The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) have launched the Beyond the Box National Digitization Innovation Competition. The initiative will award $1 million to the individual or team who develops a novel way to accurately and efficiently capture digital images of insect specimens and their associated data from a standard museum drawer of insects.
“The Beyond the Box Digitization Competition is designed to inspire the ingenuity of the American public, and to engage scientists, engineers, and everyday inventors, in an effort to solve a problem that has been slowing the rate of scientific discovery,” said Dr. James L. Olds, Assistant Director for the Directorate for Biological Sciences at NSF.
Whether through the beauty of a butterfly, agricultural significance of a honeybee, or the public health implications of a mosquito, insects influence the quality of human life every day.
“Insects are an amazingly diverse group of organisms that represent an overwhelming amount of living biological diversity on Earth,” said AIBS President Dr. Joseph Travis. “Very few insect species are pests and most play important roles in our ecosystems. They pollinate many of our crops, recycle nutrients and energy, and are sources of food for the other animals in the food chain. Unfortunately, despite all we know about insects, we have yet to describe all of the species of insects and, in fact, we are still discovering new species at a surprisingly high rate.”
There are believed to be more than 1.5 million identified species of insects on Earth. This is hypothesized to be three times the number of all other animal species combined. Amazingly, it is estimated that there are 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) insects alive in the world. That’s more than one billion times the number of people.
“We share the planet with so many insects, wouldn’t it be wonderful if when we find a new one in our backyard we could take a picture of it and have that matched to an image in a museum somewhere. We could learn the name, understand what its role in the ecosystem is, or understand if it is an invasive species that might devastate our garden or nearby crop fields,” said Dr. Norman Johnson, Director of the Triplehorn Insect Collection at The Ohio State University, and the Chairman of the Planning Committee that established the rules for the competition.
For more than 250 years, scientists have collected millions of insects from around the world. These specimens are now held in more than 1,000 natural science collections in universities and museums across the United States alone. Unfortunately, many of these specimens remain unknown to science, education, natural resource and public health managers, and the general public. Quite simply, they have been locked away in cabinets.
“With technological advances in robotics, imaging, data capture and management, among other areas, it is now possible to develop new tools to digitally capture images of insect specimens and their associated data,” said Johnson.
“This is important work that is going to solve some persistent challenges, advance science and engineering, and is also likely to generate new tools that may have secondary commercial applications,” said Olds.
Through the Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections program, NSF has pledged $100 million over ten years to support biodiversity collections research.
Other fields of biology have made progress digitizing specimens and sharing the data with research, education, and other user communities. Plant scientists, for example, have been developing innovative ways to image herbarium sheets. Despite these developments, insects have remained a challenge.
Johnson states, “we need to find a way to move from two dimensional to three dimensional images.”
Insects are delicate and have small labels associated with them that have information about the specimen, such as its name and where it was collected. “These specimens and their associated data provide irreplaceable information about the history and nature of life on Earth, but it is not easy to capture this data in a cost-effective way that does not damage the specimen or label. We need a creative solution that will solve this problem,” said Johnson.
“AIBS is pleased to partner with NSF on this endeavor,” said Travis. “This is a unique opportunity to move science and technology forward with a leap instead of a small step.”
Official contest rules and guidance are available at beyondthebox.aibs.org. Inquires related to the contest must be submitted on the website, where the questions and answers will be posted.
The contest opened on December 5, 2014 and will close at 11:59 p.m. on September 4, 2015. A winner will be selected following a competitive judging process and on-site demonstration by the finalists.