A better vision. Jeremy Sabloff says the Smithsonian needs to improve its research focus.

Smithsonian Science Could Use a Boost

A special commission told the Smithsonian Institution today that it needs to bolster its science budget and improve its oversight of basic research.

The report, assembled by a team that consisted of six Smithsonian scientists and 12 outsiders, was requested in May 2001 by the Smithsonian's Board of Regents after the institution's new secretary, Lawrence Small, advocated major changes in research programs. It's the latest of several sweeping analyses of the institution: In November, a report from the National Research Council lauded the quality of the Smithsonian's research, while another from the National Academy of Public Administration endorsed its infrastructure (ScienceNow, 31 October 2002).

The new report contains 76 recommendations and few surprises. The Smithsonian regents have already endorsed the 123-page document, which, among other things, gives some support to Small's contention that the Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Virginia, doesn't fit under the Smithsonian umbrella (ScienceNOW, 10 April 2001). The report also laments the high turnover in leadership: The National Museum of Natural History, for example, has had 11 directors in the last 22 years.

"There has not been an overall vision for Smithsonian science," says commission chair Jeremy Sabloff, director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia. To improve the focus of research, the review proposes that the Smithsonian should focus on four broad themes: the origin and nature of the universe, the formation and evolution of the planets, discovering and understanding life's diversity, and the study of human diversity and culture.

The panel's biggest concerns were financial. The Smithsonian, which receives 57% of its funds from Congress and most of the rest from philanthropic sources, is struggling to cover basic research expenses even as it carries out $1 billion in new construction projects. The report advocates increased funding from Congress for Smithsonian science and proposes that Smithsonian staff be allowed to apply for federal grants, now largely off-limits.

Related site
Science commission report and background