Scientist, Author, Educator, Tree Canopy Biologist

Sustainability and science museums

A vision without a task is but a dream, a task without a vision is drudgery, a vision and a task is the hope of the world. — From a church in Sussex, England c. 1730

Nature's Secrets by CanopyMegWhen I was in graduate school studying ecology during the 1980s, we all shared a conviction to make the world a better place. Oh, the power of youth, optimism and energy! We had hopes of stopping rain forest degradation, alleviating poverty, deciphering Mayan ruins, and guaranteeing clean air for everyone. Thirty years and thousands of eager graduate students later, atmospheric carbon dioxide now exceeds 400 ppm and American education lags behind many other countries, according to some metrics.

What if museums, instead of sharing their historical treasures of art, biodiversity and culture, also embraced a mission to ensure that future generations have a quality of life that would inspire art, science, and innovation?

According to the American Association of Museums, more Americans visited museums in 2012 than attended a sporting event. With that enormous level of visitorship, an opportunity exists to serve as a hub for sustainability of the future, not just appreciation of the past.

In my world of science, it appears that the best efforts of our brightest minds have failed to stop — much less reverse — global environmental degradation. There is an urgent need to transform the way that science serves society — and the best place to start is with our younger generations.

On average, Americans spend less than 5 percent of their lives in the classroom, and statistics indicate that our K-12 formal science education lags behind other countries. Our science education has become the butt of late-night talk show jokes, such as this comment from Jay Leno: “According to a study by the National Science Foundation, 70 percent of Americans do not understand science. Here’s the sad part: 30 percent do not even know what 70 percent means.”

On a brighter note, informal science education, where students learn outside the classroom, is proving increasingly effective, and museums are at the forefront of this movement. To keep visitors engaged, many museums now provide hands-on exhibits, after-school programs, and virtual field trips.

Yet public perception often categorizes science museums as dusty places filled with dead animals in jars, and artifacts from ancient explorations.

What would it take for American science museums to overturn this stereotype, to compete with malls and movies, and become more relevant? Confronting some of the planet’s most critical issues, such as climate change and food security, head-on might be a good start. So would dedicating a portion of their budgets and exhibit space to engaging the public in the facts about sea-level rise and ocean acidification.

Imagine if every science museum brought young people into direct contact with practicing scientists, so kids could recognize they aren’t geeks in white coats, but professionals who resolve some of the world’s most pressing issues.

What if science museums engaged their local communities in monitoring invasive species using mobile apps, ultimately saving millions of dollars in early detection? What if art museums explained clearly the fate of many cultural sites with rising sea level, and how air pollution threatens many historical treasures?

Many museums are inspiring their public in new and creative ways, but could be doing more. By becoming a forum for community involvement and by using the hooks of past achievements to inspire sustainability solutions for the future, museums have as much power to change the world as any technological innovation.

Developing a funding model for such creative approaches seems a necessary first step. In the business world, Benefit Corporations (B-Corps) are defined as those companies with an element of sustainable operations as an added value for shareholders. Instead of offering stocks with monetary remuneration alone, B-Corps also commit to positive environmental and social impacts. Examples include Seventh Generation, Patagonia and Burt’s Bees.

What if all museums followed this model (called B-Muses?), whereby a component of each museum’s portfolio reflected relevant sustainability education and research? In addition to timeless exhibits about the Dead Sea Scrolls or the aerodynamics of flight, Benefit Museums would dedicate a portion of their mission to relevant sustainability issues and solutions.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be, nor should it be, all gloom and doom. Perhaps the most important message that B-Museums could convey is that all is not lost, that each one of us can play an active role in finding solutions for a sustainable future.

Meg Lowman, a longtime Sarasota-based scientist and educator, is chief of science and sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences.

Originally posted in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.