Mass-Digitizing Biodiversity Collections of the United States

Author: Nick Pyenson


Mass digitization of U.S. biodiversity collections would position the nation to achieve massive advances in the life sciences—a leap forward on par with the way that DNA technology transformed genomics at the start of the 21st century. This heritage consists of hundreds of millions of dry, wet, and otherwise preserved specimens in U.S. museums and other collections, including plant germplasm, microbial cultures, non-human biomedical samples (e.g., parasites), fossils, and other plant and animal samples. This proposal presents actions for the Biden-Harris Administration to take to catalyze this advance to pave the way for a sustained, coordinated effort to mass digitize the physical specimens in U.S. biodiversity collections (and their associated metadata).

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About the Author

Nicholas Pyenson is the curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. As a paleontologist, his expeditions have taken him to every continent, and the results of his team’s discoveries have been published extensively, including cover articles in the journals Science and Nature. Along with his collaborators, he has named over nearly a dozen new species of fossil vertebrates, discovered the richest fossil whale graveyard on the planet, and described an entirely new sensory organ in living whales. His research has received the highest awards from the Smithsonian, and he has also received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from the White House. His book describing his work, Spying on Whales, was featured on national television and radio, and included in many best science book compilations. He completed his postdoctoral fellowship at the University of British Columbia, received his doctoral degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and has a bachelor’s degree from Emory University. Pyenson is also a member of the Young Scientists community at the World Economic Forum.