Smithsonian Perspectives

At the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, we are gaining insights for our society in the 21st century

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The Smithsonian, as most readers know, is more than a place for exhibitions. A goodly portion of the operating and capital budgets goes to support research within museums and in separate centers. Much of our research, of course, is centered on the Institution's vast collections. The National Museum of Natural History — our largest single unit — cares for a huge number of specimens of flora, fauna and inorganic materials (principally gems, meteorites and other rocks). These collections are maintained by expert managers and provide the basis for exhibitions and research. Similarly, vast collections of art, historical materials, and objects of technological sophistication provide the basis for research that usually is expressed in exhibition catalogs and books.

Besides museums, the Smithsonian has a number of separate research centers. I recently visited one of the most prestigious — the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama.

The Smithsonian has grown by increments over the past 150 years, largely unguided by any master plans. Our basic charter — "the increase and diffusion of knowledge" — has invited Smithsonian staff with deeply felt missions to experiment with new programs and seek to make them part of the Smithsonian agenda. Thus, growth is a product of ideas, energy and circumstances, much like that provided by the market economy. So it was with STRI, now perhaps the most prominent center for the study of tropical biology in the world.

The saga began when the 4,000-acre Barro Colorado Island was formed in 1913 by the damming of the Chagres River during the construction of the Panama Canal. Ten years later a group of scientists successfully petitioned the governor of the Canal Zone to set the island aside for scientific research. The group included entomologists and biologists involved in surveying plant and animal life for the purpose of controlling insect-borne diseases, such as yellow fever and malaria.

Barro Colorado Island (BCI) became one of the first protected tropical for-ests in the New World. A laboratory was built on the island the following year and became a place where individual researchers or teachers with their students could have easy and inexpensive access to a protected tropical forest. Smithsonian scientists were among the initial participants, but the organization and facilities were informal, and support came from many sources. As the assemblage and its research products grew, it became evident that further progress required more formal administration, and the Smithsonian was designated as its manager in 1946. The Canal Zone Biological Area, as STRI was then known, was born, regular appropriations followed, and a new program came under the Smithsonian umbrella.

The growth of scientific activity at STRI since 1946 has been considerable. Facilities at BCI have been enlarged periodically in response to tremendous demand. In 1979, for instance, 1,180 biologists and visitors came from 32 countries, and this demand has increased enormously. New laboratory and dormitory units are now being completed to accommodate more visitors and to make use of newer techniques. In addition, since 1946 STRI has established centers in marine biology; a campus in Panama City that facilitates administration, library services, research and conferences; a modest fleet of vessels for transport and research; scientific activities in geology, archaeology and anthropology. It has also created fellowships for promising young scientists. Growth has been phenomenal, supported by grants, fees, private donations, Smithsonian trust funds and federal appropriations. None of this would have been possible without an important and productive research program.

STRI's research, led by a staff of more than 30 scientists, increases our understanding of ecological issues that confront our society. The tropics contain most of the world's species of flora and fauna, providing the diversity that is valuable for economic development, improvements in health sciences and maintenance of gene pools that assure evolutionary flexibility. STRI scientists, augmented by visiting students and faculty, ask such questions as: How did this diversity arise? What genetic, behavioral and ecological factors maintain it? What are the impacts on diversity of past human activities, such as agriculture and industrialization?

One broad field concerns tropical forests. A major STRI activity is the careful observation of a network of similar large plots in Panama and nine other tropical countries in Africa, Asia and South America involving all trees with a diameter of one centimeter or more. The trees are mapped, and data are gathered on growth and development as environments change (e.g., drought and flood, uncharacteristic heat and cold, the presence of old and new parasites). The plots supply critical data that could be used to determine sustainable harvest levels, to evaluate the economic potential of tropical forests, to develop new tree species for plantation forestry, and to accomplish other objectives related to the conservation of biodiversity.

The activities described are only the tip of the iceberg of a rich mixture of basic and applied research at STRI. The basic research informs us about how nature works. From this come unanticipated insights that permit us to solve problems, create products and, perhaps most important, gain the knowledge necessary to help humans prosper without destroying our natural base.

About I. Michael Heyman
I. Michael Heyman

I. Michael Heyman served as the secretary of the Smithonian Institution from 1994 to 1999.

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