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The economic benefit of digitising an entire museum collection has been quantified for the first time.
Research has found that digitising the Museum's 80 million objects would contribute to biodiversity research, the study of invasive species and the safeguarding of agricultural crops to the tune of billions of pounds.
The Museum's collection is one of the largest and most historically and geographically diverse natural history collections in the world.
It contains rocks that date back to the beginning of the solar system, birds and beetles collected in southeast Asia by Alfred Russell Wallace and natural history books dating back to 1469. The collections represent an astonishing repository of knowledge about the natural world, both past and present.
The information held within these objects is crucial for a whole range of scientists, from those studying how the climate crisis will impact the environment to those figuring out how to make agricultural crops survive a changing climate.
To make these collections as accessible to as many people as possible, the Museum has already started digitising these objects. But there is still a long way to go.
As the Museum prepares to move a large part of the collections to an off-site location at Harwell, Oxfordshire, which will include new facilities to aid in the digitisation of specimens, a new report has delved into the benefit that this could bring to the global economy.
The report estimates that digitising the entire Museum could contribute upwards of £2 billion for the economy.
Dr Ken Norris, Head of Life Sciences at the 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.'
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, photographs, scans and other molecular data if available. This data can then be accessed and downloaded for free by anyone with an internet connection.
Since 2015 the Museum has digitised 4.93 million objects, which has resulted in over 28 billion downloads contributing to some 1407 scientific publications. These papers have been on a range of subjects including climate change, biodiversity, crop security and human health.
But this is just a fraction of the 80 million objects in the Museum's collection, many of which may contain information which could one day lead to significant scientific breakthroughs.
To understand how digitising the entire Museum collection could contribute to the UK's economy, Museum researchers have been working with consultants at Frontier Economics.
For the first time ever, the researchers looked at different ways in which digitising the entire Museum collection could benefit the economy, including the return on investment and what the value of digitising specific areas of the collection would bring.
Dan Popov, from Frontier Economics, 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.'
Based on the typical return on investment within science, the team found that for every £1 invested in digitising the Museum's collection, the return would be at least £10. But this is a conservative estimate based on some general assumptions.
When the researchers looked in more detail at specific areas of research, the advantages could be broken down into more tangible benefits.
For example, the digitisation of specimens such as plants would improve accessibility of these samples for external researchers which in turn could lead to a larger range of species being tested for potential new drugs, while studying the wild ancestors of agricultural crops could help in imporving their sustainability as the climate warms.
As the current biodiversity crisis unfolds, the vast wealth of knowledge held in the Museum's collections could be key to preserving the life that maintains the ecosystems which support us. But to protect an area, scientists and policy makers first need to know what lives there. Digitisation can aid in this by enhancing taxonomic knowledge, which can help improve the detection of threatened species. The resulting slowdown in the decline of threatened species could contribute up to £1 billion to the economy alone.
Helen Hardy, Science Digital Programme Manager at the Museum, says. 'It's really exciting to have this analysis to help show the relevance of collections to the challenges and opportunities in the world today.
'We hope this report will encourage colleagues at other institutes to start or increase digitisation programmes and help create an increasingly collaborative scientific community.'
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.