COVID-19 Impacts on Biodiversity Science Collections

Survey Results Identify Concerns

The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS), Biodiversity Collections Network (BCoN), Natural Science Collections Alliance (NSC Alliance), and Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) surveyed individuals affiliated with US biodiversity science collections to better understand the effects of COVID-19 related disruptions and closures on biodiversity research and education collections, and the people who use and care for these scientific resources.  The survey was conducted in April 2020.  

Biodiversity collections hold a tremendous amount of data and support research and education in many scientific fields.  They are found in natural history museums, botanical gardens, university-based research centers, field stations, and in government agencies.  “These scientific facilities are a backbone of our research enterprise.  They must have the resources needed to sustain scientific progress during this chaotic period,” said Dr. Robert Gropp, Executive Director of the American Institute of Biological Sciences.  “Science is an engine we need to reignite the economy and to combat future public health and environmental problems.”  The US bioeconomy was estimated to be about $1 trillion per year prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to physical specimens, collections include video images, scans, environmental data, records documenting the distribution of species, genetic information about species, among many other kinds of data. “They provide a time series of data that isn’t found elsewhere,” said Dr. John Bates, President of NSC Alliance and a Curator and Section Head of Life Sciences at the Field Museum in Chicago.  Biodiversity collections have previously been used to identify how diseases, such as hantavirus, spread across the environment and come to infect people.  There are many diverse and important uses of these data.

Individuals working in biodiversity collections were invited to complete a 23-question survey.  No identifying information about the individual or institution was requested.  

“The response to the survey was tremendous, with more than 390 individual responses,” said Dr. Barbara Thiers, President of SPNHC and Vice President for Science at the New York Botanical Garden.  Survey analyses should take into account that individuals who were already laid off or furloughed by the time the survey opened may not have responded.

Survey results include:

  • 96% of natural history collections were unavailable for use in April. 
  • Most of the scientific collections reported some regular monitoring of resources, but less than 30% were being monitored for pests – a significant threat to collections. 
  • More than 90% of respondents were working from home, mostly on some aspect of data transcription based on specimen images captured prior to the shutdown. 
  • When asked about chief concerns arising from a 1-3 month closure:
    • Just under 64% were worried about their ability to provide vital research resources;
    • Just under 49% were worried about a loss of funding for collections care materials and supplies;
    • Just over 47% were concerned about their ability to provide outreach opportunities for the public;
    • Nearly 47% were concerned about the loss of staff because of budget cuts;
    • 43.5% were concerned about their ability to meet existing grant and contract deadlines.

Survey results are available here.

Follow-up surveys will be conducted to understand the effects of budget reductions that collections may experience, and the impact of COVID-19 prevention measures on scientific collections management and research productivity.