Taking the Pulse of Natural History Collections During COVID-19: Where are we now?

In mid-September, iDigBio coordinated a three-day webinar series focused on how the natural history collections community is currently handling the COVID-19 pandemic. The series was held as a pre-conference event prior to the 2020 ADBC Summit. Partners from the Biodiversity Collections Network (BCON), the Natural Sciences Collection Alliance (NSCA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC), and individual institutions presented on topics that created daily frameworks for group discussion. Recordings of each day are available on Vimeo here.



To kick off the webinar series, Barbara Thiers (New York Botanical Garden) shared the findings from two community surveys administered by BCON over the last six months, and she also previewed the results of a new National Academies report, Biological Collections: Ensuring Critical Research and Education for the 21st Century. Discussion focused on the driving question of, “What are the top three challenges faced by collections since the pandemic started?” The second day of the series highlighted the perspectives of individual natural history collections. John Bates (The Field Museum), Emily Braker (University of Colorado Boulder), Brian Atkinson (The University of Kansas), and Mare Nazaire (California Botanic Garden) each presented on the current operating status and outlook for their institution, and this was followed by discussion focused on the driving question of, “What are the top three positive outcomes experienced by collections as we adapt to new COVID-aware workplace guidelines?” On the final day of the series, panelists Rob Gropp (American Institute of Biological Sciences & NSCA), Roland Roberts (NSF), Scott Miller (Smithsonian Institution), and Pam Soltis (University of Florida & iDigBio) presented on how they see the natural history collections community’s response to COVID-19 preparing us for future opportunities. Take-away themes emerging from the content and discussion of all three days of webinars are captured in this blog post.

Six months in, working from home is still the norm. At the time of the first BCON survey in April 2020, the vast majority of collections were closed (96%) with staff working from home (90%). Adjusting to remote work, both logistically and mentally, was a major challenge both for survey respondents and as indicated by discussion during this webinar series. Many felt that their institutions lacked the necessary digital infrastructure and equipment to quickly transition to a work-from-home environment, particularly for staff whose primary responsibilities involve physical collections care or research on physical specimens. The burden of providing digital infrastructure like high speed internet frequently fell on individual staff, although at least one museum has been offering small stipends to staff who were required to upgrade their home internet. In addition to basic office equipment, e.g. laptops and external monitors, collections associated with ongoing research also needed to send specialized equipment, e.g. microscopes, home with staff. And although typically an institution would not want specimens going home with staff, some did begin to permit specimens going off site in an effort to maintain productivity.

Aside from technical logistics, working from home during the pandemic has meant adjusting mentally and figuring out new family logistics, like childcare or support for school-age children. By late summer 2020, people had recognized that working from home, at least in part, might not be as short term as we all initially thought, and institutions were fully engaged with planning for the long term effects of COVID-19 on their collections programs. At this point BCON administered a second survey with the goal of assessing the impact of the pandemic on the operational status, economic impacts, and plans for reopening of individual institutions. Collections and curation staff were still overwhelmingly working from home, and the types of tasks being done remained largely the same as they were in April. Georeferencing and transcribing labels from specimen images are two examples of digitization-related tasks that have become widespread priorities given their suitability for remote work. We are also seeing a “rise of the backburner project” as colleagues address long standing items on their to-do lists, e.g. updating collections management plans and procedures, taking the extra time to seek out and link specimen records to corresponding sequence records in GenBank, etc.

The second BCON survey asked about perceived productivity and found that, impressively, a majority of respondents felt that although priorities may have shifted, productivity within their institutions was around the same level or higher than pre-pandemic. In fact, only 11% of respondents felt that work today was “a lot less productive” than pre-pandemic. Virtual communication tools like Zoom and Slack have successfully cleared the hurdle of being widespread, and facilitate collaboration across the globe just as easily as across the office. Many people said they actually feel more connected to other collections professionals now than pre-pandemic, given the ease of virtual connectivity. Collections professionals are learning to accommodate and even capitalize on disruption, and this is fostering creativity and building resilience within institutions. In our webinar series discussions, people spoke to specific examples of this creativity and resilience, and furthermore suggested that the pandemic is providing an opportunity to reassess existing staff responsibilities and institutional policies related to work. The informal consensus seems to be that flexible, hybrid in-person and work-from-home schedules could be a successful model for the future, even post-pandemic.

Collections are adapting to challenges associated with providing research support during the pandemic. The top concern of respondents to the first BCON survey was that they felt their collections were unable to continue providing vital research services, and this level of concern was echoed by discussion during the webinar series. Research visits, loans, and accessions of new material have all been affected by physical facility closures. As Scott Miller outlined, accessioning material into the collection and providing access to qualified users are two of the six core services that a federal Interagency Working Group on Scientific Collections identified. By the end of the summer, the second BCON survey found that 25% of institutions had resumed (or never officially stopped) fulfilling domestic loans, and many more are considering how to do so in the near future. Meanwhile, institutions are seeing an uptick in the use of resources that are digitally accessible. At The Field, John Bates reported that visits to the botany department’s web page were 300% of normal, and downloads of specimen-derived data on both GenBank and Morphosource had increased significantly.

During the webinar series discussions, multiple people described how the pandemic has lit a fire under digitization because digital accessibility is currently the primary way to use specimens in teaching and research. Investment from the NSF Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections (ADBC) program over the last decade has been instrumental in maintaining collections digitization during COVID-19. The ADBC program has funded not only digitization projects at individual institutions, but also the growth of a community of practice. Thanks to our active community of practice, even collections that have not directly received funding from NSF can benefit from the best practices and experience of the collective.

Providing support for research is particularly relevant to the pandemic given how the natural history collections community could contribute to questions about the origin, life history, and transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the causative virus of COVID-19. Pam Soltis relayed her experience as a member of the CETAF-DiSSCo COVID-19 Task Force working to forge stronger connections between our community and those of human health experts. Further discussion about how to do this highlighted the importance of making our collections discoverable in the venues and formats that external stakeholders from different disciplines, e.g. virology, expect.

Collections are reevaluating their reliance on volunteer labor and exploring new ways to connect with the public. A common thread between the first two days of webinar discussion was how important volunteers are to the collections community, and how much the pandemic has affected our relationships to our volunteers. When it comes to defining which personnel are “essential” for the purposes of returning to on site facilities, volunteers clearly fall into the non-essential category. And yet in many collections, volunteers do perform work that is essential. What does this say about the workforce and job opportunities in our field? Participants in the discussions felt that the pandemic is putting focus on some of our community’s issues with low or lack of pay for work, and how this intersects with social justice objectives, especially when the volunteers in question are on the early career side of the spectrum and are looking for experience to enter the job market. On the opposite side of the spectrum, we discussed that for some institutions, older volunteers also tend to be donors and the relationships collections staff cultivate by spending time with them are now in jeopardy. Several institutions mentioned that during the pandemic they have made a concerted effort to reach out to donors, including volunteers, to keep them informed and maintain that personal connection as much as possible.

Education and outreach to the general public, which is another core service as defined by the federal Interagency Working Group on Scientific Collections, has also been a challenge. In April 2020, 47% of respondents were concerned about their ability to provide public outreach opportunities. However, by the time of the second BCON survey, outreach was recovering as people began investing more energy into adapting to remote outreach activities. Mare Nazaire illustrated this investment with an example from the California Botanic Garden, which recognized an opportunity when they surveyed local educational institutions and found that the vast majority were interested in supplementing their coursework with virtual tours and online content about plant science and collections-based topics. John Bates presented virtual educational activities being developed at The Field, which have been able to achieve broader access than they would have in person. Pam Soltis shared two ongoing initiatives that are working to make collections-based educational modules accessible for community reuse and adaptation, in both virtual and future in person contexts: Biodiversity Literacy in Undergraduate Education (BLUE) and Biological Collections Ecology and Evolution Network (BCEENET).

Budget uncertainty looms, although the hammer has yet to fall. Another top concern, both among BCON survey respondents and participants in this webinar series, was that budget cuts seem inevitable but also unpredictable, and this has widespread trickle-down effects. Most evident is that budget shortfalls or predicted shortfalls have already led to the loss or furlough of paid staff, especially part-time and student workers. Some museums have also implemented voluntary retirement programs, which can be worrisome when abruptly losing longtime staff also means losing institutional knowledge. By late summer, more than half of the respondents to BCON’s second survey indicated that their operating income for the coming year would be significantly affected, and an especially concerning minority (10%) expected a budget decrease of >50%. In fact, around a third of respondents believed there is a significant risk of their museum permanently closing in the next year. Institutional perspectives from The Field, California Botanic Garden, and the University of Colorado Boulder characterized some of these losses, describing staff reductions, tiered furloughs, and frozen job searches. Interestingly, for collections tied to higher education at the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Kansas, although budget issues may be on the horizon they have an additional layer of uncertainty because schools cannot predict how enrollment will be affected over the next couple years. At the University of Kansas, enrollment in the biology program for Fall 2020 was actually higher than average, and preliminary feedback from students suggests that they appreciate the flexibility of virtual learning. For institutions with a large endowment, the general health of the stock market has made it appealing to convert some staff into endowed positions, although this strategy comes with its own risks.

Early in the pandemic, collections were able to take advantage of funding opportunities designed to ameliorate some of the immediate budget uncertainties. Roland Roberts reported that, to date, there has been over $100 million in COVID-related funding from NSF, in addition to other federal relief, like the Paycheck Protection Program which many museums have benefited from. NSF is committed to supporting the health and safety of its awardees and has a COVID information hub with up-to-date grant guidelines. However as the pandemic progresses, people seem concerned that the fiscal effects might be delayed and felt more prominently in 2021 budgets, or even beyond.

Collections are beginning to reopen as they determine safe ways to do so. Despite unpredictable and potentially dire budget situations, the overall mood of the community seems optimistic and ready for reopening where it is safe to do so. We are accustomed to making evidence-based decisions, and fortunate to have multiple projects that responded rapidly to the pandemic with guidance for reopening. To this extent, Scott Miller presented the results of the REALM (REopening Archives, Libraries and Museums) project, which tested SARS-CoV-2 persistence on a variety of materials commonly found in collections and provided evidence for designing protocols related to cleaning workspaces, quarantining objects, etc. Collections based in different types of institutions are contending with different reopening variables. Those associated with university campuses, for example, must follow campus-wide reopening protocols that may be less strict than those they apply at their own facility level. Emily Braker described that while students were invited back to campus for the fall semester, staff at the University of Colorado at Boulder Museum of Natural History will continue working remotely as much as possible to minimize their own exposure. That said, collections staff at Boulder were still able to design a physically distanced, COVID-friendly mammalogy lab so that students could benefit from the tangible aspects of a specimen.

Some collections have been able to use the forced closure of the pandemic to focus on capital improvement projects that would have limited access to the facility even in normal times. Others may not be expecting to reopen to the public soon but have figured out how to reopen enough to continue feeding work to remote staff, e.g. California Botanic Garden has begun imaging herbarium specimens again to facilitate remote transcription and georeferencing. Although the specifics vary widely across our community, it seems clear that the adaptable attitude of collections professionals has led to creative solutions that have maintained productivity during the pandemic and will continue to benefit institutions as they consider reopening.

The next six months are an opportunity to advocate for the resilience and value of collections. Throughout the series we were reminded that the way to move forward starts with small steps, like continuing to talk amongst ourselves, work collaboratively, and leverage the findings in community reports such as the one just out from the National Academies. Steps like these build an active community of practice, which allows us to advocate effectively for biological collections at national and international levels. Advocacy was a prominent topic on the last day of the webinar series. Rob Gropp called for collections to weather this immediate crisis, but more importantly to take it as a call to action. Roland Roberts echoed this message and talked about the need to build institutions and collaborations that are robust, scalable, and sustainable. Scott Miller described examples of how to frame value from the Interagency Working Group on Scientific Collections, and Pam Soltis pointed to scientific societies as critical partners for collections advocacy. Webinar participants discussed the need to communicate value in metrics that mean something to the target audience, be that dollars to administrators or publications to a researcher. While the next six months will undoubtedly bring new challenges, we can find inspiration in the myriad examples of resilience and collaboration in our community over the past six.

Please see the full webinar series wiki for recordings, slide decks, and more resources related to the mini series reported on here as well as our ongoing monthly “Adapting to COVID-19” webinar series. We welcome you to join us on October 27th for a webinar on virtual project management, and again on November 18th when our topic will be on engaging public participation in collections digitization (details on the calendar announcement here).