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Photo of Arden Bement

Dr. Arden L. Bement, Jr.
National Science Foundation

"Scientific Collections: Preserving Our Heritage of Discovery, Enriching Our Legacy to the Future"

Interagency Working Group on Scientific Collections
National Museum of Natural History
Washington, DC

July 13, 2009

Thank you, Dr. Shah, for that kind introduction. Secretary Clough, thank you for hosting this gathering. Dr. Holdren, Dr. Marburger, Dr. Lubchenco, Dr. Miller, and distinguished guests: it is a distinct honor to be here today along the National Mall. From the Library of Congress, to the National Botanic Garden, to the National Museum of Natural History and the many other venues of the Smithsonian Institution: few places speak so eloquently of the power of scientific, artistic and literary collections to engage, to enrich and to fuel the imagination of our Nation.

For over 200 years, non-Federal collections have been part of our national heritage of exploration, discovery and invention.

Let me cite just one example. When Meriwether Lewis returned to this city late in 1806, he delivered to President Jefferson—our national Scientist-in-Chief at that time—three bodies of work from the Lewis and Clark Expedition that have become part of our national treasure: namely, their journals, their newly-drawn maps, and part of their collection of plants, animals and minerals. Today, many of the scientific fruits of the Expedition still reside in non-Federal collections—notably, at the American Philosophical Society and the Academy of Natural Sciences, both in Philadelphia.

In March of this year, the National Science Foundation published a Brief Overview of Findings based on a survey of 611 non-Federal scientific collections. In the scope of their work and in the issues of their management and protection, non-Federal collections parallel their Federal counterparts.

Specifically, the Overview of Findings noted that "Although many (non-Federal) collections are reported to be adequately staffed and maintained ... an equal number of collections are understaffed, unsatisfactorily maintained, underfunded and insecure in their future." And some are orphans, destined to be disposed of.

The Overview of Findings also clearly stated that NSF has a stake in ensuring that collections created during the conduct of NSF-supported research are well-maintained and accessible to researchers and educators through the use of modern technology.

Thus our generation has a grand new responsibility -- and opportunity. Not only do we need to collect, catalog and curate, we must connect these collections electronically. Today every item in every collection is potentially like a star in a great constellation that can be viewed or analyzed by anyone in the country or across the world.

Scientific collections, Federal and non-Federal, are a national treasure and a global resource. They serve as sources of data for new insights for years to come and as a legacy we pass on to inspire future generations of scientists, engineers and explorers.

This is why NSF looks forward to advancing this work with OSTP, the Interagency Working Group on Scientific Collections, and the scientific community. We also look forward to advancing this work with the parallel international effort under the auspices of the OECD Science Forum. We all want to make sure that these important resources are available to support coming generations of scientific research and education.

For just as these collections are a heritage we have received, so they in turn become the legacy we pass on to the future.