Outcry saves National Zoo’s research site

The National Zoo’s research center in Front Royal, Va., survived a near-death experience last weekend, saved by an outcry of public support.

Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small had planned to close the Conservation and Research Center (CRC) as part of his reorganized budget for the institution, which includes the zoo (SN: 4/14/01, p. 231). However, he changed his proposition–leaving the center open–before submitting the proposal for approval by the Smithsonian’s governing Board of Regents on May 7.

Small cited the furor over the center’s closure as a major factor in its reprieve. He told reporters on Monday, “Rather than continue a controversy that was harmful to the institution, we decided to withdraw the proposal.”

The regents approved the revised plan, which includes other closings and a rough outline for what Small described as a “new strategic direction for science” at the Smithsonian. He called for regrouping scientists into “centers of excellence” to increase research collaboration and focus. Small also announced the formation of a science commission, including eminent outside scientists, to advise him.

“We hope the blue-ribbon-panel process will be open to scrutiny,” says Ellen Paul, who manages public-policy concerns for the American Institute of Biological Sciences in Washington, D.C.

Small rebuffed speculation about the number and subject areas of the centers of excellence, saying, “I don’t want to pre-empt the committee.” Questioned about the time frame for the commission to make recommendations, Small said, “As long as it takes.”

Small’s approved plan will, however, close some programs without waiting, including the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education (SN: 12/9/00, p. 378).

British scientist James Smithson’s 1829 bequest has blossomed into 16 museums, the National Zoo, and 9 research facilities, some with substantial budgets. “Most people don’t realize that [the budget for] the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory is bigger than any of our museums,” Small noted.

About 70 percent of Smithsonian funding comes from the federal government. Overall, the Smithsonian requested a 9 percent budget increase, to $494 million.

Some $4.2 million funds the CRC on 3,200 acres of rolling pasture and woodland west of Washington. Although the zoo’s urban park includes research, the CRC offers more space and quiet for its animals.

The center houses some 300 animals representing more than 30 species, including red pandas, Eld’s deer, Przewalski’s horses, and Guam rails. Here, for example, the zoo holds its boot camp to teach black-footed ferrets the skills they need to survive in the wild. The dormitories host 300 students from around the world, and researchers work with local schools.

Small contends that the protests over the CRC’s closing came from “a false perception.” Many people interpreted the proposal as showing that the “Smithsonian was backing away from its commitment to science in general and to the biological sciences in particular,” he says. He had planned to move the scientists and some animals to downtown Washington, D.C., he says, and send the animals that didn’t fit to other research facilities. “We wanted to take the money out of real estate and put it into research,” he says.

“I guess people just didn’t buy it,” CRC Director Chris Wemmer comments mildly. He adds that he doesn’t see how scientists could transplant the studies requiring large sample sizes or a controlled environment downtown.

The last-minute revival met enthusiasm from CRC supporters. “We couldn’t be more thrilled,” says Paul. However, she tempers her optimism: “We’re concerned that it might only be a temporary reprieve.”

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.