Scientific Collections Memorandum May Hint At Future Scientific Data Policies

Yesterday Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Director John Holdren released a Policy Memorandum on scientific collections maintained by the federal government.  The memo defines scientific collections as:

“sets of physical objects, living or inanimate, and their supporting records and documentation, which are used in science and resource management and serve as long-term research assets that are preserved, cataloged, and managed by or supported by Federal agencies for research, resource management, education, and other uses.”

The memo was prompted by language in the 2010 reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act (the same law that nudged OSTP to start working on policies for expanding public access to federally funded research data and scientific publications).  It also continues work started in 2005 to institutionalize thinking about scientific collections across the government.

Per the memorandum, agencies that own, maintain, or otherwise financially supports scientific collections will have six months to develop policies on those collections consistent with the memo, relevant federal law and the following additional government directives:

  • The 2010 OSTP memo on scientific collections
  • The 2013 OSTP memo on access to federally funded scientific research
  • The 2013 Executive Order on making open and machine readable data the new default for government information

Per the guidelines described in the memo, agency policies will need to cover not only the management, accessibility and quality of the collections, but establish procedures for coordinating with the Smithsonian (a logical lead agency on such matters), developing appropriate standards for digital files associated with the collections, and handling de-accession, transfer and/or disposal of agency collections.

What attracted my attention in all of this was the heavy emphasis on making these physical collections have as much of a digital presence as practical.  I am left to wonder whether or not this will influence future policies and procedures for maintaining digital repositories that may not have tangible elements – namely research data.

OSTP has not been hard and fast in enforcing its deadlines.  And it has either been very lax in follow through once agency policies have been established, or kept their actions far from public view.  Neither is encouraging, and the latter, if true, undercuts much of the goodwill policies like this one could build amongst the public and scientific stakeholder that are interested in the outcomes and outputs of federally funded scientific activity.

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