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Consortia Online Events
Castle Lecture Series
Talks are held monthly and are webcast live. Videos archived here.

BioGenomics Lightning Talks by SIBG-GGI Award Recipients – Round 1
6 May 2015 Live webcast and archive available here.

Smithsonian Institute for Biodiversity Genomics
12 December 2014
Live webcast and archive available here.

Living in the Anthropocene: Prospects for Climate, Economics, Health, and Security
9 October 2014
Archive available here.

Grand Challenges Share Fair
May 12, 2014
Archive available here.

Scots in the American West Symposium
8 August 2013
Archive available here.

Grand Challenges Share Fair
May 14, 2013
Archive available here.

The Anthropocene: Planet Earth in the Age of Humans
11 October 2012
Archive available here.

Grand Challenges Share Fair
May 10, 2012
Archive available here.

Perspectives on Limits to Growth: Challenges to Building a Sustainable Planet
March 1, 2012
Archive available here.

Grand Challenges Share Fair
May 18, 2011
Archive available here.
Related Resources
Discover related research, exhibitions, videos, web features, and teacher materials:

Mysteries of the Universe »
Biodiversity »
World Cultures »
The American Experience »

Smithsonian Grand Challenges Consortia

The Smithsonian Consortia help foster a spirit of interdisciplinary collaboration to stimulate intellectual exchange within the Smithsonian and beyond. They incubate, develop, and launch collaborations that along with our museums, research centers and programs, address our Strategic Plan’s four Grand Challenges: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Universe, Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet, Valuing World Cultures, and Understanding the American Experience.

Living in the Anthropocene: Prospects for Climate, Economics, Health, and Security

9 October 2014
9:15 a.m. – 6:30 p.m.

Baird Auditorium
National Museum of Natural History
10th Street and Constitution Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC

Download the symposium program.

To join the conversation online, use #AgeOfHumans. To submit questions to the speakers and panelists, please e-mail

The Smithsonian Institution’s Grand Challenges Consortia invite you to a symposium on October 9, 2014 to consider how humans are transforming the climate and environments of the Earth at an accelerating rate through agriculture, urbanization, transportation, the use of fossil fuels, and many other activities. Our global imprint, and the certainty that more than seven billion people will profoundly change the environment and biota of the planet for many generations to come, have led many scientists to recognize a new period of geological time called the Anthropocene, or Age of Humans. Restoring Anthropocene environments to pre-industrial conditions may be impossible, but the future need not be apocalyptic if we act soon. To make a livable Anthropocene, we must use our scientific knowledge to forecast environmental change and develop more resilient societies and cultural institutions that can adapt to the changes we can no longer avoid. This symposium features the views of leaders in the fields of climate, health, economics, and security who will consider the problems we face and offer possible solutions.

Speakers will include James J. Hack, Director of the National Center for Computational Science, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, that provides high performance computing resources for tackling scientific grand challenges; Rachel Kyte, Group Vice President and Special Envoy for Climate Change at The World Bank; George Luber, Epidemiologist and Associate Director for Climate Change at the Centers for Disease Control; and Admiral Thad Allen, former 23rd Commandant of the USCG and coordinator of the federal response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Following each talk, a panel of Smithsonian scholars and thinkers will discuss the issues raised by the presentation. A summation of the day’s discussion will be provided by Thomas L. Friedman, award winning author and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times.

The symposium will be open to the public, but space is limited. RSVP by October 1st to with attendee name and affiliation to receive your ticket. A schedule of talks and biosketches will be made available for download in advance of the event. A limited number will be available at the event.

Guests must use the Constitution Ave. entrance to the museum. Seating in the auditorium will not be assigned. Admission is free and guests will need to check in with museum security. The museum has various dining options. The nearest Metro stop to the Constitution Ave. entrance is the Archives station (Yellow, Green lines). The Smithsonian station’s Mall exit is on the Madison Ave. side of the museum (Blue, Orange lines). For information on bus lines with stops near the museum, please visit WMATA or DC Circulator. Parking is limited to on-street spaces (posted times are enforced) and local garages.

The symposium will be webcast live and recorded for later viewing.

Enlightenment and Education: 300 Years of Innovation in Scotland and America

On May 1, 2014 a seminar at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC will feature international speakers and commentators from the Fulbright-Scotland Summer Institute partners, Smithsonian Institution, and the Unites States Patent and Trademark Office. The sessions will examine the dramatic and compelling arc of enlightenment, education, and innovation in Scotland and America over the past 300 years, with special emphasis on expanding student and scholarly exchange. (For more information, please download the event program.) Admission is free by advance registration. To register, please RSVP with your name and affiliation to by April 18, 2014.

Highlights from Smithsonian's Anthropocene: Planet Earth in the Age of Humans.
A full archive of the symposium is available.

The Anthropocene: Planet Earth in the Age of Humans

The Smithsonian Institution’s Grand Challenges Consortia hosted a symposium on October 11, 2012 to address the tremendous scope of transformations now occurring on the Earth with profound effects on plants, animals, and natural habitats. Geologists have proposed the term Anthropocene, or “Age of Man”, for this new period in the history of the planet. The symposium focused on the arrival and impact of this new era through the lenses of science, history, art, culture, philosophy, and economics, and promoted discussion, debate, and deliberation on these issues of change.

Speakers included Charles C. Mann, journalist and author of 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created; Sabine O’Hara, Dean of the College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability, & Environmental Sciences at the University of the District of Columbia; Richard Alley, Professor of Geosciences at Pennsylvania State University; and photographer and filmmaker Chris Jordan. Each of these presentations was followed by responses from an interdisciplinary panel of scholars to foster a wide-ranging discussion of the issues. A summation of the day’s discussion was provided by The Honorable Timothy E. Wirth, President of the United Nations Foundation, former Congressman and Senator from Colorado.

Watch the full proceedings, or a session of your preference, from The Anthropocene: Planet Earth in the Age of Humans.

Download the program for The Anthropocene: Planet Earth in the Age of Humans.

Scots in the American West

Download the program for Scots in the American West.

The Smithsonian Institution’s Consortium for Understanding the American Experience and the Buffalo Bill Center of the West hosted a symposium on August 8, 2013 to discuss the Scottish diaspora and Scots in the American West. In the late 1600s, Glasgow was the European center for the Virginia tobacco trade, and Scots Presbyterian dissenters in search of religious freedom established their own colonies in South Carolina and New Jersey. In the 1700s, population growth, agricultural modernization, and political upheaval in Scotland were the driving forces behind more than 50,000 Scots crossing the Atlantic. As the new American Republic looked westward, many of the earliest pioneers settling the Ohio and Tennessee valleys were of Scots or Scots-Irish descent. It is little wonder then that in the 1800s as the United States expanded into the Trans-Mississippi American West, Scottish immigrants and their descendants contributed and greatly shaped all phases of this movement.

This symposium examined the Scottish immigrant experience in the Trans-Mississippi West in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the substantial contributions made by Scots and Scots-Americans. What compelled Scots to leave their homeland and settle in America? How did their Scottish culture and past shape their experiences in the American West? Finally, what was the particular lure of the American West for Scots of that period? Not only will this symposium offer insight into the immigrant experience, it will also examine the multifaceted forces shaping western expansion and how it shaped American culture and society today.

The Smithsonian Consortium for Understanding the American Experience would like to thank the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, the Alliance for Scottish Roots Music, the National Trust for Scotland Foundation USA, and Ms. Naoma Tate for their support of the event.

The symposium was webcast live and recorded for later viewing.

Coral reef biota including sponges, gorgonians and corals at 50 feet underwater at Promontory Point near Carrie Bow Cay Research Station, Belize, 2008.

Smithsonian Launches Global Marine Biodiversity Project with $10 Million Donation

The Smithsonian announced on October 25, 2012 that it will launch a major long-term project to study coastal marine biodiversity and ecosystems around the globe. The project is an outgrowth of research begun with seed funding from the Smithsonian Consortia's Grand Challenges Awards program, and is made possible by a $10 million donation from Suzanne and Michael Tennenbaum. The goal of the project—Smithsonian's Tennenbaum Marine Observatories—is to monitor the ocean's coastal ecosystems over a long period of time.

Emmett Duffy, currently the Gluckman Professor of Marine Science at the College of William & Mary, will serve as the first director of this new initiative at the Smithsonian, effective September 16, 2013. Dr. Duffy will oversee the development of the overarching marine observatory network, which will include five initial field sites. As the project grows, additional research sites will be established with collaborators around the globe to monitor coastal ocean health, with a goal of at least 10 new sites within the next decade.

Tour the Meteorite Clean Lab at Smithsonian

Don your clean room clothing and join Geologist Cari Corrigan on a tour of the Smithsonian's new Antarctic meteorite storage facility in Suitland, MD, where all of the Antarctic meteorites in the national collection are kept under tight security and tight airlocks. Dr. Corrigan's Grand Challenges Award studies lunar and ordinary meteorites to determine their age and when they made impact with the Earth. These studies will help answer the question in planetary science, "did the migration of the gas giant planets produce a solar system-wide impact bombardment 3.9 billion years ago?". As this long-ago bombardment of materials from asteroids, comets, and even other planets coincides with the advance of life on Earth, the project's research will be relevant for biosciences as well as geosciences. Find out more about this project and others funded in 2010 by the Consortium for Unlocking the Mysteries of the Universe.

Smithsonian staff revitalize endangered languages

The Recovering Voices initiative promotes the documentation and revitalization of the world's endangered languages and knowledge, and seeks to make a difference in the trends of language and knowledge loss through research, collaboration, and resources. The principal challenge to the world's linguistic diversity is the rapid decline in the number of younger speakers and practitioners. This trend can be reversed only if the speakers of endangered languages and bearers of traditions ensure that their children and grandchildren learn them. Tim McCoy, a geologist at Natural History, works with the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma to examine the overlap between science and traditional ways of knowing derived from myammia culture. Dr. McCoy was interviewed, along with Recovering Voices Principal Investigator and lead Curator Joshua Bell, about his experience teaching his sons Myaamia, the language of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma.

Recovering Voices is led by the National Museum of Natural History in partnership with the National Museum of the American Indian and the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and is funded in part the Consortium for Understanding the American Experience and the Consortium for World Cultures.

Perspectives on Limits to Growth: Challenges to Building a Sustainable Planet

The Club of Rome and the Smithsonian Institution's Consortium for Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet hosted a one-day symposium on March 1, 2012 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the launching of Limits to Growth, the first report to the Club of Rome published in 1972. This book was one of the earliest scholarly works to recognize that the world was fast approaching its sustainable limits. Forty years later, the planet continues to face many of the same economic, social, and environmental challenges as when the book was first published.

The morning session focused on the lessons of Limits to Growth. The afternoon session addressed the difficult challenges of preserving biodiversity, adjusting to a changing climate, and solving the societal issues now facing the planet. The symposium ended with a thought-provoking panel discussion among the speakers on future steps for building a sustainable planet.

The symposium was webcast live, and recorded for later viewing.

The Grand Challenges Consortia would like to thank the Club of Rome, the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, and Pedro and Carol Cuatrecasas for their generous support of the event. We would also like to thank the National Museum of the American Indian for providing a wonderful venue for the proceedings.

Deep Reef Observation Project discovers new fish species in the Caribbean

The Deep Reef Observation Project is a collaborative effort between Smithsonian scientists at the National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, and the National Zoological Park. Led by Carole Baldwin, Principal Investigator on the project's 2011 Grand Challenges Award, the team uses a submersible vessel capable of descending to 1,000 feet to investigate shallow- and deep-reef biodiversity. The team has been collecting samples off the coast of Curacao and discovered several new species of fish during their research dives. Find out more about this project and others funded in 2011 by the Consortium for Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet.

"Meet our Scientist" featuring Rachel Collin, Grand Challenges Award Principal Investigator

Meet Rachel Collin, a staff scientist and director of the Bocas Del Toro Research Station at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. Rachel studies the evolution of marine gastropods (snails) and oversees multiple disciplines of marine biology at the Collin Lab in Bocas del Toro. Dr. Collin is also Principal Investigator on the 2010 Grand Challenges Award "Ocean Acidification in the Caribbean: Past, Present, and Future."

Find out more about Rachel on the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute website.

Karen Milbourne

Congratulations to Grantee Karen Milbourne

The Smithsonian Consortia would like to congratulate Karen Milbourne, curator at the National Museum of African Art, for receiving the Collaborative Spirit Award as part of the Secretary's third annual Awards for Excellence to recognize Smithsonian individuals for exceptional service to the Institution.

She has received this award because of her abilities to motivate and engage others in a fruitful, creative spirit of collaboration. Her work on Artists in Dialogue facilitated a transatlantic dialogue between artists in South Africa and Brazil resulting in an acclaimed exhibition. Karen received a Grand Challenges Award for her Earth Matters project, which brings together scholars in the fields of art, history, geography, environmental science, American studies, landscape architecture and soil science. She is crossing boundaries and making new, exciting connections.

Smithsonian Grande Challenges

Smithsonian Grand Challenges Awards

Smithsonian Grand Challenges Awards—a competitive, internal granting program—advance cross-disciplinary, integrated scholarly efforts across the Institution which relate to one or more of the four Grand Challenges. These awards encourage Smithsonian staff to advance research, as well as to broaden access, revitalize education, strengthen collections and encourage new ways of thinking that involve emerging technology. At the same time, the awards will amplify the Smithsonian's leadership in addressing the Grand Challenges, nationally and globally, by enhancing externally funded research and increasing the public's understanding of related issues. The awards are organized by Consortia of the same name which aid the development of a suite of projects in their Grand Challenge area, seek both internal and external opportunities, and explore cross-cutting themes and ideas:

Grand Challenges grants are awarded through the Smithsonian Consortia at two distinct levels:

Level One grants provide seed money to develop groups around promising concepts.  Successful proposals at Level One provide the time and incentive for individuals with common interests to meet and crystallize ideas for major interdisciplinary/pan-Institutional projects. These projects are intended to be short in duration (6-12 months) and focused in purpose, such as support for arranging seminars, workshops, meetings, and brown-bag lunches.  

Level Two grants are larger and aimed at maturing groups poised to confront relevant issues and prepared to secure external funding.  Applicants apply for Level Two funding to conduct preliminary experiments, write a position paper, explore the design of an exhibition, conduct preparatory work for a major project or produce other evidence of scholarly capacity that is deemed essential for external competition. Successful proposals at Level Two provide a group that has defined a common goal with the resources they need to establish themselves as credible competitors for external funding. Applicants for Level Two funding may already have a collaborative history or may be building on the outcome of a successful Level One process.

The Smithsonian Consortia are funded through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The grant supports the four grand challenges of the Smithsonian Institution's Strategic Plan, enables the Institution to organize itself in a way that will achieve significant results in each area, and provides competitive grants to Smithsonian staff who submit creative interdisciplinary ideas.