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Digitising museum collection could contribute over £2 million to the economy

Digitising the Natural History Musem's collection could lead to new drug discoveries

Future Cities Forum is beginning a new series looking at 'The Digital City' - the contribution of digital for economic benefit and in tackling the climate crisis. From innovation in building materials and digitising museum collections to implementing new software into the planning process, we are embarking on a series of reports and events to enquire into the ongoing benefits of digitisation.

This week the Natural History Museum has suggested that for the first time the economic benefit of digitising an entire museum collection has been quantified. It reports that research has found that digitising the Museum's 80 million objects would contribute to biodiversity research, the study of invasive species and the discovery of new pharmaceutical drugs to the tune of billions of pounds.

It states that its collection is one of the largest and most historically and geographically diverse natural history collections in the world, representing an astonishing repository of knowledge about the natural world, both past and present. The information it says is crucial for a whole range of scientists, from those studying how the climate crisis will impact the environment to those delving into the bioactive compounds of plants and sponges on the hunt for new drugs.

The Chancellor announced in the Autumn Budget 2021 that £850 million would be spent on restoring and supporting national and regional museums and art galleries, with £75 million for regional museums and £125 million for the Natural History Museum's scientific research centre in Oxfordshire.

The Natural History Museum is preparing 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. The new 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.'

Since 2015 the Museum has digitised 4.93 million objects, which has resulted in over 28 billion downloads contributing to some 1,407 scientific publications. These papers have been on a range of subjects including climate change, biodiversity, crop security and human health. This however 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.

Dan Popov from Frontier Economics - the organisation helping the Museum with accessing the value of collection - 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 Museum also stated that with the digitisation of specimens such as plants and sponges 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. As the economic value of pharmaceutical drugs is huge, even a small increase in the rate of drug discovery could result in massive benefits for the economy, with the estimate from digitising the Museum's collection alone ranging between £750 million and £2.8 billion.


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