Natural Science Collections Facility to protect South Africa's mega biodiversity

The launch of the Natural Science Collections Facility (NSCF) will see over 30 million preserved plant, animal and fossil specimens from more than 40 museums, science councils and universities in the country organised under a single coordinating hub.


These natural science collections, built up over 200 years, present economic and scientific opportunities and are used by researchers all over the world.


Examples of these materials and associated data include assessments of South Africa's endangered plants, specimens of reptiles and insects, and maps showing priority biodiversity areas to guide development and priority areas for conservation.


The collections are essential as a reference for accurately identifying materials for bioprospecting and agriculture. In addition, they can be used to track pathways for the spread of diseases and pests, and to analyse movements of animal species, which is especially relevant for sustaining biodiversity-based industries such as fishing.


Data associated with the specimens are used for modelling climate change impacts on economically important species' distributions, timing ecologically important events such as pollination, and spatial planning that informs decision-making for sustainable development.


An assessment of South Africa's natural science collections showed that while there were pockets of excellence, the collections were under-resourced and not used to their full potential, with many of them being at risk of loss.


The NSCF will see the collections housed in a virtual facility with the central coordinating hub based at the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI).


The Department of Science and Technology (DST) will spend more than R50 million over the next three years to establish the virtual facility. Speaking at the launch of the facility in the Drakensberg yesterday, the DST Chief Director for Basic Sciences and Infrastructure, Dr Daniel Adams, said the NSCF was one of the 13 research infrastructure facilities identified as part of the South Africa Research Infrastructure Roadmap.


"Access to adequate and relevant research infrastructure is essential for promoting quality outcomes and research, so as to develop a competitive and sustainable National System of Innovation," said Dr Adams.


He added that adequate levels of funding for such infrastructure formed a key component of any national research system.


According to the project leader, Prof. Michelle Hamer, Director of Zoological Systematics at SANBI, the different institutions, and even collections within single institutions, operate largely in isolation.


"Establishing the NSCF would address these problems with a number of collections at different institutions that work towards a common set of goals and targets and produce coordinated outputs," said Prof. Hamer.


The NSCF will secure the collections through the development of national standards and policies for curation and interventions, improve access to collections by providing a single entry point to the specimens and services associated with them, and digitise images of specimen collection databases.


The facility will also coordinate strategic research based on the collections that address priority questions and develop relevant capacity to care for, document, expand and research the collections. 


Issued by the Department of Science and Technology.


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