Letter: Science is the real winner in Nat Geo’s expanded partnership

Editor’s note: This letter to the editor is in response to a recent opinion column on the 21st Century Fox purchase of National Geographic.

For more than 125 years National Geographic has played a uniquely vital role in the scientific community by funding scientists and explorers, enabling them to pursue new ideas, explore unknown places, and advance collective knowledge through compelling and fact-based storytelling.

The announcement last month that National Geographic will expand its joint venture with longtime partner 21st Century Fox is a critical step toward ensuring that very important mission has a future. In striking this agreement, the National Geographic Society, which remains a non-profit organization, will basically double its already robust funding of science, exploration and expeditions and  further strengthen its education and storytelling mission through an array of innovative programs related to photography, cartography and geography education.

Why is this so important to the scientific community? Because such funding enables the work of scientists like Lee R. Berger, an American paleoanthropologist and a professor of human evolution studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, whose monumental discovery of a new species of human ancestor was made possible in part by a National Geographic Society grant and grabbed worldwide headlines just a few weeks ago. And it empowers visionaries like Dr. Enric Sala, whose Pristine Seas project has served as the catalyst for the creation of marine protected areas around the world – including one recently announced by Chile. Such scientific breakthroughs will inspire others to dream bigger and bolder about their work and its potential, knowing that the National Geographic Society could be their partner.

Some critics have suggested the joint ownership structure will somehow degrade National Geographic’s commitment to science and fact-based storytelling. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and in fact, editorial independence is explicitly guaranteed as part of the partnership terms. Over its long history, National Geographic has earned a reputation as a scientific truth-teller. Indeed, the magic of the National Geographic is the power of storytelling that’s solidly grounded in good science. I know firsthand that scientists across the globe not only appreciate the top-notch quality of the journalism and spectacular photographs and films, but also know we can trust its factual basis and authenticity. The credibility of National Geographic will endure.

Anybody who’s been paying attention to what’s happening in the media world knows that media companies today face significant challenges to their very existence. National Geographic has hardly been immune to these market forces, and its previously successful business model has been at risk. Now, as other media companies are shrinking, National Geographic has embarked on a strategy that will enable it to make more investments. Its agreement with 21st Century Fox, in my view, is the perfect opportunity for the National Geographic to get on a path that provides a robust, exciting and trustworthy future.

Jane Lubchenco, a Trustee of the National Geographic Society, is Distinguished University Professor at Oregon State University, former Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (2009-2013), and a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.


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