European Natural Sciences Collections (NSC) are a pivotal infrastructure for meeting the most important challenge humans face over the next decades – mapping a sustainable future for ourselves and the natural systems upon which we depend – and for answering fundamental scientific questions about ecological, evolutionary, and geological processes. Data derived from European NSCs underpin countless discoveries and innovations, including tens of thousands of scholarly publications and official reports annually (used to support legislative and regulatory processes on land use, societal infrastructure, health, food, security, sustainability and environmental change); inventions and products essential to our economy; databases, maps and descriptions of scientific observations; educational material for students; and instructive resources for the public.
In the last decades, however, research practice tools have changed dramatically. Digital transformation and instrumentation, remote sensing, rapid identification and molecular approaches allow us to efficiently monitor the changing world and to better understand the causes of those changes. As the volume and diversity of information derived from NSCs are exponentially increasing, so does the need for suitable infrastructures that go further than providing simple access to different data classes. A holistic approach is now required, where cross-linked information effectively underpins the entire research life cycle and provides open access to mass and precise data. New technologies are providing opportunities to develop new tools that combine the data held in NSCs with other sources of information on species, genomes, phenotypes, geography, geology and the environment in ways that drive novel, integrative research. Prime examples of those are (1) the compilation of data on the distribution of living species that is held by the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), (2) the genetic sequence information that is collated by DDBJ, EMBL, GenBank and iBOL, (3) the data on morphology held by MorphoBank and TraitBank, and (4) geo-collection data that is held in GeoCASe.
At present, however, the exploitation of such opportunities is severely limited by the low proportion of the collections that is digitally accessible and can then be used for comprehensive research; the lack of a common platform for access to NSCs specimen information; incomplete and/or broken links between major data sources about the natural world; and weak informatics tools to facilitate data exploitation and use. Furthermore, fragmentation of access policies, practices and models across hundreds of NSC locations severely impedes reaching the full potential of NSCs as unique global scientific asset.