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Digitising entire Natural History Museum collection could boost UK economy by £2bn

Certain parts of the collection, such as the plants, could hold information that might lead to the development of new pharmaceutical drugs

Researchers working with the Natural history Museum have found that if the entire collection of 80m objects was made easily accessible to scientists all over the world through digitisation it would unlock ground-breaking research worth billions of pounds.

For the first time ever, the researchers looked at different ways this huge digitisation process could benefit the economy including the return on investment and what the value of digitising specific areas of the collection would bring, such as biodiversity research, the study of invasive species and the discovery of new pharmaceutical drugs.

Dan Popov, from Frontier Economics, said: “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.”

Return on investment

For a typical, conservative, return on investment within the science sector the researchers found that for every £1 invested in digitising the museum’s collection, there would be at least a £10 return.

However, the benefits became more tangible, and therefore potentially more lucrative, with the digitisation of specimens such as plants and sponges. This 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 £750m and £2.8bn,” said Popov.

Wealth of knowledge

The museum realises that the vast wealth of knowledge held in its collections could be key to preserving the life that maintains the ecosystems which support us.

This could be key as we try to navigate through a current biodiversity crisis. For example, to protect an area, scientists and policymakers 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 £1bn to the UK economy alone.”

Digitising collections

Scanning objects and uploading them to databases allows researchers anywhere in the world to study the museum’s collections

Since 2015 the Museum has digitised 4.93m objects, which has resulted in over 28bn 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.

Dr Ken Norris, Head of Life Sciences at the Museum, said: “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.’

The 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 collection and its potential

The museum’s collection 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 delving into the bioactive compounds of plants and sponges on the hunt for new drugs.

About the author – Adrian Murphy

Adrian is the Editor of MuseumNext and has 20 years’ experience as a journalist, half of which has been writing for the cultural sector.

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