Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Year in the Life of Scientific Collections

Fig.1. Scenes from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (Credit left to right: Neil Palmer/CIAT, 2011Mari Tefre/Global Crop Diversity Trust, 2008Dag Terje Filip Endresen/Svalbard Global Seed Vault, 2008)

Earlier this year, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) made a request to withdraw seeds from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which holds more than 850,000 samples from every country in the world. This request is the first of its kind for the “Doomsday Vault” that holds duplicate seed samples for national and international gene banks. The Syrian civil war forced ICARDA to move its headquarters from Aleppo, Syria, to Beirut, Lebanon, in 2012, and researchers managed to save 80 percent of the seed samples by sending them into storage at Svalbard.

Although such a withdrawal will allow ICARDA to regenerate these precious samples, it reveals the vulnerability of collections to war or even natural disasters. The year of 2015 marked a specific effort by individuals and organizations around the world to protect and sustain scientific collections, from those housed in natural history museums to frozen specimens in gene banks. We identified major trends that have affected both how collections are viewed in science and policy, as well as how they can be protected for generations to come. Read to learn more about what happened in the collections world this year, and what you should watch out for in 2016.

Fig.2. GIF courtesy of Shelf Life (via GIPHY)

Collections in the Public Eye

Museums and universities are not new to the World Wide Web, but more and more collections have become accessible via a new online presence in 2015. Perhaps learning a lesson from the Field Museum’s “The Brain Scoop”, the American Museum of Natural History in New York started the delightful video series “Shelf Life” late last year. From prehistoric fish to mystery mammals, these videos highlight the huge variety of research based in natural history collections. Such efforts by museums in outreach have connected scientists to the public on blogs, videos, Twitter, or other social media platforms. They are necessary to remind the wider world why collections matter.

Fig.3. Illinois State Museum (Credit: Mike Linksvayer, 2012)

Collections in Politics and Funding

On October 1 of this year, the doors of the Illinois State Museum closed to the public. Home to 13.5 million artifacts and specimens, this museum shut down after its budget was cut by the governor's administration to save almost $5 million. Staff still work to curate the collections, but politicians on both sides of the aisle - as well as museum goers and curators - have sought to raise the necessary funds for the museum. This nasty funding dispute endangers not only ongoing research at the museum, but leaves scientists at a loss for what happens after NSF money runs out.

The Illinois State Museum is not the only house of collections suffering from funding issues. The world famous Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew let go just under a quarter of its scientific staff this year and now struggles to secure money for the long term. As scientists around the world work to preserve biodiversity that might be lost to climate change or human development, money and space - not to mention the curatorial expertise - are an increasingly rare commodity.

Fig.4. “The Blue Marble,” taken by the crew of the Apollo 17 

Collections in the Global Focus

On November 17, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, (UNESCO) General Conference adopted a new standard on the protection and promotion of museums and collections. Members agreed that museums and other collections holding institutions were some of the most prominent safeguards of heritage and sustainable development and should therefore be preserved. On a national level, governmental agencies in the United States are also working to increase awareness about their collections. This past year has marked a concerted effort by these agencies to develop management practices and secure funding for collections that contribute to scientific research, from drug discovery to recording biodiversity.

Collections in 2016

One of SciColl’s first articles of 2015 was on a smart collecting culture for institutions that would promote the sustainability of specimens and samples. How do researchers maximize the use of certain items now, yet remain prepared for future scientific opportunities? We argued that holistic sampling, collaboration, and communication were key to surviving a world in which scientific collections were destroyed in war or natural disasters, lost to funding disputes, or even forgotten as they sat on shelves in a museum's basement.

Although there is no silver bullet to protecting collections for the next year, ongoing outreach can inform the public and policy makers about the importance of what we hold in our vaults. In 2016, we expect to see even more of this outreach, as well as increased efforts internally to adapt the collections world to the digital age. Scientific collections are an investment in the future, and SciColl will continue to be a source of information and commentary on collections research for this future.

Jamieson, A. (2015, September 15). Syria War Forces First Withdrawal from Svalbard Global Seed Vault. NBC News. Retrieved from http://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/syria-war-forces-first-withdrawal-artic-seed-vault-n433471

Lujan, N, & Page, L. (2015, February 27). Libraries of Life. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/27/opinion/libraries-of-life.html?mwrsm=Email&_r=0


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