CAPE TOWN - 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.
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).
Speaking at the launch of the facility in the Drakensberg , 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.
The Department of Science and Technology (DST) will spend more than R50 million over the next three years to establish the virtual facility.
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.
It also includes 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.
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.
Harmer told Business Report that they are constructing offices for the hub with a small public exhibition space (total of 327m2) and this will be located in the Pretoria National Botanical Gardens.
The display area will be open to the public. However, it is not a large area relative to the public spaces at museums.
"The Hub area is currently out for tender, and we anticipate that it will be completed by the end of 2018," said Prof. Hamer.
"In the public display area there will be a small number of actual specimens but most of the displays will be virtual , we still need to design and develop the details of these," said Harmer.
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.