Smithsonian 'Grand Challenges' Move Ahead in Slow Motion

The Smithsonian Institution fares well under President Barack Obama's proposed budget for 2012, but it won't be moving forward very fast on its scientific grand challenges, part of a new strategic plan put forth by Secretary Wayne Clough in 2009. The new request calls for this aggregation of 19 museums, a zoo, and 20 libraries and research centers to get $861.5 million, a 13% increase from the 2010 budget of $761 million (a 2011 budget was never enacted and thus federal agencies have been operating under a continuing resolution set at 2010 levels). Many of the Smithsonian's 1000 scientists and research fellows are engaged in research related to two challenges: understanding the universe by studying stars, planets, and galaxies and understanding and sustaining a biodiverse planet. The proposed budget sets aside $100,000 for the former and $1.65 million for the latter. That's much less than what was requested a year ago, when biodiversity and climate change research was slated to receive $8 million and understanding the universe, $500,000. That funding was never approved by Congress.

Of the $1.65 million for biodiversity and climate change work, $750,000 is for a global change research program primarily dealing with long-term forest research, $250,000 for a species identification program called Barcode of Life, and $300,000 for an online database of species called the Encyclopedia of Life.

Overall research and development at the Smithsonian would total $212 million, including $41 million for facilities. That's a drop of $1 million from the current funding established under the continuing resolution. But it includes a $17 million overhaul of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland, as well as $500,000 for the care of collections at the National Museum of Natural History and animals at the National Zoo.

Federal support represents about 70% of the total Smithsonian budget. Of the $861.5 million, $636.5 million is for salary and expenses, whereas the rest is for facilities, including construction of new museums.