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Global research hub at Shinfield could help tackle climate emergency

Museum's hub plan could help fight climate emergency

14 June 2022
Measuring up a Megaloceros specimen CREDIT Trustees of the Natural History Museum - Copy.jpg

Proposals by the Natural History Museum to open a major research hub with a science and digitisation centre in Shinfield parish have been welcomed by Wokingham Borough Council.


The museum has announced its plans for the state-of-the-art facility at Thames Valley Science Park in partnership with the University of Reading. Subject to planning permission from the council, the Government-funded facility would house about 27 million museum specimens - the biggest move from its collection since the 1880s.


The new, purpose-built accommodation would meet international standards, allowing it to move items currently at risk of deterioration and damage because storage conditions in existing buildings are no longer suitable.


It would also speed up the museum’s digitisation of its data, offering greater access to its 350 scientists and others from around the world, while freeing gallery space at its South Kensington site for more items to be displayed to the public.


In its official announcement, the museum says this would support a range of projects aimed at tackling the challenges facing our planet, such as research into biodiversity loss and ways of extracting natural resources more sustainably.


Joining a thriving research community at Shinfield


Thames Valley Science Park is owned and run by the University of Reading, which won a Queen’s Anniversary Prize last year for its work on climate change, and was created as part of the council’s major development at Shinfield parish.


This is one of four new communities established under the authority’s Local Plan, which covers the period from 2010 to 2026 and outlines where new homes and supporting amenities should be built.


The science park is already home to the Cine Valley project, a major international film and television production hub including Shinfield Studios, which is now under construction. The council awarded planning permission last year and it will count Disney among its first clients.


The science park also houses the Gateway Building, home to the offices and labs of biomedical, biotechnology and health sciences companies and those that need high internet connectivity, such as advanced computing firm Oxford Quantum Circuits.


Meanwhile, the British Museum is progressing its plans for an Archaeological Research Centre on the site – a specialist unit housing thousands of ancient sculptures, mosaics and other artefacts for viewing by appointment.


A history of our planet and the key to its future


The Natural History Museum’s centre is about the size of three football pitches and would be designed to use the latest architectural features to reduce its carbon impact through low energy and water use. If permitted, it would be completed by 2026.


It would have state-of-the-art storage and conservation facilities, digitisation and imaging suites, laboratories, cryogenic facilities, high-end computing areas and shared spaces for in-house and visiting scientists.


The building would accommodate about a third of the museum’s 80 million-strong collection, from microscopic creatures and sediment from the ocean floor to the remains of large mammals like whales. They include barnacles studied by Charles Darwin, who developed the theory of evolution, and the head of a megaloceros, a type of deer that lived in the Ice Ages.


Along with more than 5.5km of library and archive documents gathered over more than two centuries, they chronicle millions of years across all parts of the planet and show how the natural world has changed over time. None are currently on display to the public.


The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is investing heavily in the scheme as part of a Government drive to support research and help the UK find solutions to the global emergency.


The museum, which also has a site at Tring in Hertfordshire, has digitised just six per cent of its data so far but this has already helped with projects like finding wheat crops which are more resistant to climate change and researching how Covid-19 may have crossed from animals to people. It has been cited in more than 1,700 scientific journals and more than 30 billion records have been downloaded.


The museum will be required to seek the community’s views on its proposal before it submits a planning application to the borough council.


Helping to build a more sustainable world


Cllr Lindsay Ferris, executive member for planning and local plan, said: “We welcome this proposed addition to the cutting-edge offering at Thames Valley Science Park and the partnership with the University of Reading, which will cement the borough’s position as a hub for scientific and technological excellence while creating jobs alongside new housing.


“Having declared a climate emergency in 2019 and to playing as full a role as possible in reducing our carbon footprint to net zero by 2030, we are proud that an organisation which can make such a difference on an international scale wants to be based here.


“We hope this will have benefits for Wokingham borough and far beyond as we continue working towards a more sustainable future.”


Doug Gurr, director of the Natural History Museum, said: “The University of Reading has a world-class reputation for teaching and research and there is enormous scope for collaboration on shared areas of scientific specialisms.


“We look forward to joining the lively community of ambitious, knowledge-based organisations at Thames Valley Science Park and forging closer relationships with institutions already based there – and, of course, reuniting with the British Museum through its Archaeological Research Collection.”

Professor Robert Van de Noort, vice-chancellor of the University of Reading, said: “This is an exciting development for the University of Reading. It could provide significant opportunities for our academics and students, as well as bringing benefits to the broader local area.


“This new relationship should further enhance the international research success of both organisations. We look forward to working closely with the Natural History Museum and our local community on the proposed development.”

Image, showing the remains of a megaloceros in storage, supplied by the Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

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