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Carnegie Institution of Washington

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Carnegie Institution of Washington

This article is about a scientific institution headquartered in Washington, D.C., and is not to be confused with the Carnegie Institute, the Carnegie Institute of Technology, or the Carnegie Science Center all of which are located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The Carnegie Institution for Science (also called the Carnegie Institution of Washington (CIW)) is an organization in the United States established to support scientific research.

Today the CIW directs its efforts in six main areas: plant molecular biology at the Department of Plant Biology (Stanford, California), developmental biology at the Department of Embryology (Baltimore, Maryland), global ecology at the Department of Global Ecology (Stanford, CA), Earth science, materials science, and astrobiology at the Geophysical Laboratory (Washington, DC); Earth and planetary sciences as well as astronomy at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism (Washington, DC), and at the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution of Washington (OCIW; Pasadena, CA and Las Campanas, Chile).

Financial position

As of June 30, 2011, the Carnegie Institution of Science had assets of $851 million and net external revenue of $53 million. Expenses for scientific programs and administration was $91.4 million.


"It is proposed to found in the city of Washington, an institution which...shall in the broadest and most liberal manner encourage investigation, research, and discovery [and] show the application of knowledge to the improvement of mankind..." — Andrew Carnegie, January 28, 1902

Beginning in 1895, Andrew Carnegie contributed his vast fortune toward the establishment of 22 organizations that today bear his name and carry on work in such fields as art, education, international affairs, peace, and scientific research.

In 1901, Andrew Carnegie retired from business to begin his career in philanthropy. Among his new enterprises, he considered establishing a national university in Washington, D.C., similar to the great centers of learning in Europe. Because he was concerned that a new university could weaken existing institutions, he opted for a more exciting, albeit riskier, endeavor—an independent research organization that would increase basic scientific knowledge.

Carnegie contacted President Theodore Roosevelt and declared his readiness to endow the new institution with $10 million. He added $2 million more to the endowment in 1907, and another $10 million in 1911.

As ex officio members of the first board of trustees, Carnegie chose the President of the United States, the President of the Senate, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and the president of the National Academy of Sciences. In all, he selected 27 men for the institution’s original board. Their first meeting was held in the office of the Secretary of State on January 29, 1902, and Daniel C. Gilman, who had been president of Johns Hopkins University, was elected president. The institution was incorporated by the U.S. Congress in 1903.

Initially, the president and trustees devoted much of the institution’s budget to individual grants in various fields, including astronomy, anthropology -- including Mayan studies (courtesy the Auburn University Montgomery Carnegie Explorer) -- literature, economics, history and mathematics. Under the leadership of Robert Woodward, who became president in 1904, the board changed its course, deciding to provide major support to departments of research rather than to individuals. This approach allowed them to concentrate on fewer fields and support groups of researchers in related areas over many years. Since the beginning, the Carnegie Institution has been like an explorer—discovering new areas, but often leaving the development to others. This philosophy has fostered new areas of science and has led to unexpected benefits to society, including the development of hybrid corn, radar, the technology that led to Pyrex ® glass, and novel techniques to control genes called RNA interference. Some of Carnegie’s leading researchers from the early and middle years of the 20th century are well known:

Edwin Hubble, who revolutionized astronomy with his discovery that the universe is expanding and that there are galaxies other than our own Milky Way
Charles Richter, who created the earthquake measurement scale;
Barbara McClintock, who won the Nobel Prize for her early work on patterns of genetic inheritance;
Alfred Hershey, who won the Nobel Prize for determining that DNA, not protein, harbors the genetic recipe for life;
Vera Rubin, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Science for her work confirming the existence of dark matter in the universe; and
Andrew Fire, who with colleagues elsewhere opened up the world of RNA interference, for which he shared a Nobel Prize in 2006

Today, Carnegie scientists continue to be at the forefront of scientific discovery. Working in six scientific departments on the East and West Coasts, Carnegie investigators are leaders in the fields of plant biology, developmental biology, earth and planetary sciences, astronomy, and global ecology. They seek answers to questions about the structure of the universe, the formation of our solar system and other planetary systems, the behavior and transformation of matter when subjected to extreme conditions, the origin of life, the function of genes, and the development of organisms from single-celled egg to adult.

The Carnegie Institution is headquartered in Washington, D.C., Richard A. Meserve serves as president.

The name

Beginning in 1895, Andrew Carnegie donated his vast fortune to establish 22 organizations around the world that today bear his name and carry on work in fields as diverse as Andrew Carnegie's 23 Organizations). The organizations are independent entities and are related by name only.

In 2007, the institution adopted the name "Carnegie Institution for Science" to better distinguish it from the other organizations established by and named for Andrew Carnegie. The new name closely associates the words “Carnegie” and “science” and thereby reveals the core identity. The institution remains officially and legally the Carnegie Institution of Washington, but now has a public identity that more clearly describes its work.


Carnegie investigators are leaders in the fields of plant biology, developmental biology, Earth and planetary sciences, astronomy, and global ecology. The institution has six research departments: the Geophysical Laboratory and the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, both located in Washington, D.C.; The Observatories, in Pasadena, California, and Chile; the Department of Plant Biology and the Department of Global Ecology, in Stanford, California; and the Department of Embryology, in Baltimore, Maryland.

The Carnegie Institution’s Six Research Departments:

Department of Embryology, Baltimore, Maryland The Department of Embryology was founded in 1913 in affiliation with the department of anatomy at The Johns Hopkins University. Until the 1960s its focus was human embryo development. Since then the researchers have addressed fundamental questions in animal development and genetics at the cellular and molecular levels. Some researchers investigate the genetic programming behind cellular processes as cells develop, while others explore the genes that control growth and obesity, stimulate stem cells to become specialized body parts, and perform many other functions.

Geophysical Laboratory, Washington, D.C. Researchers at the Geophysical Laboratory (GL), founded in 1905, examine the physics and chemistry of Earth’s deep interior. The laboratory is a world-renowned center for petrology—the study of rocks. It is also a world leader in high-pressure and high-temperature physics making significant contributions to both Earth and material sciences. The GL, with the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism co-located on the same campus, is additionally a member of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute—an interdisciplinary effort to investigate how life evolved on this planet and determine its potential for existing elsewhere. Among their many projects is one dedicated to examining how common rocks found at high-pressure, high-temperature hydrothermal vents at the ocean bottom may have provided the catalyst for life on this planet.

Department of Global Ecology, Stanford, California Established in 2002, Global Ecology is the newest Carnegie department in over 80 years. Using innovative approaches, these researchers are picking apart the complicated interactions of Earth’s land, atmosphere, and oceans to understand how global systems operate. With a wide range of powerful tools—from satellites to the instruments of molecular biology—these scientists explore issues such as the global carbon cycle, the role of land and oceanic ecosystems in regulating climate, the interaction of biological diversity with ecosystem function, and much more. These ecologists also play an active role in the public arena, from giving congressional testimony to promoting satellite imagery for the discovery of environmental “hotspots.”

Department of Plant Biology, Stanford, California The Department of Plant Biology began as a desert laboratory in 1903 to study plants in their natural habitats. Over time the research evolved to the study of photosynthesis. Today, using molecular genetics and related methods, these biologists study the genes responsible for plant responses to light and the genetic controls over various growth and developmental processes including those that enable plants to survive disease and environmental stress. In addition, the department is a world leader in bioinformatics. It developed and now manages an online-integrated database that supplies all aspects of biological information on the most widely used model plant, Arabidopsis.

Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, Washington, D.C. The Department of Terrestrial Magnetism was founded in 1904 to map the geomagnetic field of the Earth. Over the years the research direction shifted, but the historic goal—to understand the Earth and its place in the universe—has remained the same. Today the department is home to an interdisciplinary team of astronomers and astrophysicists, geophysicists and geochemists, cosmochemists and planetary scientists. These Carnegie researchers are discovering planets outside our solar system, determining the age and structure of the universe, and studying the causes of earthquakes and volcanoes. With colleagues from the Geophysical Laboratory, these investigators are also helping to define the new and exciting field of astrobiology.

The Observatories, Pasadena, California, and Las Campanas, Chile The Observatories were founded in 1904 as the Mount Wilson Observatory. Mount Wilson transformed our notion of the cosmos with the discoveries by Edwin Hubble that the universe is far larger than had been thought and that it is expanding. Carnegie astronomers today study the cosmos with an unusual twist. Unlike most in their field, they design and build their own instruments to capture the secrets of space. They are tracing the evolution of the universe from the spark of the Big Bang through star and galaxy formation, exploring the structure of the universe, and probing the mysteries of dark matter, dark energy, and the ever-accelerating rate at which the universe is expanding.

CASE: Carnegie Academy for Science Education and First Light In 1989, Maxine Singer, president of Carnegie at that time, founded First Light, a free Saturday science program for middle school students from D.C. public, charter, private, and parochial schools. The program teaches hands-on science, such as constructing and programming robots, investigating pond ecology, and studying the solar system and telescope building. First Light marked the beginning of CASE, the Carnegie Academy for Science Education. Since 1994 CASE has also offered professional development for D.C. teachers in science, mathematics, and technology.


The Carnegie Institution's administrative offices are located at 1530 P St., NW, Washington, D.C., at the corner of 16th and P Streets. The building houses the offices of the president, administration and finance, publications, and advancement.

Andrew Carnegie's 23 Organizations Beginning in 1895, Andrew Carnegie contributed his vast fortune toward the establishment of 23 organizations that today bear his name and carry on work in such fields as art, education, international affairs, peace, and scientific research.

Support for eugenics

In 1920 the Eugenics Record Office, founded by Charles Davenport in 1910 in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, was merged with the Station for Experimental Evolution to become the Carnegie Institution's Department of Genetics. The Institution funded that laboratory until 1939; it employed such anthropologists as Morris Steggerda, who collaborated closely with Davenport. The Carnegie Institution ceased its support of eugenics research and closed the department in 1944. The department's records were retained in a university library. The Carnegie Institution continues its support for legitimate genetic research. Among its notable staff members in that field are Nobel laureates Barbara McClintock, Alfred Hershey and Andrew Fire.

Presidents of the CIW


External links

  • Administration
  • Carnegie Academy for Science Education and First Light
  • Department of Embryology
  • Department of Global Ecology
  • Department of Plant Biology
  • Department of Terrestrial Magnetism
  • Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) documentation:
    • HAER No. DC-52-A, "Carnegie Institute of Washington, Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, Standardizing Magnetic Observatory"
    • HAER No. DC-52-B, "Carnegie Institute of Washington, Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, Brass Foundry"
    • HAER No. DC-52-C, "Carnegie Institute of Washington, Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, Atomic Physics Observatory"
  • Geophysical Laboratory
  • Observatories
  • Magellan Telescope

Social presences

  • Twitter account
  • Facebook page
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