Sunday, July 10, 2011

.... While the Other Taketh Away?

We're all grateful for ADBC, of course, but what to make of the merging of the Improvements to Biological Research Collections (BRC) and Living Stock Collections for Biological Research (LSCBR) programs into a single, new program, Collections in Support of Biological Research (CSBR). At first sight, it seems like there's nothing too alarming in here. The total funding for the new program is a bit less that the combined total for the two former ones ($6.5M vs $7M) but then cost-cutting is very much the flavor of the hour and it can't really be argued that NSF have robbed Peter to pay Paul by taking funds away from BRC to create ADBC. Or can it?

The solicitation for CSBR makes it absolute clear that, for natural history collections, it "requires that the activities funded through this Program interface with the soon to be announced national Home Uniting Biocollections (HUB) established and supported by the Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections (ADBC) Program." And if that weren't explicit enough - "As a part of the improvements to collections, all specimens handled---if not already digitized--- should be digitized and the data linked to the national resource for digitized biocollections." So the aims of CSBR are very explicitly tied to ADBC.

Is this a bad thing? Yes and no (you can tell I'm Libran, right?). In developing the national strategy for collections digitization, it was always clear that no one program, or agency, would be able to support this process, so maximizing bang for buck by having other, related programs contribute to national digitization objectives is a good thing. On the minus side, BRC was one of the major sources of support for capital upgrades to collections and this role may now be jeopardized.

How so? Well, consider this. There was a ceiling of $500K for single institution BRC grants which has carried over into the new CSBR program. This sounds like a lot of money, but it gets spent surprisingly quickly. With fringe benefits and indirect costs, a single new staff member can eat half of this. While we all hope that new technologies and improvements to collections workflows will make our lives easier, the fact remains that the biggest barrier to large scale collections digitization is the availability of staff. If you spend funds on new staff for the mandated digitization component of your CSBR project, how much money will be left for new cabinets, compact storage systems, etc?

Prioritization is a good thing, and it was important to prioritize digitization as a national objective because of its potential to massively increase the scope and impact of collections as a resource for the support of science. But at the same time, it would be a pity if this were to bring a halt to the great strides that have been made under BRC in improving the physical wellbeing of collections.

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