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GlobalNavigating around hazards to barcoding, 2011

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iBOL Chair sees risks, also remedies

Since becoming chair of the Board of the iBOL corporation in early May, I have thought many hours about iBOL navigating to its goal: a total of 5,000,000 sequences from 500,000 species in its public library by the autumn of 2015. To raise the odds of reaching this scientifically gratifying and practically useful goal the Board now maintains a formal Risk Register of hazards on the way to 5 million. Let me mention here four hazards that have risen on my personal list during the past five months and suggest safe ways around them.

1. Slow flow of specimens from major natural history collections toward the barcode library
Technology for getting barcodes economically and efficiently from older specimens stored in museums has progressed rapidly. We have cordial relations with many great collections. Three to five of these major collections committed to partnerships with the barcoding movement for the next four years would remedy the patchy flow of specimens and accelerate iBOL toward its goal of expanding to a half million species and 5 million specimens covering high priorities for societal benefit and for basic science. Let’s strengthen partnerships with natural history collections and deploy the new technology.

2. Reluctance to board the Open Science speed boat
The acceleration of biomedical science, astronomy, and other fields owes much to adoption during the past decade of the policies AND PRACTICES of promptly sharing observations and data. Because funders, including Genome Canada, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, are committed to open access, our slowness to get on board Open Science presents a real peril. I support the Shock Treatment of opening all barcode data our labs have amassed. The consequent transparency would correct errors more quickly. And opening a 5-fold larger database than we currently operate will open opportunities for authors of rewarding papers faster than we can fulfill them.

3. Isolation from the world of app developers
Every time a barcode paper or website mentions a species, it ought, for example, to be linked to the relevant site in the Encyclopedia of Life, which now has web pages with vetted content for more than 750,000 species. Similarly, we should be linking to information about collections of specimens, much of it now united in the Global Biodiversity Information Facility. The barcoding movement needs to ensure that the architecture of its own sites is open, so that app developers worldwide will freely build sparkling apps that link our work with a few clicks to 300 years of accumulated biological knowledge elsewhere on the web. Increased integration in the e-Biosphere and consequent accessibility to app developers will multiply the value of barcodes.

4. Impractical division of labor between universities and similarly academic institutions on the one hand and private sector institutions on the other
Universities are good at education and research. They often lack the organization and employee competencies to excel at other functions. Universities operate by semesters, unlike, for example, medical testing companies, and they have low security of facilities. They are perplexed by “customers” other than students. The barcode movement increasingly needs to engage private sector entities to provide a spectrum of barcoding services on a reliable, predictable, profitable basis, and in ways that will withstand legal and regulatory challenges. Academics invented and tested barcoding, and they can continue to build the library and explore its applications, but private business people and government agencies increasingly need to realize its practical uses, 52 weeks per year in a profitable and thus self-sustaining way.

The good news is that iBOL and its partners can navigate past these risks. We ourselves can engage with the great collections, commit to practice Open Science and release data, create a context in which apps arise to link us magically to all biological knowledge, and cultivate partners outside academia who will provide the barcoding services that can realize its practical potential.

Jesse H. Ausubel
Chair, iBOL Inc.


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