is very important to us and to collections”.
• Develop instructional modules that make use of existing data – and in the process, highlight the need for more data. This will help engender support for the grand vision in addition to educating more students (and faculty) as to how the information in collections can be used.
• Be clear as to whether the vision applies just to research collections or all collections. If research, how will it be determined that a collection should be considered a research collection?
There is a limit to the public funding available to support natural history collections. Although it is understandable to want to make the project as “modern” as possible with high tech robotics and specialized software, care must be taken to seek funding that will produce useful products in a timely fashion. Digitization of collections is fundamentally a “bricks and mortar” issue. It is not flashy, but the biological community desperately needs these data in order to examine life at a global scale. It is critical that the human element be at the center of this effort. Although we agree with the fact that natural history collections are a national treasure, they mean very little without the expertise to study and evaluate the specimens themselves.
We strongly encourage a rethinking of the central focus of this effort. We believe there is a need to inventory collections, examine the impediments to digitization within different kinds of collections, and seek to address these impediments in a cost efficient fashion. Getting funding and logistical support to the curators is the best way to make the vision a reality.
Mary Barkworth and Zack Murrell
Co-chairs, US Virtual Herbarium Project
Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:
You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. ( Log Out / Change )
You are commenting using your Twitter account. ( Log Out / Change )
You are commenting using your Facebook account. ( Log Out / Change )
You are commenting using your Google+ account. ( Log Out / Change )
Connecting to %s
Notify me of new comments via email.