On the occasion of National Geographic making its 10,000 grant for exploration, we interview Peter Raven, chairman of the Committee for Research and Exploration, the Society’s oldest grant-making body. Raven discusses why funding scientific research and exploration has never been more important, especially as the human population has passed the 7,000,000,000 mark, and as our planet’s climate is changing. He also explains what kind of scientists and explorers National Geographic is seeking to fund.
The Committee functions to make grants to a varied range of scientists, all across the spectrum, Raven told me. “Historically, it has made grants to people like Jane Goodall, Hiram Bingham, and so forth through its more than one century of history. Now we’ve just made our 10,000th grant, it’s very interesting to focus back on this activity,” he said.
The grants are unique in that they are submitted from throughout the world, and country of citizenship or place of activity is immaterial. But if somebody is working in a foreign country, a place where they don’t live, we always insist on collaboration with the local scientists or local explorers, so that the grant will both discover and contribute to knowledge, and also enrich the effort in that particular country.
Some people would say that the CRE is that the heart of National Geographic’s mission, and that the mission has never been more important in this time of changing population and climate, I said.
National Geographic has two parts, Raven explained. “One part is commercial, the media-oriented part, and the other is the scientific and discovery part. We discover knowledge, mostly by encouraging other people. We package it in different ways, to make it attractive, interesting and understandable, and then we promote it through the magazine, television programs, on the web, blogs, any way we can think of.
“In the activities where we encourage younger people, or early in their careers especially, or in fields where we give many different grants to people who are at different stages of their careers, for example Latin American archaeology, we form contacts throughout those fields, and we can then promote those fields and promote the individual people in ways that are effective and important for them, and important for building people’s understanding of the world.”
So who got the 10,000th Nat Geo grant? Meet Krithi Karanth.
Peter Raven’s life’s work is focused on plants — botany — and that is a subject I imagine has never been more important, at a time when seven billion people are trying to feed themselves, and biodoversity is being eroded by habitat destruction and invasive species. So I asked him comment on the importance of research into plants.
“As the global population zooms past seven billion — looking back on it myself, I can say there are three people in the world now for every person who was here when I was born in the mid-1930s — our dependency on plants is more important than it’s ever been,” he said.
“In order for us to adjust to habitat destruction … to climate change, to save species that can be grown together in communities where we can preserve top soil, regulate water flow … in order to do all those things, we’ve got pay a lot of attention to plants.
“We get 60 percent of our food from just three kinds of plants: corn, rice and wheat.”
“There are about, I would estimate, 450,000 kinds of land plants … but we know a good deal about only perhaps 25,000 to 50,000 of them. We, however, get all of our food from plants, directly or indirectly. We get 60 percent of our food from just three kinds of plants: corn, rice and wheat. For two-thirds of the people in the world, plants are their primary source of medicine. And even for those of us who go to the drug store for our medicine, about a quarter of the medicines there were discovered in plants, and sometimes they are manufactured by cultivated plants and packaged for use.
“In this age of molecular biology, global climate change, threats by invasive plants, animals, diseases, and pests, we need to know, understand and use plants to support us as we seek to build a sustainable world.”
National Geographic has been very strong in promoting the various facets of sustainability in recent years, and has paid a lot of attention to population, water, top soil, agriculture, to all the many components that we need to know and understand to make up a sustainable world, Raven added. “That is clearly geography in the broadest sense.”
What advice does Raven have for young scientists applying for a grant from the CRE? What is the CRE looking for?
“We’re looking for scientific validity, finding real answers to scientifically important questions. Our science spans the whole range of things, from geography through biology, zoology, botany, ecology, anthropology, archaeology — the study of human beings through time, to astronomy and many other fields. Any field of scientific endeavor where the work is based largely in the field. That is by working outdoors. Those are the kinds of scientists we look for.
“We fund people looking at the great animal migrations in Africa, or at the monarch butterfly migrations in the new world. At pollination relationships between crops and wild plants. In feeding relationships between wild birds and competition, in every branch of science.
“We base our grants on work done in the field. We especially like to make grants when they come relatively early in a scientist’s career, because then we feel they can build on those grants to apply for others and to build a whole body of work that can be important for us all.”
Peter H. Raven is one of the world’s leading botanists and advocates of conservation and biodiversity. For three decades, he has headed the Missouri Botanical Garden, an institution he nurtured into a world-class center for botanical research and education, and horticultural display.
Described by Time magazine as a “Hero for the Planet,” Raven champions research around the world to preserve endangered plants and is a leading advocate for conservation and a sustainable environment.
In recognition of his work in science and conservation, Raven is the recipient of numerous prizes and awards, including the prestigious International Prize for Biology from the government of Japan and the U.S. National Medal of Science, the country’s highest award for scientific accomplishment. He has held Guggenheim and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellowships.
Raven was a member of President Bill Clinton’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology. He also served for 12 years as home secretary of the National Academy of Sciences and is a member of the academies of science in Argentina, Brazil, China, Denmark, India, Italy, Mexico, Russia, Sweden, the U.K., and several other countries.
The author of numerous books and reports, both popular and scientific, Raven co-wrote Biology of Plants, an internationally best-selling textbook, now in its sixth edition. He also co-authored Environment, a leading textbook on the environment.