Digitising Natural History Museum’s collections could create immense global societal benefit – with economic value of more than £2bn

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Credit The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

The societal benefits of digitising natural history collections extends to global advancements in food security, biodiversity conservation, medicine discovery, minerals exploration, and beyond.

Brand new, rigorous economic report predicts investing in digitising natural history museum collections could also result in a tenfold return.

The Natural History Museum has so far made over 4.9M digitised specimens available freely online – over 28bn records have been downloaded over 429k download events over the past 6 years.

In a world first, the Natural History Museum has collaborated with economic consultants, Frontier Economics Ltd. to explore the economic and societal value of digitising natural history collections and concluded that digitisation has the potential to see a tenfold return on investment. Whilst significant progress is already being made at the Natural History Museum, additional investment is needed in order to unlock the full potential of the Museum’s vast collections – more than 80 million objects.

Digitisation at the Natural History Museum – so far

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 we accelerate the rate at which important discoveries are made from our collections.  

Helen Hardy, Science Digital Programme Manager at the Natural History Museum, says: “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 planet thrive.”

© Frontier Economics Ltd
© Frontier Economics Ltd

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 provides free, immediate and open access for global researchers, scientists, artists and more. Since 2015, the Museum has made 4.93 million specimens available on the Museum’s Data Portal (data.nhm.ac.uk) which have seen more than 28 billion downloads over 427,000 download events. 

This means the Museum has digitised ~6% of its collections to date. Because digitisation 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 digitalisation and its benefits. New analyses done by Frontier Economics Ltd enables the Museum to fully grasp these benefits and create this vital case for further investment. 

How digitisation impacts scientific research 

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 Ltd have 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, Economist at Frontier Economics Ltd, says: “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 value of research enabled by digitisation of natural history collections can be very large, creating benefits in excess of £2 billion. Benefits can be estimated by looking at specific areas where the Museum’s collections contribute towards scientific research and subsequently impact the wider economy. © Frontier Economics Ltd.
The value of research enabled by digitisation of natural history collections can be very large, creating benefits in excess of £2 billion. Benefits can be estimated by looking at specific areas where the Museum’s collections contribute towards scientific research and subsequently impact the wider economy. © Frontier Economics Ltd.Read more

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 says: “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.”

The scientific process of using and developing collections to deliver benefits is truly international, involving partnerships with the countries where the specimens originate and with many other parts of the world. The Museum strongly supports the international Convention on Biological Diversity, that governs best practice in collecting and using genetic material, and ensures that countries of origin consent to and benefit from utilization.  

The research was funded as part of the Natural History Museum’s programme to build a leading-edge science and digitisation centre NHM@Harwell at Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire. The development of the centre is a key part of the Museum’s plans for digitisation, enabling a major acceleration of collection digitisation to generate and share vital big data on the natural world and spark new collaborative research addressing major global challenges such as biodiversity loss and emerging diseases. Over 27 million Museum specimens will be housed at the facility alongside cutting edge-laboratories once construction is completed in 2026.

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