Washington, DC — The status and fate of enormous stores of irreplaceable biological specimens collected over decades will soon undergo an independent inspection, according to a letter posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The outcome could prevent the dissolution and continuing hands-off management of the far-flung, immense, and growing collections assembled by biologists and other scientists of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
Last June, PEER filed a complaint charging the USGS with deliberately failing to protect its biological and other scientific collections. The agency considers them “working collections” which can be disposed of or given away, attaching no stewardship responsibilities to them. Unlike a “working collection” of rocks that might be consumed in analysis, specimens of plants and animals and their records provide irreplaceable evidence of long-term historical trends and unique events if preserved for the long-term.
“The U.S. Geological Survey thinks of itself primarily as an earth science agency, assigning its bio-science role to the proverbial ‘kid’s table,’” stated PEER Counsel Laura Dumais, noting that USGS picked up biological work only 20 years ago following a failed reorganization. “Unfortunately, this unwarranted upstairs-downstairs science hierarchy within the USGS puts the integrity of our ecological history at risk.”
After PEER updated its complaint in September, Mary Kendall, the Deputy Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Interior indicated in a letter dated December 17, 2015 that her office would act on the PEER complaint and conduct “an inspection regarding the issue.” This intervention comes as USGS is engaged in several current or pending actions that would turn over management of USGS collections to others, including a large natural history collection to the University of New Mexico.
Despite its custody of these extensive and expanding biological collections, USGS still lacks any policies for archiving them after a study is complete, and provides no guidelines to its scientists for preserving and tracking specimens. Moreover, USGS appears to be the only Interior agency which does not recognize specimens of fossils, plants, and animals as museum property, a violation of the intent of the Interior Museum Program and the Interagency Working Group of Scientific Collections.
“In the U.S. Geological Survey, space and budget rather than a collection’s scientific value determines whether it is preserved,” added Dumais, expressing the hope that the Inspector General review will corroborate PEER’s contention that USGS interprets federal and Department of Interior policy and terminology in a way that inappropriately minimizes its fiscal and stewardship responsibilities. “We hope that the upcoming investigation will include an independent cost–benefit analysis to assess the relative costs of managing all of USGS’s collections – both biological and geological. While there are costs to all Federal agencies for responsibly managing scientific collections, it doesn’t have to break the bank.”