History museum

Digitization of the entire Natural History Museum collection could add £ 2 billion to the economy


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The societal benefits of digitizing natural history collections translate into global advances in food security; conservation of biodiversity; discovery of medicine; mining exploration, and beyond, according to a new economic report. These advantages more than justify the cost of the digitization process.

The Natural History Museum in London has increasingly created digital data on its collections in recent years, with a formal digital collections program established since 2014. Efforts to monitor the results and impact of this work to date are focus on digital access metrics, such as download events, and citations of digital specimens as a usage metric. Digitization projects and the resulting research were also 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 in London – predicts that investing in the digitization of natural history museum collections could increase returns tenfold. The Natural History Museum in London has so far made more than 4.9 million digitized specimens freely available online, enabling 28 billion records to be downloaded in more than 429,000 download events since 2015 .

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

The collection of 80 million objects from the Natural History Museum is one of the largest and most diverse in the world, both historically and geographically. By unlocking the collection online, the intention of the Museum is to provide free and open access to researchers, scientists, artists and other interested parties around the world.

This digitization rate to date is equivalent to approximately 6 percent of the Museum’s total collections. As the process of digitization is costly – tens of millions of pounds sterling – it is difficult to advocate for additional investment without better understanding the value of this digitization and its benefits.

In 2021, the museum decided to further explore the economic impacts of collections data and asked Frontier Economics to undertake modeling, which resulted in the now published report, which concludes that benefits of more than 2 billion pounds sterling over 30 years could be obtained for the world’s economy.

While the report’s methods are relevant to collections around the world, the modeling focused on the benefits for the UK and was intended to support the museum’s own digitization work, as well as a funded scoping study. by the Arts & Humanities Research Council on the case of digitizing all of the UK’s natural science collections as research infrastructure.

Helen Hardy, Scientific Digital Program Manager at the Natural History Museum in London, said: “Sharing data from our collections can transform scientific research and help find solutions for and from nature. Our digital collections have helped establish basic plant biodiversity in the Amazon. , find wheat crops more resistant to climate change and support research on the potential zoonotic origins of Covid-19.

“The research that emerges from the sharing of our specimens has immense potential to transform our world and help both people and the planet to prosper.”

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 examined the impact of data collected in five of these sectors: biodiversity conservation; invasive species; drug discovery; agricultural research and development and mineral exploration.

Dan Popov, Economist at Frontier Economics, said: “The collection of the Natural History Museum is a true treasure which, if made easily accessible to scientists around the world through digitization, has the potential to unlock ground-breaking research in a number of Predicting exactly how the data will be used in the future is clearly very uncertain.

“We looked at the potential value that new research could create in just five areas by focusing on a relatively small set of findings. We find that the value at stake is extremely large, reaching into the billions.”

The new analyzes attempt to estimate the economic value of these benefits using a range of approaches, with the results broadly agreeing that the benefits of digitization are at least ten times greater than the costs. This is a compelling argument for investing in the digital infrastructure of museums without which the many benefits will not be realized.

Professor Ken Norris, Head of the Department of Life Sciences at the Natural History Museum, said: “This new analysis shows that the data locked in our collections has significant societal and economic value, but we need investments for us. help disseminate them.

“Other benefits could include improvements in the resilience of agricultural crops through a better understanding of their wild relatives, research into invasive species that can cause significant damage to ecosystems and crops, and improved accuracy. of mining.

“Finally, such work could have other impacts on the way science is conducted itself. The very act of digitizing specimens means that researchers from anywhere on the planet can access these collections, saving time and money that could have been spent when scientists traveled to view specific objects. “

The full report – The value of digitizing natural history collections – is accessible to the public from the open-science journal Ideas and research results.

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