Posted: 3/19/2024

Dear Colleague Letter: Innovative Use of Scientific Collections (IUSC)

March 18, 2024

Dear Colleagues:

With this Dear Colleague Letter (DCL), the National Science Foundation (NSF) encourages submission of proposals to participating NSF programs (listed below) that foster Innovative Use of Scientific Collections (IUSC) and/or associated digital data for novel research, education, and training applications within and across STEM disciplines.

Scientific collections are a fundamental resource underpinning scientific understanding and discovery. A 2014 memo from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) defines scientific collections as "sets of physical objects, living or inanimate, and their supporting records and documentation, which are used in science and resource management and serve as long-term research assets." The 2018 NASEM report, "Open Science by Design: Realizing a Vision for 21st Century Research," emphasized the importance of preservation of and access to scientific collections and associated digital records to support scientific transparency, reproducibility, and discovery. A 2020 NASEM report concluded that threats to the sustainability of the nation's biodiversity collections include"...a general lack of understanding of their value and their contributions to research and education." Specific language in the Chips and Science Act, HR4346 emphasizes the importance of NSF's continued support for securing and improving collections and collection-related data, and NASEM decadal surveys in the geosciences (e.g., the 2015 "Sea Change report for the ocean sciences and the 2020 "Earth in Time" report for the earth sciences) have identified the critical need for curation, preservation, and expansion of access to physical samples to address scientific priorities. One way to improve this situation is to increase and diversify the ways in which the research community can access and use scientific collections and collections-associated digital data and metadata.

NSF has made significant investments in collections and collections-associated data over the last decade. Collections-focused NSF initiatives in the recent past have included the Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections program and the Collections competitive area of the Postdoctoral Research Fellowships in Biology. Currently, investments in collections include the Capacity: Biological Collections programmatic area in the BIO Division of Biological Infrastructure as well as collection of biological, genomic, and geological samples and specimens collected by the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) from terrestrial and aquatic sites and housed at the NEON Biorepository. The Geosciences Directorate has long supported samples and collections through its core and sample repositories, and NSF cyberinfrastructure-oriented programs have supported projects to manage collections-associated data and metadata, such as iDigBio and certain projects funded through EarthCube and GEO Open Science Ecosystem programs. In addition, disciplinary research-oriented programs across the foundation have supported efforts to use collections and physical samples, either embedded into research projects or as standalone efforts. Increasing and diversifying the use of collections and collections-associated data would maximize the research, training, and education return on these investments.

Collections and the associated data are powerful yet underutilized research and educational resources. While collection use is routine and vital in several biology, geoscience, and anthropology subdisciplines, an immense untapped potential exists for their use in other fields and subfields such as the social and behavioral sciences, epidemiology, cell and molecular biology, microbial ecology, engineering and materials science, conservation biology, Earth science, critical minerals, ocean science, polar science, and computer science, as well as in training, education, and broadening participation in STEM. Collections of physical samples and resulting data are also a critical long-term archive of biodiversity, climate change, and fluctuations in other Earth systems and can contribute to research towards a sustainable bioeconomy. Furthermore, the cost of increasing research and educational use of collections is in many cases small, since the resources already exist and are often freely accessible. This creates an opportunity for low-cost but high-impact research projects that also engage students in authentic research experiences. In addition, developing community partnerships between established collections (such as in natural history museums), and training programs at primarily undergraduate institutions or minority-serving institutions, creates a strong potential to broaden participation.

Increasing and diversifying the use of collections and collections-associated data thus has the potential to improve understanding of their value in research, training, and education; contribute to fundamental research in fields and subfields that currently underutilize them; and broaden participation by increasing opportunities for developing or strengthening partnerships.

In advance of submitting a proposal in response to this DCL, interested proposers are strongly encouraged to contact a cognizant Program Officer in the relevant NSF program(s).