Experts Gather in Chicago to Consider Opportunities Arising from Initiatives to Digitize Biodiversity Collections, Data

Thirty scientists, communication and outreach experts, and natural science collection administrators from across the country are gathering in Chicago this week for a two-day meeting to explore how the biodiversity collections community can better collaborate to share biodiversity information with the public and key decision-makers. The Biodiversity Collections Network organized and is sponsoring the meeting.

The working group includes individuals from institutions across the nation, including Chicago’s own Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago Botanic Garden, and the Chicago Academy of Sciences.

“This meeting might be thought of as a focus group. Our goal is to have this group think creatively about how we can all better leverage our collective resources and expertise,” said Robert Gropp, Interim Co-Executive Director of the American Institute of Biological Sciences in Washington, DC. “This isn’t about wanting the public to think species diversity is cool, which it is; this is about identifying ways to effectively share timely and important information about biodiversity with those decision-makers who need this information. The speed with which we are losing genetic diversity is alarming and we need to act with great speed to conduct the research needed to understand how this is going to influence the world in which we live, the food that is available to nourish us, and the ecosystem services we all require for clean air and water,” said Gropp.

The development of new imaging technology, more robust data mining and database technologies, and other tools offers scientists new opportunities to increase our understanding of biological diversity. Indeed, the U.S. National Science Foundation has pledged $100 million over 10 years to support research efforts that enable the research community to unlock images and associated data from the billions of biological specimens contained in natural science collections across the United States.

“Biodiversity science has historically been done by individuals or small groups of people who were somewhat isolated in natural history museums. New technology is changing this and making it possible for researchers to collaborate over great distances,” said Dr. Larry Page, President of the Natural Science Collections Alliance.

These new tools have been a great addition to biodiversity science and specimen curation, according to Andrew Bentley, President of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections. “We still need to develop new practices for collaboration and communication. That is a goal of this workshop, which is very exciting,” said Bentley.

The American Institute of Biological Sciences, Natural Science Collections Alliance, and Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections launched the Biodiversity Collections Network in 2014 with initial support from the National Science Foundation.

“This workshop is one of a number of initiatives the project is already engaged in,” said Gropp. The Biodiversity Collections Network is also identifying good case studies that show different uses of the scientific knowledge gained from digitized biodiversity collections, and will cosponsor a meeting this December that will look at biological informatics workforce issues.

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