Natural history collections are hugely important as a scientific resource and infrastructure, as well as a public and cultural experience, according to a new report.
The societal benefits of digitizing natural history collections extend to global advancements in food security, biodiversity conservation, medicine discovery, minerals exploration, and beyond.
A new economic report, “The Value of Digitising Natural History Collections,” predicts investing in digitizing natural history museum collections could also result in a tenfold return. The Natural History Museum, London, has so far made more than 4.9 million digitized specimens available freely online and more than 28 billion records have been downloaded over 429,000 download events over the past six years.
Digitization is the process of creating and sharing the data associated with Museum specimens. To digitize 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.
Biodiversity, geodiversity data very valuable
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.
London’s 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 and open access for global researchers, scientists, and artists.
This means the Museum has digitized about 6 per cent of its collections to date. Because digitization 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 digitization 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 modeling, resulting in this project report, now made publicly available in the open-science journal Research Ideas and Outcomes (RIO Journal), and confirming benefits in excess of £2 billion over 30 years.
“Sharing data from our collections can transform scientific research and help find solutions for nature and from nature. Our digitized 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,” said Helen Hardy, Science Digital Programme Manager at the Natural History Museum.
How digitization impacts scientific research?
While the methods in this report are relevant to collections globally, this modeling focuses on benefits to the U.K. and is intended to support the Museum’s own digitization work, as well as a current scoping study funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council about the case for digitizing all U.K. natural science collections as a research infrastructure.
The data from museum collections accelerate scientific research, which in turn creates benefits for society and the economy across a wide range of sectors. Frontier Economics Ltd. has 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.
“The Natural History Museum’s collection is a real treasure trove which, if made easily accessible to scientists all over the world through digitization, has the potential to unlock ground-breaking research in any number of areas. Predicting exactly how the data will be used in the 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,” explained Dan Popov, Economist at Frontier Economics.
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 digitization are at least 10 times greater than the costs. This represents a compelling case for investment in museum digital infrastructure without which the many benefits will not be realized.
“This new analysis shows that the data locked up in our collections have significant societal and economic value, but we need investment to help us release it,” said Professor Ken Norris, Head of the Life Sciences Department at the Natural History Museum.
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 digitizing specimens means that researchers anywhere on the planet can access these collections, saving time and money that may have been spent as scientists traveled to see specific objects.
The study’s authors are Hardy, Popov, Priyanka Roychoudhury, Laurence Livermore, and Ken Norris.