European Natural Science collections contain around 1.5 billion specimens representing an estimated 55% of global collections and 80% of the worlds bio- and geo-diversity. Data derived from these collections underpin countless innovations, including tens of thousands of scholarly publications, products critical to our bio-economy, databases, maps and descriptions of scientific observations.
For the first time, these institutions are uniting under the largest ever formal agreement between natural science collections.
The Distributed System of Scientific Collections (DiSSCo) is an initiative that brings together 114 museums, 21 countries and 5000+ scientists with a vision to unify these collections into one digital repository. The DiSSCo initiative has been proposed to the European Strategic Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI), which works to improve the use and development of large international research infrastructures. A formal decision on DiSSCo will be announced in September 2018 at the 4th International Conference on Research Infrastructures in Vienna, and if successful will result in an eight year programme of work to develop the infrastructure necessary to unify a range of activities across partner institutions, including:
- Access, creating a common digital gateway and integrated physical access to collections;
- Policies, agreeing operational procedures and developing a common framework for prioritising collections digitisation and research;
- Expertise, create an integrated registry of experts linked to European collections;
- Knowledge, by linking and visualising collections data with additional environmental, genetic, anatomical and literature resources; and
- Training, developing the next generation of researchers, citizen scientists and educators to improve our understanding of the natural world.
DiSSCo builds on the work of related initiatives including CETAF, the Consortium of European Taxonomic Facilities, and SYNTHESYS, an EU funded programme operating since 2004. Both CETAF and SYNTHESYS provide access, research and networking activities for partner institutions. DiSSCo greatly expands the scope of these previous initiatives by providing a technical mechanism to support development of the infrastructure necessary to mobilise and integrate the vast quantities of digital data generated from the digitisation of collections.
Vince Smith, who leads the Museum’s informatics programme and is the UK coordinator for DiSSCo said “in the past decade, major advances in digital, genomic and information technologies have taken place, supporting new opportunities to use natural science collections. DiSSCo will be essential to unlocking these opportunities, supporting research that will help us map a sustainable future for humans and the natural systems on which we depend.”
The Natural History Museum is one of over thirty UK museums and herbaria that could become partners in DiSSCo, subject to the programme’s successful admission to the ESFRI roadmap. This was amongst the topics discussed at a recent meeting of the UK collections community in Bristol, as part of an Ellerman Funded project to support UK regional collections.
DiSSCo already puts in place a common vision for European Natural Science collections, and helps to align a series of complementary projects, such as ICEDIG and MOBILISE, two recent initiatives involving the Natural History Museum’s Digital Collections Programme and Data Portal. The plans developed through DiSSCo also help to align European ambitions with those of comparable initiatives across the globe – major national and international data aggregators, and organisations that support and encourage collections digitisation, like GBIF, iDigBio, CRIA, SANBI and Atlas of Living Australia, who are working internationally to create openly accessible global resources of collections data.
Dimitris Koureas, Programme leader for DiSSCo based at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands added that “the work undertaken by DiSSCo will be essential for answering fundamental scientific questions about key ecological, evolutionary, and geological processes and how they interact to shape our planet. Mobilising natural science collections through digitisation and genomic approaches, coupled with linking these datasets across domains, provides an incredibly powerful research tool for understanding the past, present and future of the natural world.”