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Report to IWGSC Highlights Long-Term Benefits of Scientific Collections

The Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press has published a report exploring the benefits of the nation’s scientific collections. The report, a joint effort of 15 federal departments and agencies led by the Smithsonian and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), provides illustrative examples of the many ways federal scientific collections serve the nation, from vaccine development to earthquake preparedness.

While the report focuses on federal collections, it also serves as a guide for other museums, universities, research institutions and industries. The publication offers evidence-based methods for measuring the benefits of scientific collections against the costs of maintaining them.

The report, Economic Analyses of Federal Scientific Collections: Methods for Documenting Costs and Benefits, was commissioned by the Interagency Working Group on Scientific Collections (IWGSC), part of the White House National Science and Technology Council. IWGSC is co-chaired by the Smithsonian and USDA.

“Although the report is focused on federal scientific collections, its content applies to myriad collections and leads to many public benefits,” said Scott Miller, Smithsonian chief scientist and IWGSC co-chair. “The report is especially timely given the economic stress on research and organizations because of COVID-19.”

Federal scientific collections are diverse and immense. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History alone has more than 146 million specimens and samples in its collections, acquired from the oceans to outer space––including plants, animals and insects; rocks, minerals and meteorites; and fossils and human artifacts.

Institutions like the Smithsonian preserve these vast collections for research, education and public outreach. They offer a wide variety of benefits for the nation, from insurance against future emergencies to the development of new technologies. Examples from the report highlight how USDA’s collections of agricultural pests help protect the U.S. food supply, or how a bacteria sample from a national park provided the basis for a major biotechnology breakthrough.

The authors note that demonstrating the long-term value of scientific collections can help institutions preserve these vital services for the future.

“USDA’s agricultural collections are some of the largest and most diverse in the world,” said Dionne Toombs, director of USDA’s Office of the Chief Scientist and IWGSC co-chair. “We are proud to be stewards of these valuable resources that ensure the preservation, diversity and safety of these collections for current and future generations.”

The report and related resources can be accessed at The full press release, including a contact for the media, can be found at:

Museum Industry Relaxes Rules During Pandemic

In Substantial Shift, Museum Industry Group Pushes Directors to Break the Rules to Survive

As art museum directors across the United States confront balance sheets devastated by the coronavirus pandemic, the field’s leading professional organization has adopted temporary measures aimed at giving them greater flexibility in how they manage their finances.

This is how bad things are for museums: They now have a green light to sell off their art

However, in an unprecedented move, and as a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic, the AAMD has recently relaxed its guidelines. It’s too soon to gauge the effect, but it is already big news in the art world. Once unthinkable, the notion of selling off a Claude Monet or two to plug a budgetary hole — or to fend off a total financial meltdown — is suddenly something to contemplate.

IWGSC Participates in Workshop on Biospecimens and Biodefense

Many members of the IWGSC participated in a workshop at the National Denfense University in April 2019. Diane DiEuliis, IWGSC Executive Secretary, and her team put together a compelling agenda, hosted an audience that brought together many federal agencies and other stakeholders, and compiled a summary report. 

The summary and additional details are on the meeting page on the NDU website.

Two Articles from NPR on Genetic Databanks and Their Collections

UK Biobank Requires Earth's Geneticists To Cooperate, Not Compete

What makes UK Biobank valuable is not only the half-million volunteers, whose health will be followed for decades, but also its community-spirited scientific strategy. Chief scientist Dr. Cathie Sudlow says the organizers, in a break from their usual ways, aren't out to answer their own scientific questions, but to serve their colleagues.

Read the full story on

How Should Scientists' Access To Health Databanks Be Managed?

Three major projects in the United States illustrate these differing philosophies.

The first project involves three-quarters of a million veterans, mostly men over age 60. Every day, 400 to 500 blood samples show up in a modern lab in the basement of the Veterans Affairs hospital in Boston. Luis Selva, the center's associate director, explains that robots extract DNA from the samples and then the genetic material is sent out for analysis.

The blood samples themselves end up in gigantic, automated freezers for future use — one in Boston and a backup facility at a VA location in Albuquerque, N.M.

Read the full story on

Alaska Governor proposes large cuts to University of Alaska system

Proposed budget cuts to the University of Alaska system would imapct, among many other things, the system's museum and collections.  

From the article in the Anchorage Daily News:

The impact of such a state funding cut, [museum director Pat Druckenmiller] said, "would be devastating to the museum.”

The museum houses a collection of 2.5 million objects including artifacts, specimens and art. “We cannot just turn off the lights and walk away from those,” he said. “These are the things that represent our state’s history.” That collection is also vital for research, which brings in federal dollars, Druckenmiller said.

The battle to rebuild centuries of science after an epic inferno

Nature Article(16 JULY 2019)

The battle to rebuild centuries of science after an epic inferno: Nearly a year after flames consumed Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, researchers are struggling to revive their work and resume their lives.

GBIF provides new home for the Global Registry of Scientific Collections

News article first published by GBIF on 21 March 2019.

First phase of transfer sets stage for working with trusted sources and editors to curate linked open information about collections and institutions around the world.

The Global Registry of Scientific Collections (GRSciColl), a clearinghouse of information about the world’s scientific institutions and collections, has found a new home on

The informatics team at the GBIF Secretariat has completed the first phase of work, migrating the most recent snapshot of GRSciColl into the newly updated GBIF registry to provide a public interface for searching by institutioncollection and staff. While in some cases the data is current up to May 2018, in others, data exchange between GRSciColl and some key sources, such as the New York Botanical Garden’s Index Herbariorum (IH), has been missing for much longer.

During the next phase of work, GBIF will work with IH and other key directories to address these and other issues related to data quality by reestablishing links and, where possible, setting up dynamic connections that enable changes in one registry to be reflected in others.

In addition, validated users can once again get access to GRSciColl to edit, update and curate data in the registry. Members of the collections community who wish to contribute to this effort once again can email the GBIF Secretariat at for more information.

Along with addressing known issues with the current data, other tasks for the coming months will include restoring the functionality needed to support existing institutions’ Cool URIs and establishing guidelines for users who wish to report corrections via a dedicated mailing list.

Originally developed by the Consortium of the Barcode of Life (CBOL), GRSciColl serves as an indispensable resource of information about object-based collections, the institutions that host them and the professional staff responsible for curating and maintaining them. It also supplies collections with unique identifiers, improving wider digital interoperability by enabling publications, databases and data infrastructures to cite biological collections and their contents unambiguously., for example, relies on GRSciColl to provide the InstitutionCodes and CollectionCodes elements used in the Darwin Core data standard.

“GRSciColl plays a critical role in biodiversity informatics by helping us understand the effort still needed to digitize valuable collections,” said Tim Robertson, head of informatics at the GBIF Secretariat. “While simply listing these collections may seem unassuming at first, GRSciColl gives the chance to work with others to develop and maintain a comprehensive, high-quality collections catalogue. We see it as an essential resource for improving linked open information about all the world’s biological specimens.”

“The Smithsonian Institution was privileged to have the opportunity to develop the original GRSciColl in collaboration with CBOL, Scientific Collections International, and the U.S. Interagency Working Group on Scientific Collections and many other partners,” said Scott Miller, Deputy Under Secretary at the Smithsonian. “We are very pleased that GBIF will host the next phase of development of GRSciColl and provide a suitable international platform for this vital community resource.”

GBIF will also seek to develop additional improvements to support the GRSciColl community. Such enhancements will likely include improving links between collections and the specimen recordsavailable through Collection entries may also serve as anchors for authorized users to register richer, standardized metadata documents for undigitized collections to GBIF, along lines proposed by TDWG Collection Descriptions Interest Group. GBIF will also explore the possibility of extending its DOI-based system of citation tracking to GRSciColl, offering institutions more detailed and traceable reports on the use of collections in research.

GRSciColl, like GBIF, was originially conceived under the auspices of the OECD Global Science Forum, and developed and hosted by the Smithsonian Institution. Its information comprises not just the natural history and biological realms but all scientific disciplines, including earth and space sciences, anthropology, archaeology and biomedicine, along with applied fields like agriculture, veterinary medicine and technology.

Much of the information it contains about natural history collections and herbaria—once independently known as the Global Registry of Biodiversity Repositories, or GRBio—builds upon individual and institutional contributions to earlier directories, including not only the Index Herbariorum, but also CBOL’s and the Biodiversity Collections Index developed by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Got gorilla milk? Inside America’s largest stockpile of exotic milks

This article and video from the Washington Post highlights the science of mother's milk and highlights the collection of exotic milks housed at the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park in Washington, DC.

Theme Issue on Biological Collections from the Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B

The Philosophical Transactions fo the Royal Society B has published a theme issue on ‘Biological collections for understanding biodiversity in the Anthropocene’ compiled and edited by Emily K. Meineke, Barnabas H. Daru, T. Jonathan Davies and Charles C. Davis (07 January 2019; volume 374, issue 1763).

Abstract from the introductory article:

Global change has become a central focus of modern biology. Yet, our knowledge of how anthropogenic drivers affect biodiversity and natural resources is limited by a lack of biological data spanning the Anthropocene. We propose that the hundreds of millions of plant, fungal and animal specimens deposited in natural history museums have the potential to transform the field of global change biology. We suggest that museum specimens are underused, particularly in ecological studies, given their capacity to reveal patterns that are not observable from other data sources. Increasingly, museum specimens are becoming mobilized online, providing unparalleled access to physiological, ecological and evolutionary data spanning decades and sometimes centuries. Here, we describe the diversity of collections data archived in museums and provide an overview of the diverse uses and applications of these data as discussed in the accompanying collection of papers within this theme issue. As these unparalleled resources are under threat owing to budget cuts and other institutional pressures, we aim to shed light on the unique discoveries that are possible in museums and, thus, the singular value of natural history collections in a period of rapid change.

Perspective: The next generation of natural history collections


The last 50 years have witnessed rapid changes in the ways that natural history specimens are collected, preserved, analyzed, and documented. Those changes have produced unprecedented access to specimens, images, and data as well as impressive research results in organismal biology. The stage is now set for a new generation of collecting, preserving, analyzing, and integrating biological samples—a generation devoted to interdisciplinary research into complex biological interactions and processes. Next-generation collections may be essential for breakthrough research on the spread of infectious diseases, feeding Earth's growing population, adapting to climate change, and other grand research challenges. A decade-long investment in research collection infrastructure will be needed.

Find the full text here.

Schindel DE, Cook JA (2018) The next generation of natural history collections. PLoS Biol 16(7): e2006125.