An estimated 1.8 million named species of organisms exist on Earth today and many more are now extinct. This rich diversity is documented through research collections of fossil and extant organisms housed in natural history museums, universities, field facilities, botanical gardens, state surveys, and other institutions maintaining collection facilities. These vouchered collections provide validation for species names and identifications along with a wealth of ancillary data such as DNA sequences, field notes, stratigraphic position, environment/habitat information, time of collection, audio recordings, and the condition of the specimen at the time of collection. Paleontological collections provide time of existence, evolutionary history, proxy data, and past distribution information in space and time.
Collections data reveal gaps in our knowledge of biodiversity and provide the baseline from which to continue biodiversity studies. Filling these gaps is crucial to a complete understanding of the biodiversity of the planet, both in space and time. Specimens and their associated data allow us to reconstruct the history of climate and tectonic plate changes as reflected in a validated record of life on earth. Having this baseline information allows efficiency of effort in biodiversity exploration. Gaps in specimen collections and associated natural history data can be used to strategically target further research and field exploration. The effort to digitize, image, and provide online accessibility to these data is critical for understanding biological knowledge in space and time, and underpins how we address contemporary scientific and societal issues, including planetary biogeography and climate change.
Knowledge of the planet's biodiversity documented in vouchered scientific collections represents an area of exploration and discovery carried out over the entire course of scientific history, yet the extent of life on earth is still not known definitively. New efforts and approaches to understanding biodiversity and advancing our knowledge are represented by several NSF programs (e.g., Dimensions of Biodiversity, Systematics and Biodiversity Science, Sedimentary Geology and Paleobiology). However, there is a digitization bottleneck that effectively limits access to information residing in the various existing vouchered collections across the U.S. and the world. It is estimated that U.S. collections contain one billion specimens, but only 10% of these are accessible online. As a consequence, the critical information in the physical collections is underutilized, the usefulness of scientific collections data in research remains limited, and the importance of the collections is not appreciated.
The Interagency Working Group on Scientific Collections developed a comprehensive report on the current status of federally owned collections (http://nscalliance.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/iwgsc-report.pdf), and NSF, as part of that working group, surveyed federally supported collections (https://www.nsf.gov/bio/pubs/reports/prelim_findings_sc_2008.pdf) and a summary of the findings at (https://www.nsf.gov/publications/pub_summ.jsp?ods_key=nsf09044). Both reports emphasized the importance of leveraging past investments by digitizing collections and making them available and searchable online to researchers worldwide.
Responding to concerns expressed in these reports, members of the biological and paleontological collections community developed a ten-year strategic plan to digitize, image and mobilize biodiversity collections data (http://digbiocol.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/niba_brochure.pdf) and followed this strategy with an implementation plan for accomplishing the goal that depends upon a number of stakeholder activities (http://www.aibs.org/public-policy/biocollections.html). The goal of the digitization effort is "to produce a resource of lasting value for answering major research questions." The plan stated the following key objectives: "digitize data from all U.S. biological collections, large and small, and integrate these in a web accessible interface using shared standards and formats, develop new web interfaces, visualization and analysis tools, data mining, georeferencing processes and make all available for using and improving the collections resource, create real-time upgrades of biological data and prevent the future occurrence of non-accessible collection data through the use of tools, training, and infrastructure." The ADBC Prgram solicitation represents a response to the community's call for action and provides seed funds to begin the process; it is not designed to address all the items within the strategic and implementation plans.