The Wide World of Smithsonian Scientific Research

With astonishing new discoveries in the cosmos and pivotal research much closer to home, Smithsonian science proves indispensable

Two pandas at the zoo
China first sent giant pandas as a gift to the U.S. 50 years ago. Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, who arrived in 2000, are on loan until the end of 2023.  Smithsonian National Zoo

In 1890, our grand ambitions for exploring the universe were hidden in an unassuming shed behind the Smithsonian Castle. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) would eventually move to Massachusetts, joining the Harvard College Observatory to form the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian. Recently, some of its world-renowned scientists worked with a global research team to help capture the image of a black hole at the center of our galaxy.

Groundbreaking science like this underpins the Smithsonian’s mission to increase knowledge and share it with the world—knowledge of all conceivable kinds. At the National Zoo, giant pandas have fascinated visitors for 50 years. More than an attraction, they’re part of one of the world’s longest-running conservation science programs. Since 1972, the animal care staff and scientists at the Zoo and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute have studied the behavior, reproduction and health of these endearing bears.

Species protection and habitat restoration drive the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). Climate change is ravaging life-sustaining ecosystems like coral reefs, wetlands and tropical rainforests—and undermines our efforts to restore them­. Coral bleaching, flash floods, typhoons and other extreme climate events can instantly wipe out long-term progress. But SERC researchers in San Francisco found that diversifying restoration projects can help mitigate these problems. Varying the years in which wetland grasses were planted in Texas helped earlier plantings take root and survive Hurricane Harvey. And a coral restoration project in the Philippines withstood a typhoon by including more resilient coral species.

Conducting field research on Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and using data compiled by our Global Volcanism Program, a National Museum of Natural History scientist proved that the water content of magma in the most common type of volcano determines how deeply it is stored in the earth’s crust. Understanding how magma behaves before an eruption could be a promising step in providing early warnings for millions threatened by active volcanoes.

Volcanoes were one of the ancient geologic features that shaped Panama’s uniquely diverse biology. I recently traveled there to see the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) and its prolific science at our marine biology and forest labs, educational facilities and field experiment sites. I even rode 160 feet up into the rainforest canopy in the construction crane used to explore the effects of climate change on trees. I felt as if I was getting a bird’s eye view, not just of STRI, but of all Smithsonian science: impressive, ingenious and indispensable.

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