Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Sound of Silence

In previous posts, I've documented the emergence of a national strategy for the digitization of the US biological collections and the creation of a new NSF programs, Advances in the Digitization of Biological Collections (ADBC), as a first step in the realization of this strategy. If you haven't been following this and want to know more, just click on the word "digitization" in the tag cloud on the right hand side of this blog. I would also urge you to go take a look at the ADBC Community Blog.

One of the things that's struck many of us working on the digitization project is how little response we've had from the wider collection management community. During the initial process of creating the strategy, there was quite a bit of feedback from curators and researchers, and a little from collection managers. But since then, despite the emergence of more than $10 million from NSF to kick-start the initiative, there has been little in the way of further commentary. I find this quite worrying.

To explain why, I need to go back to the early 1990s and an initiative on taxonomy and systematics that was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). It was aimed at reversing the decline in taxonomic research in the UK; the long-term success of this initiative can be judged by the fact that there is yet another review of UK taxonomy going on at the moment with more-or-less the same objectives.

There were various reasons why the first initiative didn't work - lack of money was a key problem - but to my mind, one of its most striking features was that very few practising taxonomists or systematists were involved in its creation. Instead, the loudest voices were from the users of systematic research, especially researchers who used the so-called "comparative method" to study the evolution of life history strategies, host-parasite relationships, etc.

For these researchers, a major source of frustration was the lack of accurate phylogenetic trees to describe the interrelationships of the groups that they studied. They attributed this to a lack of trained taxonomists working on these groups, and went from there to making the case that the UK needed more taxonomists. A good thing, one might think. And so it was, as far as it went.

The problem was that this lack of taxonomists was just the outward sign of a much bigger and more complex set of underlying problems; these included the steady erosion of organismal biology in UK undergraduate degree programs, a lack of funding for museum collections, reductions in museum staffing at all levels (not just researchers), and especially a lack of permanent positions in universities and museums; it can take literally decades to acquire expertise in the taxonomy of some groups.

The researcher advocates of the taxonomy iniative were, by and large, ignorant of these issues. The taxonomists weren't. They were also alienated by some of comments made by promoters of the new program, who argued that, for example, funding should only be provided to do research on groups whose systematics are poorly understood. It may be a good way to use limited funds, but it's unlikely to win friends in an academic community that contains many vertebrate workers.

Another issue was hyperbole. The advocates of the program argued that this was a grand scheme for the benefit of humanity - to catalog all the species on the planet and uncover the one "true" phylogenetic tree that links them all. Talk like that tends to irritate practising taxonomists, who are well aware that species boundaries are notoriously fluid (even in relatively well-studied groups like mammals and birds) and that trees change every time new data emerges.

The end result of all of this was that the community that should have coalesced around the new initiative - a multidisciplinary collaboration between taxonomists, collection managers, biologists, conservationists, and the wider academic world; a community that could have perhaps leveraged more funding than the relatively modest amounts available to NERC - never formed. In time, the comparative method biologists moved on to other problems and the taxonomy initiative fizzled out after five years.

By now, you'll probably have seen where I'm going with this. The national collections digitization strategy is another program with ambitious objectives, albeit better-funded. It is being pushed strongly by the potential users of the newly-captured data. But it does not seem to have captured the imagination, energy, or enthusiasm of the people that actually work on collections. So do we have a problem?

At one level, I'd say no. The digitization iniative has the enthusiastic support of SPNHC, the society representing collections care professionals. SPNHC has pledged to work with applicants for funding under ADBC to help build collaborations with the collection management community and tackle some of the tricky practical issues with capturing large volumes of specimen data in a relatively short period of time. We also have at our disposal a raft of community-support tools - blogs, wikis, etc - that can disseminate information and feed back comments from stakeholders. If they choose to use them.

And this is where the problem comes in. Speaking bluntly, as one collection manager to others, we seem to have a problem historically in responding positively to change in our work and work practices. Our tendency is to assume that no-one understands the job we do; no-one consults with us; and no-one listens to what we say. In the past, sadly, that may have been so. But now, with this initiative, we're being listened to. The problem is, many of us are choosing to say nothing.

Maybe you're keeping your powder dry. Maybe you think that digitization is a distraction from the serious business of caring for collections. Maybe you think it's not enough money, or you suspect that the money that is available won't be coming to you. If so, then the answer is to get engaged. Comment on this blog. Better still, comment on the ADBC blog. Lobby SPNHC. Lobby your discipline-based societies - SVP, ASM, AOU, ASIH....  Do something.

For years, we as a profession have been arguing that what we do is important and that the collections we care for are a critical scientific resource that is worth protecting. Now, finally, we're being listened to. If we act strategically - if we see ADBC as the beginning and work as a community to build on it and leverage more support - then we have the potential to unlock enormous resources in support of our collections. If we stay silent, then I wonder if we'll ever be listened to again.


  1. Just from this post, it smells like a similar problem our institute has had with creating a central database for data. I think a lot of the problem is that the people you want to put the data in won't see the value in doing it. If you can make their workflows easier, and make them see that, curators might be more receptive.


  2. @Bob - you're right and that's the point we're trying to get across. Although the ultimate aim is to get more stuff on the web, there are a bunch of potential spin-offs, including optimizing workflows and freeing-up time to do more work on the physical curation. Plus there's the whole issue of boosting usage of the collections, which is a major need if we're to attract more funding. People need to look beyond the immediate goals of the program and see the long-term benefits.