Aerial view of the Smithsonian Institution facilities on the coast of Barro Colorado island in the Panama canal.
An aerial view of the Smithsonian Institution facilities on the coast of Barro Colorado island in the Panama canal. Photo credit: Marcos Guerra.

The Past, Present, and Future of Science Diplomacy at the Smithsonian

Smithsonian Panama biodiversity Americas

Over the past 175 years, the Smithsonian Institution has evolved to assume a unique position among public institutions in preserving, sharing, and understanding the American story. While many know the Smithsonian best through its collections of over 156 million objects, few recognize how its international reach, specifically through its science and research portfolio, reflects a continuing and core component of its mission to increase and disseminate knowledge. Here we examine a few examples of the Smithsonian’s varied international engagements through the specific lens of science diplomacy, which we regard in the broadest sense, including: science in service of diplomacy, diplomacy for science, and scientific research in the context of international relationships. This umbrella definition1 captures a range of activities within the scope of a national research agency that uniquely combines arts, culture, history, and science in a way that rarely happens in other countries. Beyond the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we see an explicit need for the Smithsonian’s traditional role as a convener in international efforts to protect cultural and biological heritage, to understand and mitigate biodiversity loss, and to coordinate action on climate change. We also see increasing value in an institution that provides an accessible and long-term platform for sharing knowledge across borders and generations, and for engaging the public in matters of science and society.

More Than What It Brings Together

In the early 19th century, the Smithsonian Institution arose from a partnership between science and government aimed at securing knowledge derived from physical objects. However, it always has been more than merely collections. Before its public opening in 1855, Joseph Henry (1797-1878), the first Secretary of the Smithsonian, envisioned a global reach for the institution, arguing that “[the] worth and importance of the Institution is not to be estimated by what it accumulates within the walls of its building, but by what it sends forth to the world.”2 This view permeated the earliest institutional functions that involved the dissemination of published scientific research accounts abroad, which helped grow an institutional reputation through the fundamental act of library exchanges.

Today, the functional role of the Smithsonian’s international science engagement has diversified to encompass whole- or supra-institution representation to sub-institutional interests, which are tied to the scientific expertise housed at the level of Smithsonian units, including over twenty-five different museums, research centers, and programs. For example, the Smithsonian maintains significant international science roles that include: serving on delegations and interagency processes for the U.S. position on biodiversity, cultural heritage, and climate change in multilateral conventions and organizations (e.g., United Nations, International Union for Conservation of Nature); leadership on international museum standards (e.g., Global Biodiversity Information Facility); leadership on international initiatives with focused expertise on biological and cultural conservation, protection, access and benefit sharing (e.g., International Council on Monuments and Sites); and the Smithsonian’s own bilateral agreements on science, culture, and the arts with individual countries. To a degree, these activities are tied to a track record of success: a 1986 meeting on biodiversity led to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, a 1997 meeting on desertification meeting assisted in the U.S. ratification of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, and a 1999 meeting on intangible property facilitated UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Another important but less visible advantage is the Smithsonian’s ability to foster soft diplomacy through its varied research collaborations, exchanges, fellowships, lectures, briefings, tours, and exhibits hosted by in-country institutions around the world, along with programs at embassies and missions in the U.S. and abroad. This extensive, multi-tiered international engagement (i.e., from individual researchers to groups of researchers to whole museums) has persisted since the institution’s creation because science is a transboundary enterprise: scientists study species, phenomena, and processes that do not recognize national boundaries, and they communicate and cooperate in ways that cut across cultural, political, linguistic, and even religious differences. For the Smithsonian, deep investments and commitments overseas have been partially enabled by U.S. geostrategic presence, permitting the growth of scientific research centers rooted in place (see a snapshot of these efforts in Table 1). While the Smithsonian’s international science footprint has changed over nearly two centuries, from establishing field sites to creating stronger collaborative and operational connections through consortia and initiatives, the diplomatic abilities of the Smithsonian have had far-reaching consequences for the development of science and U.S. foreign relationships. We list two such examples immediately below.

  1. Building an Institutional Model for Science Diplomacy

The Smithsonian’s international footprint started early in the 20th century, notably in Panama with the construction of the Panama Canal and the creation of the Panama Canal watershed. From 1910 to 1912, researchers from the Smithsonian led the Panama Biological Survey to conduct a biological inventory of the new canal zone. Through an exchange of diplomatic notes, the Panamanian President, Pablo Arosemena Alba (1836-1920), requested that Charles D. Walcott (1850-1927), the fourth Secretary of the Smithsonian, extend the survey to all of Panama. This exchange launched a long-term relationship and collaboration that embodies science diplomacy in the most tangible way: a physical institute that today spans thirteen research stations across the country, including Barro Colorado Island, with access to two oceans for the benefit of Panama and the world. 

Barro Colorado Island was set aside as a nature preserve in 1923, and less than a year later, the island’s biological laboratory opened, further solidifying North American interests in Panama. In 1946, the island’s Biological Station was placed under the auspices of the Smithsonian and renamed Canal Zone Biological Area. It became the only administrative unit of the Smithsonian located outside the United States at the time, and it transformed in the next twenty years from a field site for North American scientists to an international research institute. In 1966, it was renamed the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI).3

The Republic of Panama continues to recognize the relevance of STRI’s mission and in 1997 signed an agreement with STRI, guaranteeing its in-country scientific operations. In turn, STRI continues to promote researchers from different nationalities and diverse backgrounds to fulfill its mission. Today the institute advances under the leadership of a female Panamanian scientist (OS, a co-author of this paper), who provides a visible and credible example of how successful representation in science leadership can empower a research institution’s mission in science and diplomacy.  

The strength of the long-standing diplomatic ties between STRI and Panama have enabled the Smithsonian to become a global leader for tropical research and training the next generation of tropical scientists. Building on more than 100 years of Smithsonian science in Panama, STRI’s researchers explore the most biologically and culturally diverse region of our planet–the tropics. In collaboration with the Panamanian people, STRI provides a vital platform for thousands of scientists from more than fifty countries to conduct projects in both terrestrial and marine environments encompassing diverse areas such as marine biology, ecology, behavior, soil research, archaeology, anthropology, physiology, paleontology, botany, among many others. With over 1,500 visiting scientists, students, and fellows each year, STRI is a living example of successful science diplomacy.

  1. Combining Science Diplomacy with Public Education

The Smithsonian’s founders could not have foreseen how important a global reach would become, especially in the 21st century. In some ways, things have not changed: individual Smithsonian scientists engage in international collaborations specific to their own interests; multiple individuals or research groups form partnerships in-country on specific topics or issues; and museum-wide or institutional agreements facilitate associations with international partners. But the context of these activities differs dramatically, nearly two centuries later, with the immediacy and interconnectedness of global threats that include climate change, the accelerating loss of biodiversity and cultural heritage, new emerging diseases, and the erosion of trust in scientific knowledge and institutions. As a result, science diplomacy at the Smithsonian has become equally urgent and complex. Never has its mission to diffuse knowledge to the general public–across the U. S. and around the world–been more critical.

In the past decade, the Smithsonian assembled a pan-institutional action network, the Conservation Commons, devoted to the understanding and promoting conservation that ranges from biological diversity to cultural heritage. This unifying idea is rooted in the long-standing depth and span of the Smithsonian’s scientific expertise; since 2017, the Conservation Commons has harnessed the Smithsonian’s convening power to host annual Earth Optimism summits. These events provide a valuable opportunity to draw together U.S. federal science agencies with non-governmental organizations as well as the private sector, in an effort to promote a solution-focused narrative of empowerment on environmental issues. While no formal diplomatic engagements happen at the summits, their visibility has increasingly attracted international interest: in 2020, the Indonesian government partnered with the U.S. Department of State and the Smithsonian to create a bilingual (English and Indonesian) ten-part video series that featured educational content directly organized by the summits and the Conservation Commons.

During the 100-year anniversary of the 1918 influenza pandemic, the Smithsonian expanded its activities in global health and public education with the exhibit Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World at its National Museum of Natural History. This undertaking leveraged external partnerships formed through the Smithsonian’s Global Health Program (based at Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute) and as an implementing partner in USAID’s PREDICT project4 to promote a “One Health” perspective on the interconnectedness of human, animal, and environmental health. Concurrent with Outbreak’s physical opening in 2018, the Smithsonian also created free, flexible, and multilingual content as a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) version of the exhibit, Outbreak DIY, which has been localized at least 200 times in almost fifty countries to date.5 In the last two years, these digital resources have been translated, customized, and produced by community-based efforts for One Health education in myriad settings such as schools, hospitals, parks, gardens, galleries, airports, markets, beaches, embassies, and legislative buildings. Even Smithsonian researchers have used Outbreak DIY for community engagement and education in Myanmar and Kenya (both led by the Smithsonian Global Health Program) and in Panama (at STRI).

Outbreak’s timing was prescient, warning of pandemic threats such as novel coronaviruses long before the global spread of COVID-19.6 During the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, the closure of the physical Outbreak exhibit on the National Mall highlighted its versatile tools for science diplomacy, which became even more valuable while the museum was inaccessible.7 Digital content from the exhibit, as well as associated webinars, are now freely available for remote learning. Moreover, DIY exhibits are now a form of science communication that allows the Smithsonian to extend its reach and interactions beyond the traditional model of traveling exhibitions and affiliate partnerships. In this way, the Smithsonian is also spreading its diplomatic power, in the spirit of Secretary Henry’s vision, “by what it sends forth to the world.”

Looking ahead: The Smithsonian During a Global Crisis

As disease, conflict, and environmental catastrophe converge in a moment of planetary reckoning, the relevance of the Smithsonian as an international partner has not diminished. Nor have its challenges. The topics that dominated the headlines in 2020 simultaneously involved science across many geopolitical boundaries: the rate of biodiversity loss has accelerated,8 greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere have increased to record levels,9 wildfires and extreme weather events continue to increase in frequency and destruction,10 and another newly emerged coronavirus has become a once-in-a-century pandemic. Their disproportionate impacts across countries and communities reflect growing inequalities in health, prosperity, and power worldwide. In addressing these inequalities, the Smithsonian must shine a light on the dark corners of its own history and live up to its founding principles. By recognizing its roots in settler colonialism and white supremacy, there is an opportunity (and urgency) to learn and grow from community partnerships–and America’s painful past–through processes of decolonization and reconciliation. These challenges have also happened with the retreat of U.S. engagement in multilateral international frameworks and an increasing global spread of misinformation. We argue that these conditions make the Smithsonian’s functions, and its reputation as a trusted source of knowledge, more important than ever in continued collaborations between the U.S. and the rest of the world, for the empowerment of all.

The challenges in the immediate future also fuse science with changing cultural tides. Lonnie Bunch III (1952-), the 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian, has proposed a role for the Smithsonian that facilitates a deeper understanding of the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic social injustice. With this approach, the Smithsonian can help lead the way in constructing non-colonial frameworks for biological and cultural research with visible leadership in public spaces. The idea that the Smithsonian can provide expertise, insight, and hope11 makes the work of its scientists, historians, educators, and curators not that different from diplomats who undertake difficult foreign relationships. The intersections and linkages of so many threats to health and society require the full strength of the Institution’s research, programs, education, and convening capacity in countries all over the world. In effect, the Smithsonian represents a ready-made public diplomacy asset for the challenges of our times.

As the Smithsonian navigates a post-COVID-19 future and gradually reopens its museums and research facilities, there is a clear need to balance traditional strengths with the need to innovate a more agile and effective organization. Digital tools, data driven decision-making, and a focus on education are organizational goals that the Smithsonian can easily integrate into existing functions that bear on science diplomacy: the 2020 launch of its Open Access initiative, for example, will continue to “break down” its museum walls and make Smithsonian collections available to global audiences in ways that leverage its reputation for international relationships. For example, the Smithsonian has published over 90,000 original research articles since its founding, and continues at a rate of over 2,000 per year.12 Open access will ensure that this substantial pace of discovery will reach international audiences, especially through existing consortia such as the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL). Headquartered by the Smithsonian’s Libraries and Archives, BHL has digitized over fifty-eight million pages of biodiversity literature from the 15th-21st centuries, serving over 240 countries.

Equally, there is a need for a modern approach to developing an inclusive and diverse workplace culture reflective of the institution’s alignment with multilateral initiatives such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) .The Smithsonian has already taken strides with the American Women’s History Initiative,13 whose digital-first mission seeks to amplify a diversity of women’s voices in science, art, government, and activism to be heard by millions of people around the world (effectively equivalent to SDG 5, gender equality). In addition, the newly announced Smithsonian initiative “Race, Community and Our Shared Future” aims to convene new conversations on structural racism through virtual town hall conversations, digital exhibitions, film screenings, teacher training programs, and more.14 As American domestic interests align with U.S. foreign policy objectives in the future, these types of new approaches will be critical for the relevance and success of U.S. diplomacy.

One important lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic is the importance of having objective scientific information available for decision-making in the public interest. The Smithsonian is not among the public and government institutions that have suffered the consequences of failed engagement or shortsighted policy decisions because it is primarily an educational and research institution. With its public trust undiminished, the Smithsonian will have an increasingly valuable role in the science-based solutions for not just the COVID-19 pandemic, but for other challenges as well. The international scope of its science and research provides a viable route of public diplomacy for dealing with transboundary problems, and its existing portfolio of engagement might provide a scaffold for U.S. relationships with other global partners, especially where relations are difficult or strained. While success in a post-COVID-19 world may look different than past challenges, we think that a nearly 200-year-old vision for a global role of science in society will remain a critical part of American diplomacy for the foreseeable future.


The authors would like to thank several individuals at the Smithsonian who shared insights and knowledge about the institution’s diverse and long-standing international science portfolio. We are especially grateful to comments from Aviva Rosenthal, Liz Tunick Cedar, Samantha J. Peterson, Scott E. Miller, Pierre Comizzoli, Amy Marino, Julissa Marenco, Pamela Henson, and Ira Rubinoff, which greatly improved this manuscript. We also wish to thank other participants of the Smithsonian’s 2020 Earth Optimism Summit symposium on science diplomacy, including Cristián Samper and Fran Ulmer, whose contributions inspired this one.



  1. The Royal Society, New frontiers in science diplomacy: Navigating the balance of power (2010),
  2. Smithsonian Institution, Board of Regents, and United States National Museum, Annual report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution 1850-1852, (1846),
  3. Pamela M. Henson, 100 Years of the Smithsonian in Panama (Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 2010).
  4. USAID, “Pandemic Preparedness for Global Health Security,”
  5. Smithsonian Institution, “Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World,”
  6. Sabrina Sholts, ”How Museums Can Help the Public Make Sense of Pandemics,” Smithsonian Magazine (2020),
  7. Elizabeth Pennisi, “Shuttered Natural History Museums Fight for Survival,” Science (2020), doi:10.1126/science.abd0587.
  8. Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 (Montreal: 2020),
  9. World Meteorological Organization, “United in Science 2020,”
  10. Veronica Penney, “It’s Not Just the West. These Places Are Also on Fire,” The New York Times, September 16, 2020,
  11. Lonnie G. Bunch, III, “Secretary Lonnie Bunch: Learning from Americans’ Past Ordeals,” Smithsonian Magazine (July/August 2020),
  12. Smithsonian Institution, “Smithsonian Metrics Dashboard,”
  13. Smithsonian Institution, “Because of Her Story,”
  14. Smithsonian Institution, “Healing a Nation,”


Relationship Building Transboundary Issues and Shared Spaces January 2021: Special Issue