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Schindel, D. E. and the Economic Study Group of the Interagency Working Group on Scientific Collections. 2020. “Economic Analyses of Federal Scientific Collections: Methods for Documenting Costs and Benefits.” Report. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Scholarly Press.


This document is a work of the United States Government and is in the public domain


Federal object-based scientific collections have been created to serve agency missions and, in a few cases, to comply with legislative and regulatory mandates. “Project collections” (those managed by the researchers who obtained them for restricted use) and their costs and benefits were considered too varied for standard methodologies that assess costs and benefits. In a few cases, departments and agencies are required by legislation or regulations to retain objects in long-term “institutional collections.” In most cases, decisions to retain objects are based on long-term costs relative to the perceived potential for benefits to taxpayers. Federal collections vary in their philosophies and practices of offsetting operating costs by charging users for access to their collections. Operational costs vary among institutional collections, reflecting differences in the size of collections, types of material they contain, and differences in the services they provide to the agency, extramural users, and society in general. This report describes six general services that federal institutional collections provide. Departments and agencies vary in the number of services they offer and the degree to which these services have been developed. Returns on investment are controlled, in large measure, by decisions about what is accessioned into a collection, policies concerning user fees and access, and the services provided by a collection. Those collections that offer only the basic service of accessioning objects have limited ability to generate benefits because few users will know about and have access to objects in the collection. By offering more services, collections broaden their potential use to: future generations (through proper maintenance and preservation), intramural research and by extramural users (through online documentation and user access programs), users in other disciplines (through data curation), and the general public (through education and outreach). The benefits generated by federal institutional collections can take many forms, both monetary and non-monetary. These benefits are usually indirect and delayed, and the value chains that connect costs to benefits are generally difficult to document. This report describes five methodologies (and their strengths and weaknesses) that are available to federal collections for describing and estimating the benefits they generate. Departments and agencies can use the methods described here for evidence-based decisions concerning policies and management practices for their institutional collections.