UK Trust Research Initiatives
Every day, in every corner of the globe, Smithsonian Institution science examines some of the planet's most complex and time-sensitive challenges. As the world's population increases, sustainability in concert with biodiversity and development priorities will be the key to our ability to thrive.
Rich biodiversity ensures genetic diversity, environmental adaption, disease and insect resistance and the flourishing of plants and animals, which contribute to human well-being as sources of food, medicine and other resources. The Smithsonian is uniquely positioned to address sustainability on a global scale. Its leading scientists, unparalleled collections, world-class research centres and ability to convene partners enable a powerful collaborative, multidiciplinary approach.
The following eight programmes contribute to sustainability outcomes around the world and represent some of the Smithsonian's best work in seeking to understand and support complex ecosystems. Click on the title to find out more about the programme and the funding opportunities.
The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Agua Salud project in the Panama Canal Watershed seeks to understand and measure the ecological functions and benefits of forests and agricultural lands in the tropics. These studies provide a keen understanding of ecosystems for sustainability practitioners and corporate development interests alike. Scientists quantify carbon storage, runoff and biodiversity for land uses, including teak and native tree species plantations.
One of the biggest 21st century challenges rural populations face is fresh water management and mitigation of devastating floods and drought. The role of forests in helping to regulate water flows is controversial among hydrologists. Agua Salud is building a robust body of data that demonstrates how seasonal forests moderate water flows by serving as a sponge that stores wet season water for release in the dry season and moderates peak flows in extreme weather events. This and other findings are applied to sustainability questions throughout the tropics and the results provide tools for policymakers, managers and scientists who strive to better manage landscapes with multiple, competing uses. Agua Salud researchers work within the world’s most important inland commercial waterway and with the Panama Canal Authority, which actively partners with area landowners.
Agua Salud was initially funded through a five year commitment by HSBC. The Smithsonian seeks to continue its data collection and assessment, and further develop its outreach network. Investment in Agua Salud presents a unique opportunity to value the environmental and social benefits of tropical forests.
Agua Salud will help to create the next generation of water models by capturing data needed for a diverse set of land uses. This knowledge will directly contribute to a greater understanding of how to restore tropical ecosystems, harness tropical forests’ natural engineering functions and predict and assess the risks associated with extreme weather events. By broadening its outreach network, this information will directly impact sustainability efforts in the tropics and beyond.
Biodiversity Heritage Library
A sister project to the Encyclopedia of Life, the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) is an international consortium of natural history museums, botanical gardens, agricultural, university, biological research libraries, and like institutions. Its purpose is to improve and make more efficient the methodology of research in biodiversity studies by collaboratively making biodiversity literature free and openly available to the world. Much of the published literature on biological diversity is available in only a few select libraries in the developed world. These collections are of exceptional value because the domain of systematic biology depends, more than any other science, upon historic literature. The BHL is making this important scientific literature available to change research methodologies and to increase efficiencies within environmental studies, wildlife conservation, ecology, and land management. The BHL is helping to broaden biodiversity community to include not only scientists and researchers, but also policy advisors, intellectuals, artists and interested public citizens.
To date, over 41 million pages (over 120,000 volumes) of biodiversity literature have been scanned and indexed. By January 2014, the BHL plans to cover 20% of the public domain literature. The Smithsonian Libraries hosts the Secretariat and the central staff to curate the BHL Portal, which is under constant development to add searching functionality and to allow for others to create applications and use the content for multiple purposes. With yearly unique visitors reaching toward 1 million, tablet use of BHL increased by 162% in 2013, reflecting a global trend.
Initial funding for the BHL was provided by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Additional contributions have been provided by Wellcome Trust and the European Union, as well as other US foundations, member dues, parent institutions, and interested individuals.
Although the BHL has had global success since its 2006 launch, additional funding is required to continue the scanning, data curation, staff support, and technical development of all outstanding biodiversity literature.
Encyclopedia of Life
Our knowledge of the many life forms on Earth — animals, plants, fungi, protists and bacteria — is scattered around the world in books, journals, databases, websites, specimen collections, and the minds of people everywhere. Never before have scientists, educators and explorers been able to access information on all species known to science through a single, free and trusted digital resource. This dream has become a reality through the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL), an international collaboration of partner institutions, scientists, students, nature enthusiasts led by the Smithsonian to increase awareness and understanding of every species of life on Earth.
The EOL is a free, online resource intended to document all of the 1.9 million living species known to science. By making it easy to compare and contrast information about life on Earth, the compendium provides new insights into many of life’s secrets. The site went live in 2008 with 30,000 entries, and since then, it has gathered more than 6 million data objects from 294 content partners, with 1.37 million individual species web pages. A 2011 update (Version 2.0) enhanced usability and encourage contributions and interactions among users, and established interfaces for English, German, Spanish, French, Galician, Serbian, Macedonian, Arabic, Chinese, and Korean language speakers. In 2013, 4.3 million unique visitors used the EOL, with 60% of the visits coming from outside the United States of America.
Seed funding was provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Additional start up support was provided by contributing partner organisations including the Field Museum, Harvard University, the Marine Biological Laboratory, the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Smithsonian.
With habitat and species loss on the rise, the EOL’s goal is to encourage research and lifelong learning about the role biodiversity plays in the functioning and health of our planet. Three projects are planned to help attain this goal:
- TraitBank is the first global resource for organismal trait data (e.g. adult body mass, wood density, habitat, first appearance in the fossil record) across the Tree of Life.
- EOL Themed Portals will deliver improved service by customising, delivering and supporting community and project-focused “themed portals” based on user needs and trends.
- The Smithsonian Volunteer Observer Network will bridge the divide between professional and citizen scientists, facilitating a cycle of discovery and innovation.
Forest Global Earth Observatories
The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, based in Panama, manages one of the world’s foremost projects for the study of forest observatory system — Forest Global Earth Observatories (ForestGEO). With 53 plots in 23 countries and more than 80 partner organisations, ForestGEO attracts scientists and partners from around the world who ask and answer fundamental questions about how forests sustain species diversity, the factors leading to resilience or collapse and the role forests play in global water and carbon cycles.
ForestGEO’s rigorous studies of adult trees, saplings and seedlings allow researchers to track the impact of natural and human disturbances, long-term trends and global climate events, such as El Niño. Studies using this data have produced more than 137 scientific papers in the last year alone, leading to important findings, which can inform policy decisions for sustainable management of forests and their resources. ForestGEO also offers training and education in forest science, serving as a critical platform to strengthen research and understanding across the world.
This programme currently is sustained by an endowed directorship and public and private support, with much of the plot management supported by a host of international collaborators.
While more than half of ForestGEO’s plots are in Asia, there is no current, focused coordination around Asian forests. Critical to the network of observatories, they include some of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth, remain a dominant source of trees for the timber industry and are under the greatest threat of all tropical forests due to land-use change, population pressure and growing economic activity. The addition of senior level staff solely focused on intellectual and strategic coordination with Asian forests would dramatically enrich this programme.
Global Emergency Response Veterinarians
When an endangered gorilla in the Central African Republic recently got caught in a poacher’s snare, there were only a few places in the world that rangers could call to help anaesthetise and treat the injured animal. The Smithsonian’s vet team was one of them. Led by Dr Suzan Murray, the team of veterinarians at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo — some of the top veterinarians in the world — is uniquely qualified to respond to wildlife emergencies globally. From rescuing gorillas to establishing a medicine training programme for logging elephants in Myanmar, the demand for Dr Murray and her team’s expertise continues to grow. Recently, Smithsonian vets under Dr Murray’s direction were dispatched to Vietnam and Bhutan to provide pathology and wildlife training and surveillance techniques to government wildlife officials; to China to help develop preventative medicine and diagnostic protocols for Giants Pandas; and to Mpala Ranch in Kenya to support primate field research and enhance relationships with Kenya Wildlife Services. Soon she will deploy to Cameroon for a lowland gorilla cardiac study, while additional field veterinary services have been requested from Nepal, Cambodia, Laos, Uganda, Tanzania and Namibia.
However, due to personnel and funding shortages, the Smithsonian must turn down approximately half of the requests for assistance it receives from range country governments to assist in clinical procedures and in-country capacity building. In February 2014, the government of Tanzania asked the Smithsonian for help to combat an unknown skin disease killing giraffes, but the National Zoo — one of the only zoos able to anaesthetise, biopsy and diagnose such diseases on site — did not have the capacity to assist.
To address this challenge, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo would like to hire a field and research veterinarian for its new Biodiversity and Wildlife Health Initiative. This position would be a critical addition to a developing programme with services already under high demand globally. It would expand the Smithsonian’s ability to collect data and publish relevant findings furthering the field of wildlife veterinary medicine. The position also could be used to support clinical duties of existing veterinary staff and thereby increase the participation of all veterinary employees in the field programme.
Institute for Biogenomics
The diversity of life on Earth is responsible for maintaining the intricate fabric of human existence, from the water we drink, the air we breathe and the food we eat to cures for the diseases that affect our health. Every one of the estimated ten million species of plants and animals on our planet is characterised by a distinct genetic code, known as a genome. Many species and their natural habitats face immense challenges for survival. Genomes are key to basic scientific research and contain clues and potential solutions to many pressing human challenges. Just as sequencing of the human genome has enabled understanding of human health and disease, the ability to access and interpret the code of life for non-human species will open doors to discovery and innovation that determine how all species survive in the future.
Tackling big genomics questions requires a large coordinated effort. The Smithsonian has the capacity to conduct this research and convene scientific partners around the world. Its Institute for BioGenomics, with a collaboration featuring the National Museum of Natural History, National Zoological Park, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, is poised to be a global leader in non-human genomics. It seeks to reveal mysteries of the genetic blueprint in order to solve planetary-wide questions and to train future generations of scientists and citizens to understand the natural world.
This collaboration features world-renowned experts and facilities and the largest natural history collection in the world, including 127 million natural history objects, more than 2,000 living specimens and close to 1 million cryo-preserved samples. These collections grow every year as scientists collect at field sites in 100 countries around the world. Nearly 200 biologists are among the foremost taxonomists, ecologists and evolutionary biologists working with colleagues from the world’s top research universities and museums. Externally, the Smithsonian has close collaborative relationships with a number of major genome sequencing programmes and a growing partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
This emerging programme will require initial philanthropic investments and strategic partnerships to build leadership and capacity. Through the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History’s Global Genome Initiative, the institution will dramatically enhance its collection of biological specimens and coordinate strategic collaboration through a global network of biorepositories. The Institute for BioGenomics will establish a strong bioinformatics capability and partnerships to integrate advanced technologies into genomics science, ensuring the creation of a streamlined, synergistic research community that can address the big questions critical to our survival on this planet.
Partners in the Sky
Animal migration is one of the world’s most marvellous phenomenons and is critical to informing successful conservation efforts. The Smithsonian Conservation and Biology Institute’s Partners in the Sky programme is a global wildlife-tracking centre focused on overcoming technological obstacles to understanding animal movement and conducting outreach and education to further the use and understanding of tracking data. This programme works to make tracking devices more widely available and used by expanding markets to make satellite transmitters affordable; develop high-power, 1-gram tracking devices; and engineer, build and certify aircraft antenna to pick up tagged wildlife on overfly routes.
Partners in the Sky focuses on:
- Expanding Tracking. By providing satellite transmitters, technology support and information sharing through web and smart phone applications, the use and understanding of critical movement data will be improved.
- The 1-Gram Challenge. By miniaturising tracking devices to 1 gram or less, the precise movements of birds and other small migratory animals are more accurately pinpointed, remotely.
- Satellite Technology. Industry and scientists are working together to increase data transmission and make tracking devices more affordable and reliable, ideally lasting the lifetime of an animal.
- Commercial Aircraft. A new network of aircraft equipped with antennae and receivers collect tracking data from transmitter-tagged wildlife on passenger routes and automatically download information to users on the ground.
- Big Data. By integrating tracking and environmental satellite data, scientists will be able to predict why, how and when animals move. Movement models can reveal connections between important conservation issues, such as climate effects, infectious disease spread and human-wildlife conflict.
The greatest potential for Partners in the Sky lies not in technology development, but in deploying these tools to understand the fundamental ecology of animals throughout their life cycles. There is an urgent need to place these tools in the hands of hundreds of researchers, who can lead the way in discovering new migration patterns, and fill in the gaps about the why, how, where and when of animal movements.
Tennenbaum Marine Observatories Network
The Smithsonian’s new Tennenbaum Marine Observatories Network is the first truly global-scale network of ecological observatories dedicated to understanding coastal marine ecosystems and standardising measurements of biological change. Smithsonian experts and collaborators in biology, ecology and anthropology will use technologies like DNA sequencing to provide an unprecedented understanding of how local human activities and global change, such as ocean warming, acidification and rising sea levels affect marine biodiversity.
Nearly two-thirds of the world’s population lives within 100 miles of a coastline. The Tennenbaum Marine Observatories Network focuses on changes where land and sea meet and where human demand and impact are highest. Coastal ecosystems are degrading, affecting their ability to sustain marine life and human wellbeing. Already, 90 percent of big fish are gone and half the world’s coral reefs have disappeared. Broad outlines of these trends and their causes are highlighted in scientific and policy reports, but until now there has been no systematic study of the global ocean, particularly biological measurements in highly variable coastal zones.
The network has five sites at established Smithsonian research stations on the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, in Fort Pierce, Florida, at Carrie Bow Bay in Belize and on both Panama coasts. Research at each site will enable scientists to build a comparative database, allowing them to comprehensively study environmental change and help policymakers and citizens develop and support sustainability solutions for our world’s oceans. This important initiative also will serve as an educational platform to foster a new generation of marine scientists and conservation practitioners.
The project originally was made possible by a $10 million donation from Suzanne and Michael Tennenbaum. In 2013, the Smithsonian named J. Emmett Duffy—an accomplished and highly decorated marine scientist—as Director of the Tennenbaum Marine Observatories Network. He and his team are establishing infrastructure and protocol at the network’s five core sites, engaging partners around the world and preparing for strategic expansion.
Similar to ForestGEO, the next effort will be to dramatically expand the network to new partner sites of scientific significance, from the tropics to the polar oceans. Additional support is needed to support network leadership, establish training programmes and fellowships, fund cutting edge technology in marine monitoring, convene symposia for partner organisations and create outreach and citizen science opportunities in the tropics and beyond.