Geotimes Logo POLITICAL SCENE October 1996

AGI workshop examines geoscience data preservation

Last year, the National Research Council released the report, Preserving Scientific Data on Our Physical Universe, focusing on the challenges of preserving and managing data collected either by federal agencies or with federal funds. The report concluded that "a general problem prevalent among all scientific disciplines is the low priority attached to data management and preservation by most agencies. Experience indicates that new research projects tend to get much more attention than the handling of data from old ones, even though the payoff from optimal utilization of existing data may be greater."

The low priority assigned to data preservation is a common problem across the sciences -- a problem compounded by current budgetary constraints. No discipline is in greater need of improved data preservation than geoscience, which faces the additional problem of continued downsizing by U.S.-based petroleum and mining companies. This downsizing is jeopardizing vast quantities of valuable data critical to our understanding of Earth's environment and natural resources.
The American Geological Institute (AGI) convened a Washington workshop in July to examine the data preservation challenges and opportunities faced by the geoscience community. Geoscientists from industry, academia, and government came together to develop AGI position statements and rally support for the National Geoscience Data Repository System (NGDRS). The NGDRS is an AGI effort to transfer private-sector geoscience data that is in danger of being destroyed into public repositories. An initial feasibility study determined that companies are willing to donate billions of dollars worth of seismic, drill core, and other geoscientific data to the public domain. Potential uses of industry data include environmental protection, reducing risks from earthquakes and other geologic hazards, nuclear waste disposal, and natural resource development. The NGDRS project is funded jointly by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and industry.

The big picture

The NGDRS project has focused on preserving seismic data, drill cores, well cuttings, and paper records. Workshop participants explored ways to broaden this effort to include other types of geoscience data that are imperiled, most notably paleontological collections and environmental data.

The paleontology community faces a growing number of orphaned and threatened collections, particularly of invertebrate fossils. Industry microfossil collections are vulnerable; universities and colleges that no longer have paleontologists on their faculty are seeking to dispose of their collections; and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), with few paleontologists left on staff, is trying to transfer its holdings to other facilities. Many individual personal collections, which together may well dwarf all others in size, are also in jeopardy.
Because most geoscience data are spatial in nature, workshop participants also discussed community concerns about the future quality and content of USGS topographic maps. Participants agreed that digital data and map formats are increasingly the way of the future, but they urged the survey to maintain the current level of quality and content as the transition is made away from traditional methods of generating paper maps.

Voicing concern

Following the workshop, participants met as constituents with their senators and representatives; they also met with key committee staff and federal agency officials. As a result of those meetings, several legislators wrote letters urging their colleagues to support funding for the NGDRS in the FY 1997 appropriations bill now before Congress. Funding for geoscience data preservation was included in the President's budget request for the DOE Fossil Energy R&D program, but the House voted to transfer those and other funds to a gas turbine project sought by General Electric. The Senate restored the funds, and as of early September the two houses had not yet met in conference to work out their differences.

Workshop participants also met with officials at the White House Office of Management and Budget, the USGS, Minerals Management Service, Bureau of Land Management, and DOE to foster additional agency support for geoscience data preservation. Despite broad concern over our nation's increasing reliance on foreign sources of oil, spending on fossil energy R&D is viewed with suspicion in both parties as "corporate welfare." The DOE budget is projected to decrease sharply in future years, making it imperative to find additional sources of federal support for data preservation.
As the lead geoscience agency in the federal government, the USGS will have a major role to play in the future of geoscience data preservation. When the survey faced elimination last year, officials contacted the Rocky Mountain Association of Geologists to seek industry support to keep the Denver core repository open. With the threat of elimination receding and budgets reasonably stable (if stagnant), the USGS has since pledged to support the repository. Workshop participants agreed that the USGS has a responsibility to preserve and maintain data and expressed their hope that the USGS will show leadership in this area, working with AGI and the geoscience community.

Setting priorities

One question that participants faced on Capitol Hill was why the interest in "old data." The question reflects an assumption that little worth remains after a certain "shelf life" has expired. This assumption is true for some interpreted data, where processing was limited by older technology, and for data that have physically degraded. In many cases, however, historic data -- whether rock cores, fossil collections, or unprocessed seismic tapes -- are as valuable as data collected today as long as they have been properly indexed and catalogued. Much of this material comes from areas where environmental regulations or increased urbanization preclude re-sampling or make it prohibitively expensive. The value of such unique data is immeasurable. These problems with "old data" point up the need for setting priorities -- one of the great hurdles ahead for preserving geoscience data. As one participant suggested, the immediate issue is preservation, but the larger issue is management.

With anticipated resources, it is impossible (and unwise) to preserve all data. Instead, decisions must be made about which data should be preserved. Basic criteria include physical stability and proper cataloguing. Beyond that, decisions must consider the ability to re-sample a given area, the geologic uniqueness of the information, and how the data can be applied to known or predicted problems. Another important aspect of management is the development of standards for repositories that make it easy to transfer information.
Each of the many types of geoscience data poses particular challenges for preservation efforts. If these efforts are to succeed, we must respond as a community, recognizing our shared interest in ensuring the preservation of geoscience data for future research, resource development, and environmental efforts.

(Position statements developed at the workshop can be found at the AGI web site )

David Applegate
Director of Government Affairs
American Geological Institute

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