Scientific collections—collections of physical specimens such as animal and plant specimens and their tissue and DNA, microbes, geological minerals and moonrocks, even air and water samples—are a vital part of the infrastructure for science in the United States and globally. They also play important roles in supporting public health and safety, agriculture, homeland security, trade and economic development, medical research, and environmental monitoring. Federal departments and agencies own and maintain hundreds of diverse scientific collections, many of which are being used for applications beyond their original use. Many of these collections grow at regular, predictable rates, and all require ongoing maintenance to preserve their value and utility.
To improve access to information about these collections and expand opportunities for their use, Federal agencies participating in the Interagency Working Group on Scientific Collections (IWGSC) are cataloging their scientific collections in a newly established Registry of U.S. Federal Scientific Collections (USFSC) managed by the Smithsonian Institution.
The registry provides unprecedented access to information about the scientific collections that are owned and operated by Federal departments and agencies. It currently contains information about more than 125 scientific collections managed by more than 475 Federal institutions, and agencies will continue to add collections to the registry over the coming months. Among the collections already listed are:
In addition to making these collections easier to find, Federal departments and agencies have also taken steps to improve the management of these and other Federal scientific collections, to help ensure they will remain viable and expand as needed to support future research and agency missions. Following guidelines developed by the IWGSC, more than a dozen Federal departments and agencies have developed policies specifying approaches for managing their institutional collections, meaning the sets of objects collected and preserved for research, analysis and other aspects of their organizational missions. Several more agency policies are being finalized. Completed policies are posted on the IWGSC clearinghouse.
The launch of the Registry and the development of agency policies for scientific collections represent significant steps in improving the management and utility of Federal scientific collections. These accomplishments are responsive to directives from both Congress and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Based on recommendations included in the IWGSC’s landmark report, Scientific Collections: Mission-Critical Infrastructure for Federal Science Agencies, these directives called for agencies to develop policies for the management, budgeting, and use of Federal scientific collections and establish an online clearinghouse for information on the contents of and access to Federal scientific collections.
In coming months, agencies will add more collections to the Registry, and more agencies will complete their collections policies. The IWGSC also plans to find ways to strengthen the contributions of Federal scientific collections to priority areas of national interest, such as emerging infectious diseases, food security, soil health, microbiome research, and open science. It will seek opportunities for greater coordination internationally among institutions that maintain scientific collections. These are among the tasks the IWGSC will continue to pursue as it continues its efforts to maximize the returns from the Federal investment in important scientific collections.
Jerry Sheehan is Assistant Director for Scientific Data and Information at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
David Schindel is Chair of the Board of Scientific Collections International and Executive Secretary of the Consortium for the Barcode of Life, both based at the Smithsonian Institution.
Scott Miller is Deputy Under Secretary for Collections and Interdisciplinary Support at the Smithsonian Institution and co-chair of the Interagency Working Group on Scientific Collections.
Ann Bartuska is Deputy Under Secretary for USDA's Research, Education, and Economics mission area and co-chair of the Interagency Working Group on Scientific Collections.