New Push to Bring US Biological Collections to the World's Online Community

TitleNew Push to Bring US Biological Collections to the World's Online Community
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2011
AuthorsBaker, Beth
Start Page657
Date Published2011
Full Text

On the sprawling campus of the US Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in Beltsville, Maryland, Shannon Dominick, scientific collections coordinator of the National Fungus Collections, stands over a light table and gingerly opens an envelope encasing an 88-year-old specimen of Polyporus pterygodes. The fungus was gathered by Kaneyoshi Sawada, a pioneer of Asian mycology.

Using tweezers, Dominick carefully arranges the sample so that it can be photographed with a simple digital camera. The photo will be uploaded to a laptop computer and sent to a researcher in China, who is studying the Sawada collection. The process of capturing the image of a single species can take up to 30 minutes.

The federal government is taking significant steps to accelerate the paceof making US science collections like this one publicly available online through digitization, including both collection data and images for each specimen. The National Fungus Collections are far ahead of many others: Roughly three-quarters of their more than one million specimens have the label data—who collected it, when and where it was collected, what species it is—searchable online, but including images in its digital catalog is a gargantuan task that collections staff have not been able to accomplish, given their limited resources. Not that Dominick wouldn't love to. The collection is “awesome,” she says, and the idea of making it accessible to the world is exciting. “Free and public—digitization is great,” she says.

As part of the federal push, in July, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded the first of major new grants—totaling $100 million over a 10-year period—to further the digitization of biological collections. The grants were a response to a 2010 strategic plan developed by the biological collections community, Establishing a National Digital Biological Collections Resource, for rapidly bringing online all biological specimens, an effort described as “a grand challenge” meant “to transform the practice of collections-based biological research, scientific achievement, and international research collaboration.”

Meanwhile, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy issued a memo in October 2010 to the heads of all federal departments and agencies, directing them, among other measures, to make as much “as possible” of their collections information available online within 36 months. This was strengthened in December when Congress passed the America Competes Act, putting the directive into law. Unfortunately, the law did not come with extra funding.