Fact Sheet

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center is the leading national research center for understanding environmental issues in the coastal zone. The world’s coastal zones are home to more than 60 percent of the global population and subject to intensive activity. A diverse staff of senior scientists engages in interdisciplinary studies that address issues such as global change, watershed studies, maintenance of productive fisheries, changes in our environment from biological invaders, and understanding fragile wetlands and woodlands.

Scientific Research

SERC researchers are managing more than 80 projects funded by grants from public and private organizations and eight endowed programs in four ecological areas: global change, landscape ecology, coastal ecosystems and population and community ecology. Research achievements include:

  • SERC is the national center for the analysis of patterns of species invasion in marine and estuarine ecosystems. The Invasions Biology Program measures patterns of species invasion through field surveys of all U.S. coastal states and many international ports, and includes the National Ballast Information Clearinghouse, which reports nationwide patterns of ship ballast water delivery and management to the U.S. Coast Guard and Congress.

  • SERC’s global change research includes the world’s longest running field experiment on the effect of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide on plant communities, and the world’s longest data record on the increase in ultraviolet solar radiation impacting Earth.

  • SERC is an international leader in watershed studies. Research at SERC on the effects of land use on water quality – including agriculture and coastal development – demonstrates the important role of streamside forests in preventing nutrient runoff into estuaries. SERC also has the longest record of acid rain for the mid-Atlantic region, and relates precipitation inputs to watershed discharges.

  • One of the world’s largest research programs analyzing mangrove forests, the vital ecosystem at the land margin of tropical oceans, is organized and coordinated from SERC.

  • SERC has built a 30-year database on species composition and populations dynamics of plants and animals in the Chesapeake Bay region.

  • SERC research focuses on human impacts on the largest estuary in the United States, the Chesapeake Bay, with long-term analyses of the ecological regulation of plankton blooms, food web dynamics, blue crab ecology, fish population biology, host-parasite interactions, wetland functions, and estuarine indicators of water quality and habitat value. These variables are linked to watershed discharges and land-use parameters.

Publications and Conference Participation

SERC scientists have published 2,000 scientific papers, journal articles and books about ecological dynamics and human interactions with the environment.

Education and Public Programs

To prepare the next generation of ecologists and environmental scientists, SERC provides educational opportunities for students from kindergarten through the post-doctoral level. SERC has trained more than 1,000 undergraduate interns, and more than 500 post-doctoral, doctoral and graduate student fellows from more than 150 colleges and universities. On average, 45 interns and 20 fellows participate in SERC’s professional training program annually.

A variety of hands-on science experiences and environmental field trips are available for school groups, along with workshops for teachers that offer scientific training, continuing education, and environmental curriculum through a combination of activities. SERC outreach programs include the Mobile Ecology Lab that travels to present programs in the Washington, D.C.-Baltimore region.

In addition, SERC Distance Learning programs include video conferencing facilities that enable more than 100 classrooms across the country to participate in SERC’s educational programming yearly, and interactive electronic field trips that reached more than 81 million participants since 2002.

SERC’s education department also offers programs for the general public including on-site tours and special activities, parent-child reading hour, lunch-time programs with scientists, an evening lecture series, guided canoe expeditions through the estuary and a free annual open house. In addition, the SERC campus is open six days per week for drop-in visitors.


Established in 1965, SERC’s research and education facilities lie along the shore of the Chesapeake Bay, 26 miles east of Washington, D.C. The site encompasses 2,650 acres of land and 14 miles of protected shoreline that serve as a natural laboratory for long-term ecological research. The unique location provides valuable opportunities to study the interactions of aquatic, terrestrial and atmospheric components of complex landscapes.

SERC researchers base their research at this main facility, but extend their studies around the world, using the Chesapeake Bay as a model for ecological processes and human impacts in other areas. Comparative studies extend throughout the world from the Indian River Lagoon in Florida, the Meso-American barrier reef off Belize, and the tropical ecosystems of the Panamanian isthmus, to Prince William Sound, Alaska, Japan and the Southern Ocean.

Budget and Staff

The center’s current annual budget is $10.5 million. The staff of roughly 100 full-time employees has expertise in terrestrial and marine ecology, zoology, physiology, biology and microbiology. The center’s environmental education staff interprets and communicates research findings to school children and to the public through on-site educational programs, video conferences, e-field trips and via the Web site. A vast network of collaborators within the United States and worldwide uses the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s research facilities.