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  Geotimes - March 2007 - Comment

Data Preservation: Old Samples Produce New Knowledge
John C. Steinmetz and Tamara L. Dickinson

Every so often you hear about a new species identified from a fossil rediscovered in a drawer in a museum or academic department. Yet such rediscoveries happen more frequently than you might realize. And it would be quite a shame if these treasure trove collections of raw data, including rock and mineral specimens, fossils, cores, cuttings, and paper and digital data, were lost forever due to lack of space or money to store them. This concern is what brought about a drive to preserve data.

As in all of the sciences, the progress geoscientists make relies strongly on the accumulated knowledge our predecessors recorded in “the literature.” But raw data collections are of particular value when they can be used to test new hypotheses, experiment with new analytical techniques or be examined with fresh eyes. The ability to preserve and maintain geoscience data and collections, however, has not kept pace with the growing need for information.

Geoscience data preservation in the United States is currently composed of a set of disparate facilities and programs, of variable effectiveness, with no national standards and little coordination. Some collection facilities are excellent; more commonly, however, materials reside in inadequately cataloged, overfilled and disorganized storage areas that often were not designed to be data repositories. Many federal and state geological repositories are at capacity. Two-thirds of state geological surveys are more than 90 percent full, and nearly half the state repositories are unable to accept additional samples.

A new federal law, the National Geological and Geophysical Data Preservation Program Act of 2005, provides an unprecedented opportunity to make important collections and data more widely available and preserve them through a national network of geoscience materials repositories and data archives. Passage of the act was the product of a process that began more than a decade ago. In 1994, the American Geological Institute (AGI) (which publishes Geotimes) initiated a National Geoscience Data Repository System project with the goal of identifying and preserving at-risk geoscience data.

In 2002, after a comprehensive examination of the status of the nation’s geoscience data and collections, the National Research Council published a report that developed a strategy for the preservation and management of geoscience data. Among its many recommendations were the establishment of a distributed network of regional data repositories, a cataloging effort to gather comprehensive information about existing data and collections, and incentives needed to make the system work. AGI subsequently published a report that provided an in-depth examination of the need for data preservation, current efforts by various organizations and cost-benefit analyses.

The data preservation act arrived at a propitious time and fits well in the president’s fiscal year 2007 guidelines to federal agencies, which noted that federal scientific collections required special attention. Federal agencies are to assess the priorities for and stewardship of federal scientific collections and to develop a coordinated strategic plan to identify, maintain and use federal collections.

The act envisions a national network of cooperating geoscience materials repositories and data archives that are operated independently, yet guided by common standards, procedures and protocols. Data will be archived according to accepted national and international formats and standards. The holdings of all collections will be searchable through a central Web portal. The holdings of the individual centers will complement each other to preserve the geoscience assets of the nation.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) will coordinate the program in association with the Association of American State Geologists. The program will be set up so that technical and financial assistance can be provided to fulfill its requirements. The program is currently limited to Department of the Interior bureaus and state geological surveys, but private industry and universities will be encouraged to partner with state geological surveys so that the valuable data that these organizations house are not left out.

The act authorizes $30 million for each of five years. Disposition of funds and implementation of the program await congressional passage of the USGS budget.

The value of our nation’s geological and geophysical data has long been recognized. The fact that significant portions of these materials are irreplaceable due to destruction of outcrops, urbanization, restricted access and prohibitive replacement expenses only increases their importance. If preserved, these materials and data will be invaluable for the next generation of scientific research and education and for providing economic benefits through the discovery of new oil and gas accumulations and mineral deposits. This exciting new program can provide a means to inventory, archive and preserve these precious data and collections, so that future rediscoveries can be made.

Steinmetz is the director of the Indiana Geological Survey at Indiana University and the chair of the Association of American State Geologists Geoscience Data Preservation Committee. E-mail: Dickinson is the program coordinator for the National Geological and Geophysical Data Preservation Program at the U.S. Geological Survey. E-mail:

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