BCoN Report: Extending U.S. Biodiversity Collections to Promote Research and Education

I. Executive Summary

Our national heritage of approximately one billion biodiversity specimens, once digitized, can be linked to emerging digital data sources to form an information-rich network for exploring earth’s biota across taxonomic, temporal and spatial scales.  A workshop held 30 October -1 November 2018 at Oak Spring Garden in Upperville, VA under the leadership of the Biodiversity Collections Network (BCoN) developed a strategy for the next decade to maximize the value of our collections resource for research and education. In their deliberations, participants drew heavily on recent literature as well as surveys, and meetings and workshops held over the past year with the primary stakeholder community of collections professionals, researchers, and educators.

Arising from these deliberations is a vision to focus future biodiversity infrastructure and digital resources on building a network of extended specimen data. that encompasses the depth and breadth of biodiversity specimens and data held in U.S. collections institutions. The extended specimen network (ESN) includes the physical voucher specimen curated and housed in a collection and its associated genetic, phenotypic and environmental data (both physical and digital).  These core data types, selected because they are key to answering driving research questions, include physical preparations such as tissue samples and their derivative products such as gene sequences or metagenomes, digitized media and annotations, and taxon-or locality-specific data such as occurrence observations, phylogenies and species distributions. Existing voucher specimens will be extended both manually and through new automated methods, and data will be linked through unique identifiers, taxon name and location across collections, across disciplines and to outside sources of data.As we continue our documentation of earth’s biota, new collections will be enhanced from the outset, i.e., accessioned with a full suite of data.  We envision the ESN proposed here will be the gold standard for the structured cloud of integrated data associated with all vouchered specimens.  These permanent specimen vouchers, in which genotypes and phenotypes link to a particular environment in time and space, comprise an irreplaceable resource for the millennia.

Collectively, data linked through the ESN will enhance the capacity to explore research questions across taxonomic, temporal and spatial scales. The ESN will allow researchers to explore the rules that govern how organisms, grow, diversify and interact, and enable scientists to ask more nuanced research questions specific to how environmental change and human activities may affect those rules.  The engaging vouchered specimen, coupled with the open access ESN, and immediate and relevant science resulting from the ESN, can play a unique role in promoting STEM education, engaging citizen scientists, and empowering a
3scientifically literate society.  The specimen and the associated data provide a relatable and engaging entry point to participate in iterative data driven science, learn core data literacy skills, and build open, transdisciplinary collaboration.  

Creating the ESN requires new infrastructure to provide the linkages between the specimen and data derived from it. On the established foundation of existing digital data from collections it will require the development of new standards, connections, and resources such as ontologies to facilitate discovery, and implementation of a robust specimen identifier tracking system. Finally, continued digitization of established, as well as new collections, is necessary to ensure the grounding of extended specimen data in the framework of when and where it was collected.  The ESN will also require new approaches to data sharing and collaboration, partnerships with national and international data providers, computer and data scientists, and educators.  These will enable new relationships with investors who may exploit these data for commercial interests, thereby advancing the interests of national health, prosperity and welfare.The ESN will benefit from research-driven episodic funding for the collection of new specimens, which in turn will require digitization and curation. For the ESN to function as envisaged above, it may require long-term support for a central organizing unit with responsibility for community coordination, education and outreach, data mobilization, and maintenance of the central data repository and the network infrastructure.

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