Saturday, February 07, 2009

The Continuing Loss of Scientific Infrastructure - Decline of Systematics

The state of systematics in the nation and at the National Agricultural Research Center, BARC, is grim. Trying to build a coalition of support with zero funding is daunting. I seem to be talking to myself on Capitol Hill. Advocating on behalf of systematics is like lobbying for rivets underneath a bridge - no one cares until the bridge collapses, then everyone points fingers and bemoans the poor state of the failed infrastructure. Somehow, we as a people think that everything we need to know can be found on "Google", and that research which is not "sexy" is not useful and can be provided by someone else somewhere in the ether.

As to those involved with the impacts of invasive species, systematics is the core upon which all decision will be based. We can not legislate or regulate what we cannot identify.

An online-accessible report notes that "Beginning in 2005, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) called on Federal agencies to focus attention on integrated support and planning for their care and use of Federally held scientific collections."

I have linked to a report of the Interagency Working Group on Scientific Collections
for the following information:

"We need to keep items collected in the conduct of research because advances in science depend on a strong and cumulative evidence base. Scientific collections comprise an important part of that base. To build that base, researchers use the scientific method, an approach that includes systematic accumulation of data, the testing of hypotheses, and scientific replication. It is only through repeated observation and documentation that a consistent evidence base is developed and a finding can stand the test of time."

"Immediate access to collections: Urgent problems can call for immediate access to scientific data."

"Maintaining scientific collections can provide users with immediate access to critical specimens."

"Replacement costs. The passage of time, technical challenges, or prohibitive costs make it all but impossible to replace the contents of a collection when it is needed at a later date. Some locales may be physically inaccessible for a variety of reasons."

"Irreplaceable object. Many specimens collected decades ago can no longer be recollected because the locality has either disappeared or a species has gone extinct."

"Critical Redundancy. Research organizations keep collections in different places and maintain large collections of similar specimens for several reasons such as in the event of natural disaster."

"Research is a distributed enterprise. Federal research serves a wide range of constituencies and issues. To serve their mission efficiently, researchers and the collections they use need to be located in many different places."

"Variation in nature. Studying the variability within and among biological populations and geological specimens often reveals the processes that underlie their nature; this study of variation is a basic component of the scientific method. Large sample sizes are often needed in order to make statistically significant interpretations."

"Safety in numbers. Scientific collections of living specimens reduce the risk of catastrophic loss by guaranteeing that a pool of genetic variability is available to protect and ensure diversity, and to ensure the reintroduction and replenishment of the genetic stock."

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