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New Science Museum Melds Science and Public Policy

By Cheryl Simon Silver

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The DNA exhibit highlights similarities and differences among species.
A town replete with some of the world’s biggest and best-loved science museums can boast a new, smaller entry for its tourist guides. The National Academy of Sciences today opened its new Marian Koshland Science Museum, located in the Academy headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C.

The museum aims to educate the public about science that is related, in some way, to public-policy decisions.

The museum draws its content from the many reports completed each year by Academy members. The Academy is a private, nonprofit organization that advises the U.S. government and others on matters of science and technology; its members are scientists, engineers, and health professionals.

First-time visitors to the sparkling new museum will be struck by the size of the facility, which, at 6,000 square feet, is relatively small. But the interactive displays and engaging graphics stand a good chance of holding the attention of even the most distracted adolescent for the hour or so needed for a thorough visit.

While there is no age requirement, the museum is geared for visitors thirteen and older.

Visitors can search displays for examples of mutated genes.
The museum devotes its compact quarters to two featured exhibits on topics likely to be of general interest, global warming and DNA science. These exhibits will eventually travel to other museums and be replaced by new ones about other areas of modern science.

One exhibit, “Global Warming Facts & Our Future,” invites visitors to explore the science behind global warming and consider how a warmer environment might affect people around the world. The electronic displays present several possible scenarios, such as rising sea levels.

The displays drive home in a straightforward way the potential consequences of the planet’s rising carbon-dioxide levels. The exhibit draws on decades of research and leads the viewer to consider some public-policy decisions that might induce people, industries, or nations to respond to current trends.

The next exhibit features DNA and begins with a brief computer simulation that puts the structure of DNA into a colorful, three-dimensional context. Then, in “Putting DNA to Work,” visitors are primed to consider a few ways in which knowledge about DNA affects our daily lives.

One part of the exhibit looks at the genetic manipulation of food crops. Another part features DNA sequencing, which was used, for example, to identify in a matter of days the genetic nature of the virus that causes SARS, the potentially fatal respiratory ailment.

Visitors can also dabble in forensics as they try to identify a criminal by using the FBI’s DNA indexing system. Throughout, visitors will appreciate that many recent discoveries about our genes and how they work would not have been made without computers.

The Marian Koshland Science Museum is located near the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum and Museum of Natural History.

Erika Shugart, who oversees the development of the museum's Web site and the biological content in the museum's exhibits, says, “We are not an artifact museum. We’re taking an interactive approach to emphasize the policy behind the science questions.”

The museum’s Web site features virtual exhibits for the DNA and climate exhibits. A special section for educators, some of whom will bring student groups to the museum, offers science activities that relate to the exhibits.

The National Academy of Sciences includes the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Research Council. The new facility was made possible by a $25 million gift by Daniel Koshland. The museum is named for his wife, Marian Koshland (1921-1997), an Academy member known for her work in the fields of immunology and molecular biology.

More information about the Marian Koshland Science Museum appears at www.koshland-science-museum.org


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