A groundbreaking study conducted in collaboration with London’s Natural History Museum has revealed the immense potential value of digitizing its vast collection of 80 million objects, which could revolutionize research across the globe and generate billions in economic value.

For the first time, the study examined the multifaceted benefits of such an extensive digitization effort, focusing on its economic impact, including return on investment and the specific value added to various research fields like biodiversity, invasive species management, and pharmaceutical discoveries.

Economist Dan Popov of Frontier Economics highlighted the inherent uncertainties in forecasting the exact uses of digitized data but underscored the significant economic potential across just five research areas. The findings suggest that the financial stakes are substantial, amounting to billions of pounds.

Investing in the Future of Science

The research indicated a compelling return on investment within the scientific community, showing that for every pound spent on digitizing the museum’s collection, a minimum of ten pounds could be expected in return.

Particularly, the digitization of plant and sponge specimens could vastly increase their availability to researchers worldwide. This accessibility might lead to a broader spectrum of species being explored for new medical treatments, potentially unlocking economic benefits ranging from £750 million to £2.8 billion, according to Popov’s estimates.

Unlocking a Treasure Trove of Knowledge

The museum’s collections serve as a critical reservoir of knowledge essential for sustaining the ecosystems upon which we depend. This becomes increasingly crucial as we face an ongoing biodiversity crisis. Understanding the species inhabiting a region is the first step in conservation efforts, a task that digitization can greatly facilitate by enhancing taxonomic knowledge and aiding in the identification of endangered species. The economic contribution of slowing the decline of threatened species could be as significant as £1 billion to the UK’s economy.

The Natural History Museum is one of the UK’s leading tourist attractions — Photography: Old Town Tourist / Shutterstock

The Digitization Effort So Far

Since 2015, the museum has digitized nearly 5 million objects, resulting in over 28 billion downloads and supporting more than 1,400 scientific papers on topics ranging from climate change and biodiversity to crop security and human health.

Dr. Ken Norris, Head of Life Sciences at the Museum, emphasized the significant societal and economic benefits locked within the museum’s collections and called for further investment to unlock this potential fully.

Future Plans and the Collection’s Significance

The museum is gearing up to relocate a significant portion of its collections to a new facility in Harwell, Oxfordshire. This move is part of an effort to enhance the digitization process and make these invaluable resources more accessible to the global scientific community.

The museum’s collection, encompassing everything from ancient rocks from the dawn of the solar system to specimens collected by Alfred Russell Wallace in Southeast Asia, and historic natural history texts dating back to 1469, represents an unparalleled source of knowledge about the natural world. Digitizing this collection could provide critical insights for researchers studying the impacts of climate change, searching for bioactive compounds for new medications, and much more, showcasing the profound impact digitization can have on science and society.

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