The White House Wants More Fossils and Moon Rocks Online

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Agencies have six months to develop draft policies for expanding online access to scientific collections.

Federal agencies that manage scientific collections such as space rocks, fossils and animal tissue samples have six months to write draft policies describing how those collections will be made more accessible to the public online, according to a White House memo.

The memo from John Holdren, director of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, envisions a central clearinghouse for digital information about government’s scientific collections developed, in part at least, by the Smithsonian Institution.

Those policies should be consistent with earlier guidance requiring agencies to make their data open to the public and machine readable whenever possible, the memo said. When government information is published in open formats, it's easier for nongovernment groups to parse through large volumes of data to gather educational insights or to build Web and mobile tools that deliver targeted information to the public.

Local science teachers, for example, could comb through such a database to gather photos and other information about geological samples from their area.

“These collections are public assets,” the White House said in a blog post announcing the memo. “They play an important role in promoting public health and safety, homeland security, trade, and economic development, medical research, resource management, education, and environmental monitoring…For the American public, students and teachers, they are also treasure troves of information ripe for exploration and learning.”

The draft policies should include “a strategy for providing online information about the contents of the agency’s scientific collections and, where appropriate, for maximizing access to individual objects in digital form for scientific and educational purposes” as well as the agency official responsible for carrying out the policies, the memo said.

The online collections should also include metadata, the memo said, describing where a sample came from, when it was collected and other information. 

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