USGS Fumbles Its Biological Collections

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For Immediate Release: Sep 17, 2019
Contact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

Belated New Policy Leaves Troves of Scientific Specimens in Limbo

Washington, DC — The good news is the U.S. Geological Survey finally adopted a policy, in response to a complaint from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), to address its burgeoning but unsecured biological collections. The bad news is USGS’ new policy falls well short of what is needed, shortchanging both researchers and the scientific community.

For the past four years, PEER has been pressing the USGS to redress its lack of any written policies or guidelines for its vast natural history collections, some of which have existed since the late 1880s, that comprise the bulk of USGS collections. As a result, decades of important biological specimens have been destroyed, lost, or given away.

A 2015 PEER request spurred a critical 2017 report from Interior’s Office of Inspector General (IG). USGS dismissed the findings while promising to address the problem. In 2018, PEER filed a complaint charging that the USGS response to the IG was false and demanded a retraction under terms of the Information Quality Act.

After stalling through repeated extensions of the 90-day deadline for answering such complaints, USGS announced that it had adopted a new policy this summer and dismissed the PEER complaint. Today, PEER appealed this dismissal arguing that the new USGS policy is deficient.

“Preserving and documenting the original specimens that support scientific conclusions, especially those that are published, is critical for doing good science,” stated Pacific PEER Director Jeff Ruch, noting that USGS neither consulted with, or even notified, its own scientists about this new policy. “USGS still lacks coherent polices for preserving vast natural history collections that reflect an irreplaceable slice of America’s biological legacy.”

PEER’s critique cites inadequacies of the new USGS policy, including that USGS –

  • Still classifies its natural history collections as “working collections” not intended for long-term preservation despite their scientific value. As a result, few of these research archives are accessible to other researchers to re-examine these materials, let alone accessible to the public;
  • Lacks procedures to track or inventory the disposition of scientific and working collections; and
  • Ignores conflicts with other federal policies and does not acknowledge the property interests of individuals, tribes, or other public agencies.

“The root cause is that USGS has not budgeted for the space or resources to house these collections,” added Ruch, pointing out that the PEER appeal is now before the USGS Director. “The best that can be said is that safeguards for our biological heritage stumble forward.”


View the USGS response to PEER

Read the new PEER complaint

Look at the six extensions USGS awarded itself

Examine the critical IG report

See the new USGS policy

Revisit the problem

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