Topic: Moon shot ideas

Question: It has been suggested that the biodiversity collections and natural science museum communities would benefit from a “moon shot” that could catapult the importance and potential impact of the biodiversity sciences into the human psyche as an indispensable resource, similar to the way the early days of space exploration cemented itself as a national priority and instigated new careers and interest in technology. Do you agree with this notion and if so, what might this look like?

I fully agree with this notion - moonshots, while perhaps overhyped, can be important for galvanizing efforts and producing meaningful impacts! It is hard for one person to outline a single moonshot that unites all of museum science/biodiversity collections, but perhaps something emerges after some individual efforts at outlining moonshots by members of the community who have particular expertise in certain areas of research.

As a genomics researcher, one moonshot that stands out to me is sequencing the genomes of all museum specimens. This will probably prove impossible, but even if we got to 50% of museum holdings, that would be game-changing for our ability to address many scientific questions. We are only beginning to demonstrate our ability to produce datasets like this from museum cryo or tissue collections, which are most ideal for this purpose, so we have a long way to go even there. As is the case with most moonshots, scale is important, and this goal requires scaling operations and technology to process probably millions of samples from cryo/tissue collections alone. But I am also cautiously optimistic that more concerted efforts toward deriving genomic data from traditional voucher specimens, which are typically degraded, is possible and this is the type of major technological hurdle that typically characterizes moonshots.

And beyond genomes, museums have only taken baby steps so far toward applying other genomics technologies that profile gene expression or epigenomic information that illuminates new dimensions of biodiversity. Can you imagine the utility for biodiversity and biomedical research of cross-species genomics datasets composed of reference genomes and detailed cross-tissue molecular information, while retaining largely intact vouchers suitable for other investigations? I think an Action Center could help to channel our efforts in directions like these. I will leave it at those couple of examples for now and am anxious to hear from other scientists with similar/different expertise about their ideas, and general thoughts on the potential for synergies between moonshot ideas.

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Supporting and following up on what Daren Card described, as an evolutionary biologist with a population-genomics focus, I would like to add to the data an infrastructure component, based on the Digital Extended Specimen concept (DES), that will allow us to work with data efficiently and effectively. Densely interlinked and harmonized by widely used standards, data of different types and transdisciplinary origins, eg. collection data, DNA, climate, habitat, phenotypes, management regimes, etc., will become findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable, that is, FAIR. At the same time, this is complemented by data digitally born already in the field and a network of infrastructures that accompany our work at all steps throughout the work processes, adding further, additional (meta)data to the digital specimens as we go along. While the development and implementation of the DES itself often seems huge, even impossible at its global scale, still it is only a technical facilitator, though necessary, for my moonshot.

The real moonshot that inspires me, provides orientation to my work and integrates a social and societal dimension and meaning is the goal to transition from an extraction-based economy to an economy of natural capital accounts. Individuals’, towns’ to countries’ and regions’ prosperities will be linked to how well they can restore biodiversity and the environment, and encourage, manage and use thriving biodiversity at all levels and scales.

In such a system, it will be essential to know and understand biodiversity. A kid able to find, recognize and report a new or rare bug will add to a town’s budget. Thus, at all levels communities will have an intrinsic interest to have access to top-notch reference collections, providing biodiversity vouchers, data and knowledge as a basis for capacity development. They will want local collection institutions, knowledge systems and experts, because these are part of their base of income and add to their livelihood.

[And no, not every variation is a (sub)species that counts towards alpha diversity (adding another dimension to the question of splitting vs. lumping). And do you really understand locally adapted lineages and hybrid/admixture processes sufficiently to assist the migration of that critter from the East to the West coast to bolster your local diversity and ecosystem resilience?]

Not long ago such thoughts were fringe, esoteric and the naive ideas of tree-huggers. Today, the science-policy processes towards such service-oriented and natural capital accounts are in full swing (see e.g. this US report from last year). Ecosystem services and nature-based solutions are discussed widely and there are intense debates about even the terms to use and their definitions. Presumably, because countries have already started to use these solutions to improve the climate and biodiversity balances of their national reports. In addition, there is the “System of Environmental-Economic Accounting - Ecosystem Accounting” (SEEA-EA) of the UN Statistical Division. There expert economist are moving from the ecosystem level to accounting for and including the finer scales of biodiversity, ie. species and genetic/genomic diversity. They are calling for collaboration with our communities to close these gaps.

It’s truly a moonshot. Though important processes are already underway in this direction. An Action Center could support, maintain and strengthen connections and collaborations with existing and arising processes outside of the biodiversity sciences.