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Digitising entire Natural History Museum collection could add £2bn to economy

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The societal benefits of digitising natural history collections results in global advances in food security; biodiversity conservation; medicine discovery; minerals exploration, and beyond, according to a new economic report. These benefits more than justify the cost of the digitalisation process.

The Natural History Museum, London has increasingly been creating digital data about its collections in recent years, with a formal Digital Collections Programme established since 2014. Efforts to monitor the outcomes and impact of this work to date have focused on metrics of digital access, such as download events, and on citations of digital specimens as a measure of use. Digitisation projects and resulting research have also been used as impact case studies, highlighting areas such as human health and conservation.

The new economic study - carried out by Frontier Economics Ltd for the Natural History Museum, London - predicts that investing in digitising natural history museum collections could result in a tenfold return. The Natural History Museum, London, has so far made over 4.9 million digitised specimens freely available online, resulting in 28 billion records being downloaded in over 429,000 download events since 2015.

Digitisation is the process of creating and sharing the data associated with Museum specimens. To digitise a specimen, all its related information is added to an online database. This typically includes where and when it was collected and who found it and can include photographs, scans and other molecular data if available. Natural history collections are a unique record of biodiversity dating back hundreds of years and geodiversity dating back millennia. Creating and sharing data this way enables science that would have otherwise been impossible and it accelerates the rate at which important discoveries are made from collections.

The Natural History Museum’s collection of 80 million items is one of the largest and most historically and geographically diverse in the world. By unlocking the collection online, the Museum's intention is to provide free and open access for global researchers, scientists, artists and any other interested parties.

This rate of digitalisation to date equates to approximately 6 per cent of the Museum's total collections. As the digitisation process is expensive - costing tens of millions of pounds - it is difficult to make a case for further investment without better understanding the value of this digitisation and its benefits.

In 2021, the Museum decided to explore the economic impacts of collections data in more depth and commissioned Frontier Economics to undertake modelling, resulting in the report now released, which concludes that benefits in excess of £2bn over 30 years could be achieved for the global economy.

While the methods in the report are relevant to collections globally, the modelling focused on benefits to the UK and was intended to support the Museum’s own digitisation work, as well as a scoping study funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council about the case for digitising all UK natural science collections as a research infrastructure.

Helen Hardy, science digital programme manager at the Natural History Museum, London, said: "Sharing data from our collections can transform scientific research and help find solutions for nature and from nature. Our digitised collections have helped establish the baseline plant biodiversity in the Amazon, find wheat crops that are more resilient to climate change and support research into potential zoonotic origins of Covid-19.

"The research that comes from sharing our specimens has immense potential to transform our world and help both people and the planet thrive."

The data from museum collections accelerates scientific research, which in turn creates benefits for society and the economy across a wide range of sectors. Frontier Economics looked at the impact of collections data in five of these sectors: biodiversity conservation; invasive species; medicines discovery; agricultural research and development, and mineral exploration.

Dan Popov, an economist at Frontier Economics, said: "The Natural History Museum’s collection is a real treasure trove which, if made easily accessible to scientists all over the world through digitisation, has the potential to unlock ground-breaking research in any number of areas. Predicting exactly how the data will be used in future is clearly very uncertain.

"We have looked at the potential value that new research could create in just five areas focussing on a relatively narrow set of outcomes. We find that the value at stake is extremely large, running into billions."

The new analyses attempt to estimate the economic value of these benefits using a range of approaches, with the results in broad agreement that the benefits of digitisation are at least ten times greater than the costs. This represents a compelling case for investment in museum digital infrastructure without which the many benefits will not be realised.

Professor Ken Norris, head of the Life Sciences Department at the Natural History Museum, said: "This new analysis shows that the data locked up in our collections has significant societal and economic value, but we need investment to help us release it.

"Other benefits could include improvements to the resilience of agricultural crops by better understanding their wild relatives, research into invasive species which can cause significant damage to ecosystems and crops, and improving the accuracy of mining.

"Finally, there are other impacts that such work could have on how science is conducted itself. The very act of digitising specimens means that researchers anywhere on the planet can access these collections, saving time and money that may have been spent as scientists travelled to see specific objects."

The full report - The Value of Digitising Natural History Collections - is publicly available from the open-science journal Research Ideas and Outcomes.

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