Vast Federal Biological Collections at Risk
U.S. Geological Survey Shirks Responsibility for Managing Troves of Specimens
Washington, DC — The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the world’s foremost earth science agency, has little interest in protecting the prodigious and growing collections assembled by its biologists and other specialists, according to a complaint filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, decades of important biological specimens are destroyed, lost, or given away. Under the maxim of museum management that says, “A collection that is not growing is dying,” the biological collections within USGS are simply awaiting extinction.
Approximately 20 years ago, USGS inherited hundreds of ecological scientists marooned from a failed attempt to create a National Biological Survey. The resulting merger never quite took. One casualty was the huge agglomeration of plants, animals, and genetic tissues these scientists brought with them. USGS never officially recognized the specimens as scientific collections nor conducted inventories to determine their content and physical location. These conditions persist today.
Scientists collect fossils, plants, and animals and associated data to document the existence of an organism at a given time and space and to ensure repeatability of research. Once investigations are finished, the scientific collection is typically preserved and managed in perpetuity. USGS, however, has failed to acknowledge them as scientific collections and categorizes the majority of them as “working collections” which are considered expendable and carry no obligation to manage or preserve. Consequently, USGS
- Has no policies for archiving biological collections after a study is complete and no guidelines for preserving and tracking specimens;
- Still lacks a complete or accurate inventory of its biological collections. As a result, few of these research archives are accessible to other researchers, let alone the public; and
- Recently adopted a Museum Management policy declaring that one of its priorities is to control growth of its natural history collections by not accessioning further additions, thus making space and budgetary considerations rather than a collection’s scientific value the controlling factor of whether it is preserved.
One USGS biologist recently stated, “In general, these collections are disposed of through incineration once the project is completed.” Another added that –
We have no dedicated space or personnel to maintain biological samples beyond their intended purpose. These samples, particularly those preserved in formalin or alcohol, then become a safety and environmental hazard as containers become old and seals begin to fail. We need a permanent central repository with staff and funding to maintain these collections.
“The evidence of our ecological heritage is in jeopardy of being lost or discarded,” stated PEER Counsel Laura Dumais, noting that much of the key long-term ecological research conducted in the U.S. is done by the Ecosystems Mission Area of USGS. “These materials should be preserved for science and for the benefit of future generations.”
PEER today filed a complaint with the U.S. Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General requesting a performance review of how USGS manages all of its collections, including fossil and cultural artifacts. One major problem is that USGS collection management operates under the 1879 statute which created it and which has not been updated.
Noting that USGS offers no room for collection growth or support for safekeeping, Dumais stated, “We urge USGS to take a holistic look at how best to protect the entirety of its scientific legacy.”
See what biological collections look like
View new USGS Museum Management Policy
Read recent Bioscience article critiquing USGS collections practices