Secretary Lonnie Bunch on the Power of Research at the Smithsonian

We can accomplish more when we unite our robust scientific capabilities with our educational reach

a bumblebee bat in gloved hands
In Myanmar, a scientist with Smithsonian’s Global Health Program examines the world’s smallest mammal, a bumblebee bat. Roshan Patel / National Zoo

Earlier this year, when leading infectious disease doctor Anthony Fauci entrusted his personal coronavirus model to the Smithsonian, I was doubly thrilled. To me, this gift was more than an acknowledgment of our role as the keeper of national history. It was also a reminder of vital but often underappreciated aspects of our work: scientific research, application and education.

Though it tends to draw less public attention than our museum exhibitions, research is the engine that propels the Smithsonian forward. It drives our exhibitions and guides our educational efforts. Whether we’re studying the long-term effects of climate change, measuring the impacts of Covid-19 or gazing up into the solar system, Smithsonian research changes the way we understand our place in the world.

Again and again, the past year has impressed upon me the depth, breadth and vigor of Smithsonian research. Even before the pandemic, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Global Health Program was working to identify zoonotic pathogens with pandemic potential before they could spill over into the human population. Researchers have identified more than 1,000 novel mammalian viruses, including more than 150 coronaviruses. Smithsonian data is being used to understand and characterize the Covid-19 virus.

The Global Health Program is one of many efforts to expand our knowledge of Covid-19. Just as vital is the Smithsonian’s responsibility to transmit this information, providing clarity and helpful guidance to our audiences. That’s why I am deeply proud of the way Smithsonian units are collaborating to help educate and inform. For instance, in partnership with the World Health Organization, the Smithsonian Science Education Center last year launched “Covid-19! How Can I Protect Myself and Others?” Intended for audiences ages 8 to 17, this guide helps young people understand the virus and take steps to protect themselves, their families and their communities.

Making research actionable and disseminating information to those who can use it—these traditional Smithsonian strengths were never more evident than during the past year. To put it simply, we accomplish more when we unite our robust scientific capabilities with our educational reach and the trust we have earned as guardians of the nation’s cultural and historical identity. As we begin building a post-pandemic future for the Institution, our communities and our nation, Smithsonian research should be foundational to those efforts.

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This article is a selection from the May issue of Smithsonian magazine