Inclusivity and re-imaging natural science collections at the 2019 NSCF Forum

This year’s Natural Science Collections Facility (NSCF) Forum was held from 28 – 30 May 2019 at Goudini Spa Resort in Rawsonville, Western Cape, with Professor Michelle Hamer giving the opening address.

Co-hosted by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and the Department of Science and Technology (DST), this second NSCF Forum attracted 130 participants representing tertiary institutions, museums, research institutes and government departments. Learning about and understanding South Africa’s natural science collections, change management, leadership, transformation and access to collections and their data were some of the thematic areas focused on.

Natural science collections serve as a reference library of species, both extinct and living, and are considered to be critical research assets. The state of natural collections is an increasing concern and this has been recognised by the natural science community. This Forum allowed for and created the opportunity for deep discussions about potential ways of addressing some of these concerns, especially for transformation and increasing access to the collections for research, which are both important for promoting the value of the collections to society.

What made this Forum unique was its novel engagement method that involved a radical shift away from the traditional one-way communication style of presentation of talks delivered at conferences, towards the use of creative and participative facilitation methodologies. This included participant-led group discussions, activities, and the screening of biodiversity conservation related film and documentaries. This allowed for plenty of time for direct one – on – one interactions and group engagements amongst the participants.

The official opening and welcome of the Forum was given by Dr Anthony Magee on behalf of SANBI, and Mr Leluma Matooane from the DST. “The intention is to use the NSCF to learn. The Department of Science and Technology is in support of the NSCF’s efforts and wants to use the platform to engage and collaborate.” emphasized Matooane.

The South African colonial and Apartheid history of exclusion and discrimination in science still plagues scientific undertakings and its effects are evident in research and natural science collections. Matters such as hierarchy, power, privilege, language, disability, race, gender, education, outreach, science communication, job tenure, job security, training, leadership, succession, school curricula and several others in the practice of science were courageously deliberated, dialogued and discussed amongst the participants during activities that focused on professionalising work in the natural science collections, change and inclusivity as part of the transformation process.

The last day of the Forum addressed the concept of access to the collections and the specimen data as a critical aspect of a national research infrastructure. The demands of authentic collaboration and data access, ownership, the stewardship of data, open access risks, the threats of data management and an innovative approach to discussions regarding the main barriers to access to natural science collection data were meaningfully engaged with.

The NSCF is a virtual facility consisting of a network of institutions that hold natural science collections that are accessible to external researchers. According to Hamer who is the Director of Biosystematics & Research Collections at SANBI and the DST – NSCF project lead, there a need for a virtual museum as it will be used ‘To increase access to collections, to contribute to secured collections and to increase the value of the collections.’ The collections being referred to are considered as research infrastructure, and include more than 30 million specimens and samples and these need to be secured, safe and accessible. The virtual museum will be online and web-based in order for it to be accessible to researchers globally.

The NSCF Forum proved to be a great and interesting experiment, and its highlights included:

  • A gala dinner celebrated under the theme ‘traditional’ wherein participants were encouraged to dress and showcase their heritage and cultural regalia, proving that a common heritage and humanity is shared and extends beyond the science and research dedicated to natural collections and conserving biodiversity;
  • The importance of collections used for serving broader society through education, citizen science and public understanding projects with emphasis on inspiring young scientists and promoting South Africa’s unique biodiversity assets;
  • Collections are to be secured and accessible physically and virtually for research;
  • Data from specimens in collections are accessible and used for managing collections, research and decision-making;
  • A commitment to improving internal and external NSCF related communications through the use of social and web-based media.

The NSCF community has ambitious plans and goals lined up for the year, which includes strengthening and building the NSCF community of practice and learning from one another. Although in its infancy stage the NSCF has made notable progress, such as appointing capacity and funding upgrades to collection facilities. The project team highlighted the following areas where significant advancements have been made:

  • Audrey Ndaba, the Collections Management Coordinator, highlighted the progress made in strengthening the ties between collections managers and technicians across institutions, which has resulted in the formalisation of standardised policies and processes in the collections;
  • Ian Engelbrecht, the Data Coordinator reported on efforts to digitize specimen records for the three key plant families, migration of collections data to the Specify data management platform, capacity development for data management, and plans to develop tools to clean and georeference collections data;
  • Shanelle Ribeiro, the NSCF Project Manager, showcased the extensive use of the collections and associated services, reporting that 417 peer-reviewed papers have been published and 318 new species have been discovered across NSCF partner institutions during the last two years.

The NSCF is hosted by SANBI and is funded by the Department of Science and Technology (DST). The NSCF is funded as part of the DST’s South African Research Infrastructure Roadmap (SARIR), which is intended to be a long-term programme.

For more information about the National Sciences Collection Facility (NSCF) visit the website www.ncsf.co.za and / or contact Michelle Hamer on m.hamer@sanbi.org.za

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