The following letter was written by living collection curators and sent to the NSF on June 2, 2016

June 3, 2016

The following letter was written by living collection curators and sent to the NSF on June 2, 2016

June 2nd, 2016

James Olds, PhD
Assistant Director for Biological Sciences
National Science Foundation
4201 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, VA 22230

Muriel Poston, PhD, JD
Director of the Division of Biological Infrastructure
National Science Foundation
4201 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, CA 22230

Dear Drs. Olds and Poston,

The living collections community appreciates the opportunity to provide feedback to the Collections in Support of Biological Research (CSBR) program within the Directorate for Biological Sciences at the National Science Foundation. The living collections community includes dozens of scientists that serve as the directors, managers, and curators of over 20 living collection resources that are invaluable long-term infrastructure investments. We also hope to represent the thousands of scientists who utilize our living stock centers as fundamental resources for their individual research programs, many of which are supported by NSF research grants. As a community, we appreciate this opportunity to express our concern for the 2016 CSBR funding hiatus, hoping to provide constructive feedback that represents collective input from the US living collections community and our constituents. We have been pleased to learn that the NSF has announced a return to accepting proposals for CSBR in 2017, though we nonetheless have concerns about the adequacy and reliability of resource support going forward. The living stock collections that we oversee span the Tree of Life (from bacteria to plants, fungi, and animals), and provide the foundational tools necessary for research in nearly every biological discipline including basic and applied research with spin-off impact in diverse areas of technology and engineering at every scale. These collections are the result of decades of careful acquisition, curation, quality control, and stewardship. They are each unique and irreplaceable. Moreover, they serve as a resource for the education community and are heavily used by educators from K12 through the university level. Contributions to education come in the form of elementary school science fair projects, citizen science ventures, high school science labs, university science curricula, and training grounds for the next generation of STEM scientists. Finally, they encourage strong community engagement through contributions to museums, zoos and other institutions of public interest.

1. Scope of Collection Support

The living collections community has multiple concerns with regard to the adequacy and scope of collection support provided by CSBR, enumerated here, and further amplified below: 1) The inconsistent funding environment with large program changes over the last six years has been disruptive, and consequently, has curtailed efforts towards improving best practices and curatorial innovation, 2) Careful financial analysis has repeatedly shown that the expectation for living collections to be self-supporting and sustainable is unrealistic, and efforts on our part to increase user fees have created a sense of distrust and insecurity amongst our user base, and 3) By combining the diverse and sometimes conflicting needs of living and natural history collections into a single resource pool, CSBR has inadvertently underserved both communities and created a false sense of competing agendas. Rather, both communities should be encouraged to cooperate and send a unified message to the governing authorities who control federal research dollars. The inconsistent support for living collections by NSF has resulted in a variety of negative outcomes. First, it sends a message to hosting institutions, supplemental funding sources, and to the research community that living collections are low priority infrastructure resources. This implicit message results in reduced institutional support and increased difficulty in acquiring support from additional funding sources. Inconsistent support for infrastructure resources also has the potential to negatively impact the quality of stocks maintained by compromising salary continuity, and leads to gaps in the implementation of quality control protocols to verify stock health and identity.
The living collections community is also concerned about recent initiatives by NSF that living collections must progress to self-sufficiency. This expectation is unrealistic for two fundamental reasons: 1) a self-sufficiency model shifts all costs to the end users who themselves are struggling with limited research dollars, and 2) this model sharply reduces institutional incentives to host living collection resources. In our collective experience, when costs are shifted to the end-user, the increase in fees drives down stock utilization by as much as 50%, which results in further financial challenges for the collection. Reducing access to strains has a larger impact on smaller labs, institutions, and training programs relative to larger labs with more resources. Equal access to stock repositories by researchers should be considered a priority of funding agencies. The expectation that living collections be self-supporting also restricts research endeavors to a small number of research systems with sufficient internal resources and creates obstacles to progress rather than enabling diverse and innovative research activities. In the worst cases it will lead to collection closure, but in all cases it will force collections to decide between quality of the collection and the diversity that the collection holds. Similarly, when stocks are not available from central repositories, there is an increase in ad hoc exchanges, often without regard to regulations on movement of genetically modified or potentially pathogenic or invasive organisms.

2. Proposed Solutions for Living Collections Support

Our fundamental recommendation is that the NSF return to a separate panel model wherein living stock centers are considered and funded independently from fossil and other archival natural history collections. While the overarching aims for the documentation and study of life on earth are shared by the living stocks and museum resource centers, they differ in fundamental ways that should be individually treated by the NSF and by the research community. Whereas archival collections are fundamental to understanding the past, living stocks centers are critical for examining biological phenomena in real time. Real-time analysis of organismal “behaviors” spans scientific disciplines as diverse as molecular evolution via analysis of genomic mutation rates, to disease transmission, reproductive biology, cancer genetics, behavioral ecology, cognition, cell biology … the list is truly limitless. One exceptional example is the ability to use CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing tools on stocks from living collections. This uniquely situates living stock collections to provide resources that link research through time as new technological advances are added to our toolkit. The dynamic nature of living stock collections allows them to parallel advances in research by enabling incorporation of novel stock types as the community develops them.
The current mechanism for evaluating living stocks and archival natural history collections within a single panel has inadvertently undervalued the value and the objectives of both categories of resource center. In addition to the differences outlined above, living collection staff are not typically funded by the host institution because they serve the research community at large. Thus, unlike the case with natural history collections, interruptions in funding will assuredly lead to immediate loss of personnel, loss of stocks, and even loss of whole collections.
The living collections community therefore respectfully requests increased funding stability, with a transparent directive from NSF, which will support competitive living collection proposals at a level covering at least 40% of the operating budget. Criteria for competitive proposals should include maximizing efficiency with a reasonable budget based on the number of stocks maintained, types of ‘products’ and support services provided, diversity of use, and distribution. One suggestion for improving stability is to explore new funding models with cross-agency (e.g. USDA, NIH, DOE) funding opportunities. New funding models should be explored in a joint meeting with members of the living collections community, funding agency representatives, and facilitated by FASEB, NSCA, APS or other wide-reaching societies.

3. CSBR Program Impact

Within the category of impacts of the CSBR program, the living collections community is particularly concerned about the expectation for collections to conduct innovative research in addition to infrastructure maintenance. The living collections community feels that the present three year project-based grants are a good mechanism to promote innovation and outreach but should be separated from sustenance support which can highlight efficient operation, quality management, and community engagement instead. The purpose of infrastructure is to provide access to high quality, professionally managed resources. One important evaluation metric, described below, is the number and type of publications depending on living collection resources.
As with all NSF-funded programs, there has been increased expectation for education and outreach programs. We embrace this mandate, and when sustenance support is provided on a long-term basis, outreach can extend beyond the individual research community supported by each living collection. Student engagement, safe and validated resource provision, and opportunities for educator involvement in long-term projects are facilitated. Thus, reliable, transparent, and quantitative mechanisms for collections support not only enhances scientific output and merit, it also powerfully enables the living collections community to perform its educational functions.

4. Evaluation Metrics

While it is difficult to generate a life-long tally, living collections resources have been cited in tens of thousands of publications, have generated a multitude of patents, and have been at the forefront of innovative technologies for decades. The pseudo h-index metric, which shows the number of highly cited publications, is being used at many collections and demonstrates impacts substantially higher than those produced by individual scientists.
The efficiency of maintaining living stocks in central repositories is decidedly superior to the alternative of maintaining duplicate lines. Thus, the most important metric for measuring the impact of a living collection is the total number of stocks provided to the community, and the diversity of institutions to which they are provided. There are numerous instances wherein multiple labs have created strains that have been misidentified through ad hoc maintenance. Support for central repositories for widely used stocks eliminates the need for individual labs to waste time and money collecting the organisms, creating new lines, maintaining duplicate research material, and distributing stocks to the community — but most importantly, professionally managed stock centers assure quality control and scientific repeatability.
Living collections are repositories that provide an avenue for repeatability that could not be substituted by any other mechanism. Repeatability is central to all scientific endeavors as was recently highlighted in Science. For many experiments, it is critical that precisely the same isolate or strain be used to ensure that the results are comparable. The utilization of the same stocks for a wide range of comparative experiments would be impossible without living collections, as some of the most widely utilized (and effective) stocks have been maintained successfully for more than 25 years, and include several model organisms, including biodiversity and type specimens.
Several federal agencies and societies are encouraging initiatives for journals to require that manuscripts document and acknowledge use of infrastructure resources, including stock numbers from living collections. This type of data is only available from living collections that maintain detailed records of their stocks, and provide details for the specific colonies/species used.

5. Call for Action

Living collections are the product of decades of careful curation, development of unique expertise, and collection and storage of associated metadata. Living collections staff are uniquely knowledgeable, and via interaction with the research community, provide irreplaceable expertise on choosing appropriate stocks, executing experimental design, and maintaining appropriate and sustainable husbandry practices. This level of experience leads to efficiency from the perspective of the collection, but also from the perspective of the researcher using the collection.
Most stocks in living collections have been accumulated over decades and are irreplaceable. Permits to collect in the wild are increasingly difficult to obtain, and/or funding is not available for collecting trips. Current living stocks have been generated through the work of large numbers of individuals — often funded through NSF grants — over the course of many years. Thus, while it is nearly impossible to put a monetary value on biological collections, it is manifestly clear that ad hoc management of living stock collections would result in loss of scientific repeatability, breaches in regulatory compliance, and untenable risks associated with independent professional collections. We urge the NSF to consider the unique value of established living collections, the scientific rigor and promise that they represent, and the impossibility of recreating these resources once they are lost by reinvesting in their continued maintenance and growth.

Respectfully submitted by:
Dr. Jelena Brkljacic
Associate Director, Arabidopsis Biological Resource Center
(Ohio State University)
Dr. Michael Felder
Director, Peromyscus Genetic Stock Center
(2005-2015) (University of South Carolina)
Dr. Erich Grotewold
Director, Arabidopsis Biological Resource Center
(Ohio State University)
Dr. Hippokratis Kiaris
Director, Peromyscus Genetic Stock Center
(University of South Carolina)
Dr. Pete Lefebvre
Co-director, Chlamydomonas Resource
Center (University of Minnesota)
Dr. Michael W. Lomas
Director, Provasoli-Guillard National Center for Marine Algae and Microbiota
(Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences)
Dr. Therese Markow
Director, Drosophila Species Stock Center
(2000-2016) (University of California San Diego)
Dr. Kevin McCluskey
Curator, Fungal Genetics Stock Center
(Kansas State University)
World Federation for Culture Collections Executive Board
Dr. David Nobles
Curator, Culture Collection of Algae
(University of Texas Austin)
Dr. Patrick O’Grady
Director, Drosophila Species Stock Center
(2017) (University of California Berkeley)
Dr. Maxi Richmond
Assistant Director, Drosophila Species Stock Center
(University of California San Diego)
Dr. John Wertz
Director, E. coli Genetic Stock Center
(Yale University)
Dr. Anne Yoder
Director, Duke Lemur Center
(Duke University)
Dr. Daniel R. Zeigler
Director, Bacillus Genetic Stock Center
(Ohio State University)