Gone digging. Smithsonian Institution Secretary G. Wayne Clough, shown here at a fossil dig in Wyoming, says one reason he’s stepping down is to have more flexibility in his schedule.

Smithsonian Institution

U.S.'s Smithsonian Secretary to Step Down in 2014

Six years is all Secretary G. Wayne Clough is willing to give the Smithsonian Institution, a partially federally funded organization consisting of 19 museums, a zoo, and six science research centers. Clough, 71, started as secretary in July 2008 and announced yesterday that he will step down in October 2014. 

Clough, a civil engineer and member of the National Academy of Engineering, had served as president of the Georgia Institute of Technology for 14 years before taking the helm of the Smithsonian. When he arrived, the institution was still reeling from the controversial tenure of the previous secretary, Lawrence Small, who resigned amid scandals about extravagant expenses.

Clough says his focus from the start was on “restoring the vitality and forward-looking ethic” of the organization. Concerned about the Smithsonian’s reputation as “the nation’s attic,” which suggested that most of its 137 million specimens and objects were mostly hidden away gathering dust, Clough conducted vigorous outreach. He promoted the institution’s research activities in the U.S. Congress, to potential donors and the public, expanded the Smithsonian’s education programs, and used the Internet to expand access to collections and interactive programs. One example of the new Smithsonian, he says, is Leafsnap, a mobile phone application for identifying trees: Volunteers upload their tree identifications, adding to a database.

Clough also pushed for more interactions among the Smithsonian’s components. Toward that end, he developed a long-range strategic plan that emphasizes four cross-disciplinary themes: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Universe, Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet, Valuing World Cultures, and Understanding the American Experience, then raised $10 million as seed money to fund pilot interdisciplinary activities.  

Clough also laid the groundwork for the Smithsonian’s first national capital campaign. It won’t officially kick off until after he leaves, but it has already netted $893 million in private contributions since 2008. That includes $10 million for a marine observatories network; $35 million for a new dinosaur hall; and $4 million for the planned Giant Magellan Telescope, set to be built in Chile over the next decade. “I feel very good about the depth and breadth [of fundraisers] that we now have,” he says.

Clough came to the Smithsonian promising to stay 5 years, but didn’t want to commit to another five. “You can’t do [this job] at 80 or 90%, you have to do it at 110%.” He says he’s been thinking about leaving for about a year, a decision motivated in part by recently having to depart early from a reunion with former Ph.D. students at Glacier National Park in Montana because of work. “I wanted to stay,” he recalls.

Starting a year from now, he’ll have that flexibility. Still, Clough insists that he’s not retiring, but admits, “I don’t want to get up at 8 a.m. 5 days a week and have to report to duty.” He says he wants to spend more time with family and on book projects, including one about the natural history of the American South, where he grew up, and another about the future of the Smithsonian.

The Board of Regents that oversees the Smithsonian says it will be launching an international search for Clough’s successor.