Fish expert Larry Page of the Florida Museum in Gainesville shows off a standard setup for making digital images of specimens.

Kristen Grace/Florida Museum

Report urges massive digitization of museum collections

The United States should launch an effort to create an all-encompassing database of the millions of stuffed, dried, and otherwise preserved plants, animals, and fossils in museums and other collections, a U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF)–sponsored white paper released today urges. The report, titled Extending U.S. Biodiversity Collections to Promote Research and Education, also calls for new approaches to cataloging digitized specimens and linking them to a range of other data about each organism and where it was collected. If the plan is carried out, “There will be [a] huge potential impact for the research community to do new types of research,” says NSF biology Program Director Reed Beaman in Alexandria, Virginia.

The effort could take decades and cost as much as half a billion dollars, however, and some researchers are worried the white paper will not win over policymakers. “I just wish that the report focused more on the potential benefits for noncollections communities,” says James Hanken, director of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

For the past 8 years, NSF has sponsored the $100 million, 10-year Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections program, which has paid for nearly 62 million plant and animal specimens to be digitally photographed from multiple angles for specific research studies. New technology has greatly sped up the process. Already, researchers studying natural history and how species are related are reaping the benefits of easy access to a wealth of information previous locked in museums.

Other, smaller digitization efforts have also paid off. Since the 1993 outbreak of the deadly mouse-transmitted hantavirus in the Four Corners region of the southwest, the Museum of Southwestern Biology at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque has been warehousing mammals used in public health studies and natural history research. From the beginning it digitized those specimens and linked them to relevant pathogen and genome data, enabling disease experts, microbiologists, and other scientists to tap into the database for their research, says Joseph Cook, the museum’s curator of mammals.

The Advancing Digitization program is a stand-alone effort that ends in 2021, so NSF set up an initiative called the Biodiversity Collections Network to plan the next steps. Based on findings from surveys and workshops, it is now proposing an expanded effort that would also target smaller collections and develop a standardized, upgradable system for linking disparate databases to create an “extended specimen.” The idea is that anyone looking up a species will see not only detailed images of a specimen, but also all the research associated with it: DNA sequences, analyses of diets and climate based on isotopic studies, micro–computerized tomography scans, and even environmental information from the specimen’s collection site. “We want to pull together everything that’s known about a specimen,” says Barbara Thiers, a botanist at the New York Botanical Garden in New York City who heads the network.

Cook calls the new plan “a great opportunity to build important infrastructure for the big questions that society is going to ask help with,” such as assessing environmental change and shifts in animal and disease ranges. “We need to understand our planet and how populations are changing through time.”

Thiers estimates it will take up to $500 million to “get all the bells and whistles we would like” to realize this vision. For that reason, some collections experts are calling for stronger advocacy. “Somebody needs to hit the pavement and convince other agencies to support this [effort],” Hanken says. Otherwise, it risks getting ignored because “it’s another in a long line of calls to the community to imagine a new future for biological collections.” adds Scott Edwards, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University.

Thiers sees it differently, calling the plan “a novel approach” that will combine “diverse data types in ways that have not been considered.” Beaman is noncommittal about its prospects. “It’s premature for me to say we would develop new programs” to support it, he says. But he acknowledges the value of expanding access to natural history collections, noting that the equivalent of billions of dollars has gone into building them. “It’s not stamp collecting,” he concludes. “The potential for use and societal impact is huge.”