NSF CSBR Funding Hiatus- A letter from the living collection community

April 26, 2016

NSF CSBR Funding Hiatus- A letter from the living collection community

April 26, 2016

Dr. James L. Olds
Assistant Director
Directorate for Biological Sciences
US National Science Foundation
4201 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, VA 22230

Dear Dr. Olds,

The US Culture Collection Network and its stakeholders appreciate the opportunity to comment on the hiatus in accepting proposals by the US National Science Foundation Collections in Support of Biological Research (CSBR) program. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the value of the physical object itself is even higher. Biological specimen collections including microbial culture collections strive to organize, preserve, characterize, and distribute the actual objects described in scientific research.

Formal, organized biological collections are an essential component of research infrastructure. As a special category of biological collection, living research collections allow generations of scientists to work on professionally validated and preserved living materials, minimizing specimen loss, genetic drift and contamination. These types of collections are undergoing expansion in the volumes and types of data connected to the specimens, the intrinsic value of the materials in economic and regulatory terms, and in the public awareness of the need for core support to these resources. Living collections also foster reproducibility of scientific experiments, in an increasing diversity of research areas.

An enormous range of life science research at academic institutions, government agencies, and companies depends on the three interdependent resources offered by living stock collections: the specimens, the associated data, and the expertise of the collection curators. Organisms are being used in ways the scientists who deposited them into collections decades ago never could have imagined, such as development of PCR based on discovery of heat-stable DNA polymerase produced by an obscure bacteria preserved in the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC) for decades.
Thus, living collections are the libraries of biology. Thanks to advances in biochemical genetics and whole genome sequencing, we are able to “check out” samples from these libraries, knowing its exact characteristics from prior work – in many cases from studies funded in past decades by NSF, and/or involving database programs funded by NSF. These characteristics include things like antibiotic or anti-cancer drug production, the ability to benefit or harm agriculture, the use in food or fiber production and processing, in biofuel production, and as reagents for diagnostic and environmental tests to keep our world safe.

Through a 2012 Research Coordination Network grant by the NSF CSBR program, a community of living collection scientists called the US Culture Collection Network have made significant progress in implementing best practices, developing shared resources, speaking with a common voice, and in seeking alternate support. Because the materials in living collections cannot survive without curation, gaps in support endanger the very existence of these collections. Unlike natural history collections, living organisms that require tending cannot physically survive a “hiatus”; the stocks die. Similarly, funding gaps and insecurity create staffing challenges. Because of their inherent long-term nature, collections require staff with specialized skills and knowledge, including knowledge of the collection history and holdings, taxonomy, database and website management, quality management, shipping regulations, biosafety regulations and international treaty obligations pertaining to genetic resources.

Many of the living microbe collections in the US that are particularly valuable because they contain material from different places, times, or branches of the tree of life, are endangered or orphaned due to retirement, decreased funding, or increased regulatory restrictions. Many of the isolates in these endangered living microbe collections will be impossible to replace due to habitat loss and changes in genetic resource ownership. The NSF CSBR program has been the primary extramural funding source to rescue these irreplaceable collections, but is already insufficiently funded to fulfill the existing need.

Living collections, including microbe, plant, and animal collections, make every dollar in federal biological science research funding go farther. They allow scientists at different institutions, and even from different eras, to work on the exact same living materials. Simply put, living collections ensure “apples to apples” comparisons. When living research materials are available at low cost and from authoritative sources, regulatory compliance and public safety are enhanced. By way of contrast, when the full cost of maintaining these resources is borne by the end-user, the ability to conduct pilot studies to lay the foundation for grant proposals, the ability of researchers at historically under-served institutions to engage in modern research, and by extension, the use of well-qualified biological materials in secondary, post-secondary, and graduate training is compromised. Successful models have demonstrated that institutional and governmental funding of biological collections assures a more even playing field, providing affordable access to fundamental research materials.

For many decades, the US National Science Foundation has been a leader in supporting diverse living collections at universities and non-governmental institutions. Among these, collections of algae, bacteria, fungi, and yeasts support diverse research communities and complement, but do not overlap significantly with other public collection holdings. The USDA microbe collections are managed as an intramural program, and the US NIH disbanded the National Center for Research Resources under P.L. 112-74 in 2011. Some medically oriented microbe collections are operated under contract by the ATCC and some specialized collections receive support from different institutes at the NIH, creating an uneven playing field. Moreover, because the ATCC has had to be self-supporting for several decades they have charted an independent path that precludes managing the large numbers of microbial isolates used in active research.

The hiatus in accepting grant proposals for Collections in Support of Biological Research at the US National Science Foundation impacts not only the collections themselves, but the thousands of users who depend on these collections. The Natural Science Collections Alliance, Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections and the American Institute of Biological Sciences recently expressed their desire for a return to funding collections and the American Phytopathological Society has long been a leader in advocating for living microbe collections. In signing this letter, we add our voices to this effort to encourage not just a cancellation of the hiatus, but an increase in support for living scientific collections for research and education.

Thank you for considering this letter in support of funding living collections as a fundamental component of a mature science infrastructure.

Kevin McCluskey, PhD
Curator, Fungal Genetics Stock Center
Kansas State University

Kyria Boundy-Mills, PhD
Curator, Phaff Yeast Culture Collection
University of California, Davis

David Nobles, PhD
Curator, UTEX Culture Collection of Algae
University of Texas, Austin

John E. Wertz, PhD
E. coli Genetic Stock Center
Yale University

David Smith, PhD
Director of Biological Resources
CAB International
Surrey, UK

Seogchan Kang, PhD
Professor, Department of Plant Pathology & Environmental Microbiology
Penn State University
University Park, PA

Jessie A. Glaeser, PhD
Team Leader, Center for Forest Mycology Research
US Forest Service, Northern Research Station
Madison, WI