Digitalization of UK Natural Science Collections Unlocking Scientific and Economic Potential
UK natural science collections have proven to be invaluable resources for scientific research and economic growth. A recent report has assessed the use and impact of digitized collections in the UK, highlighting their contributions to scientific advancements, commercial endeavors, and societal benefits.
These collections, comprising over 137 million items spanning a remarkable 4.56-billion-year history of life on Earth, offer crucial insights into the past and present state of our planet. They serve as essential data resources for researchers, investors, and policymakers alike, shaping our understanding of the Earth and driving future decision-making processes.
One key platform for accessing information from these collections is the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), an international database that provides open access to data on various life forms. However, only a small fraction of the UK’s natural science collections, about 6%, is currently available on GBIF, accounting for 7.6 million specimens.
Nevertheless, the impact of these digitized collections is significant. A study revealed that 12% of peer-reviewed journal articles citing GBIF data specifically reference UK natural science collections. Remarkably, these highly cited collections represent only 0.3% of the total occurrences on GBIF, underscoring their immense influence.
The utilization of digitized specimens has revolutionized scientific research, leading to substantial cost savings and increased efficiency. By accessing digital collections instead of physically visiting them, researchers have saved an estimated £18 million in research costs. This transformation has accelerated research processes, allowing scientists to accomplish in a few months what would have taken them years to complete.
Helen Hardy, the lead author of the report and Deputy Head of Digital, Data, and Informatics, emphasizes the transformative power of digitization in science. She highlights the potential for even greater innovations, such as the integration of artificial intelligence into taxonomic work.
Recognizing the immense value of UK natural science collections, the UK government aims to position the country as a science and technology superpower. To unleash the true potential of these collections, the Distributed System of Scientific Collections UK (DiSSCo) is rallying for a £155 million investment in research infrastructure. It is projected that this funding will generate a seven- to ten-fold economic return on investment.
By collaborating with the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), UK Natural Science collections will be digitized on a large scale. This will create a robust technological infrastructure that ensures the availability of data and keeps pace with emerging technologies.
Ken Norris, Deputy Director of Science at the Natural History Museum, emphasizes the urgency of understanding the natural world in the face of environmental challenges. With estimates suggesting that over 50% of the global GDP depends on the natural world, it is crucial to identify trends and take informed actions to safeguard our planet.
In conclusion, the digitalization of UK natural science collections holds immense promise for scientific, economic, and societal progress. These collections, together with advanced technologies and collaborations, will shape our responses to global challenges and pave the way for a future where both humanity and the environment thrive.