Science Revalued: Report seeks revived Smithsonian science

A long-awaited report on science at the Smithsonian Institution calls urgently for more federal and private funding to prevent a slide into mediocrity. The report recommends preservation of a besieged materials-research center but says that an animal facility must find substantial private support if it’s to continue.

EVICTION PENDING. A report suggests private funding for the Smithsonian home of this black-footed ferret. Smithsonian

The governing board of the Smithsonian–the suite of federally sponsored museums and research facilities–convened a commission 15 months ago after the institution’s secretary, Larry Small, set off a furor by calling for budget cuts and restructuring in the widely dispersed research facilities (SN: 5/12/01, p. 295: Outcry saves National Zoo’s research site). Among the most dramatic changes, Small ordered the shutdown of both the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education in Suitland, Md., and a 3,200-acre animal park in Front Royal, Va., that now houses the National Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center.

Public outcry, particularly over the closing of the Front Royal facility, prompted the board to hold off on any sweeping changes while a commission of scientists from outside and within the Smithsonian reviewed the institution’s entire scientific enterprise.

The commission presented its 76 recommendations to the board, which unanimously endorsed the final report, says commission Chairman Jeremy A. Sabloff of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

After a first glance at the report, ornithologist Storrs Olson of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., says, “From the standpoint of a scientist, overall this seems to be good news.”

At the report’s public release on Jan. 7, Sabloff said, “Smithsonian science is facing the most critical time in its 156-year history.” The Smithsonian’s budget as a whole climbed during recent decades, but the research component steadily shrank.

Facilities facing government-mandated salary increases have eliminated research positions to ease the payroll crunch. Over the past 10 years, for instance, the Museum of Natural History has lost 30 of it curators, leaving 101. Sabloff called on Congress to provide money to prevent such “cannibalism.”

Olson says, “Morale was in the toilet when Small got here, and then he flushed the toilet.” He applauded the report’s emphasis on funding scientists’ salaries.

The Center for Materials Research and Education investigates the physical properties of museum collections (SN: 12/9/00, p. 378). Its loss “would have a very negative impact on the preservation of the nation’s heritage,” the report concludes.

The commission also calls the Conservation and Research Center’s work “important” but concludes that the facility in Front Royal isn’t sustainable without private funding.

The facility “requires significant resources to maintain, and at present is not utilized to its full potential,” the report states. Without such funding, the commission recommends moving at least some of the center’s research to facilities at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. There’s no way that all the breeding programs can be moved to the zoo, says Scott Derrickson, assistant director of animal collections at the National Zoo.


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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.

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