£180m allocated to create research centre in Oxford

13th March 2020
Lanna Cooper

As part of the Budget 2020 announcements, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak has pledged £180m over six years to the Natural History Museum to create a brand new research, science and digitisation centre at Harwell Science and Innovation Campus.

The new facility will be a global sustainable base for high end natural sciences research and international collaboration.

The funding will enable the Museum to safeguard the future of its unique collection of 80 million specimens and create a research centre that will strengthen the UK’s position in tackling global challenges including climate change, resource scarcity, biodiversity loss and emerging diseases. The investment reflects the Government’s commitment to spend 2.4% GDP on research and development, and to deliver the UKRI Infrastructure Road Map.

Open to scientists and researchers from around the world, the facility will house around 40% of the Museum’s collections as well as laboratories, digitisation suites, technology-enabled collaborative research spaces, computing, conservation laboratories and workspaces for digital scholarship. It will be an additional site to the Museum’s existing locations within London and Tring.

Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, said: "The Natural History Museum is leading the way on vital scientific research and its important contributions shape our understanding of the world around us. 

"I am delighted that we are investing £180m in this state-of-the-art facility that will open up the Museum's unique collections and expertise to academics and researchers to help increase knowledge and innovation.”

Natural History Museum Director, Sir Michael Dixon said: “We are delighted with this endorsement from the Government in recognising the quality and relevance of our scientific research and support for our globally important collections as part of the nation’s science infrastructure. This very welcome investment in R&D will maintain the Museum’s position as a global leader of natural sciences research and create a pioneering facility which will prove invaluable in the worldwide effort to find solutions to the planetary emergency. Enabling major international scientific collaboration, this new facility will generate big data and the application of cutting-edge analysis of the world’s most significant natural history collection. 

“The centre will allow our 300 scientists to further their research into the biggest challenges facing the planet and humanity - from global and national biodiversity loss and sustainable land use to food security, disease transmission and ensuring we have the right natural resources available for transition to a zero-carbon economy.  

“Future-proofing our collection has never been more urgent. Its vast scale explains our past, helps us chart a path for the future and the data that can be generated from it will inform future environmental policies and plans. The Government’s investment will enable us to not only make our collections more accessible to a global audience but to help other museums across the UK do the same.”

Protecting the world’s largest collection of natural world specimens

The collection of 80 million specimens, spanning 4.5 billion years from the formation of the solar system to the present day, is globally unique and scientifically invaluable. It plays a key role in the UK’s international reputation as a scientific leader.

The development of new accommodation will allow the Museum to move collections currently at risk of deterioration and irreparable damage from being housed in functionally and physically obsolete 20th century buildings to facilities which meet international collection standards. The new centre will enable the cataloguing, protection and expansion of the collection for future generations, providing space and facilities to ensure information, such as critical molecular data, is preserved and extracted.

Relocating collections will release space at the Museum’s South Kensington site, reopening and redeveloping historic galleries to inspire, inform and engage visitors with the natural world, helping the Museum meet its mission of creating advocates for the planet.

Sharing vital natural-world data

The new centre will enable an acceleration and enhancement in the digitisation of the Museum’s collections, unlocking access for the global scientific community to unrivalled historical, geographic and taxonomic specimen data gathered in the last 250 years.

Demand for data from the Museum’s collections is significant. Over 4.5 million specimens have been digitised and released openly onto the Museum’s Data Portal. While this is only five percent of the collection, over 21 billion records have been downloaded from over 275,000 download events, and 490 scientific publications have cited Natural History Museum data over the last five years. The more data the Museum releases, the more use and onward impact can be seen.

The Museum is committed to providing a comprehensive digital collection so that everyone, including researchers, scientists and data analysts, can access its vast collections. The new facility will help the Museum link specimen data to an enormous network of associated genomic, geospatial, ecological, chemical and other information, which captures not only their key physical characteristics but an enormous range of other data fundamental to improving understanding of the natural world.

A world-renowned location

Locating the Natural History Museum’s new centre at Harwell Campus will unite two science and innovation networks, placing the Museum and its collaborative research inside a scientific community of over 6,000 people, co-located with £2bn of open access national laboratories - accelerating the pace of research, generating jobs and boosting productivity in the UK.

Operating a hub and spoke model, scientific discoveries and innovative technologies emerging from Harwell Campus are benefitting economies locally, nationally and internationally - as demonstrated by organisations on the Campus including the Faraday Institution and Rosalind Franklin Institute.

Angus Horner, Partner and Director at Harwell Science and Innovation Campus said: “Locating this new centre at Harwell Campus will place the Natural History Museum inside a world-leading science and innovation community, taking full advantage of co-location with the Diamond Light Source, the UK’s Synchrotron, and extending the Museum’s globally significant research for the greater good of the planet and mankind.

“One of the first challenges we would welcome working with the Museum on is food production - to resolve the interconnected human and planetary health pressures. With the Museum here on Campus we can bolster the many organisations working in this area at Harwell. The Museum’s deep knowledge of the natural world is synergistic with multiple organisations at Harwell Campus. 

“Working collaboratively, we can place the UK at the forefront globally of developing both sustainable food production technologies and environmental stewardship strategies. This is just one example of the benefit to the UK of today’s announcement.”

The funding announced by the Government will enable the Museum to create a building to accommodate a significant number of its 80 million specimens, which is hugely diverse, including fossils and fungi, diamonds and dinosaurs, meteorites and molecular specimens, artworks and aardvarks. The ambition is to deliver a new building that is an exemplar model of low carbon impact - applying design practice to reduce lifetime energy and water use.

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