A White House proposal to strip the Smithsonian Institution of a large chunk of its research budget is a bad idea. That's the conclusion of two national panels, which today issued separate reports condemning a now-moribund plan.
Last December the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) floated the idea of moving $35 million--about a third of the Smithsonian's research budget--to the National Science Foundation (NSF) and making Smithsonian scientists compete with academic scientists for those funds. OMB offered two reasons: One, NSF would put the money to better use through its crackerjack peer-review system, and two, Smithsonian scientists had a head start on their academic colleagues because they were already being paid by the government. The money would be taken from the budgets of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (ScienceNOW, 5 December 2001).
The prebudget proposal was leaked to the media, prompting howls of protest from Congress and other supporters. Within weeks OMB backed down and agreed to let the National Research Council (NRC) and the National Academy of Public Administration look into how well the Smithsonian manages its science portfolio. The proposal was never included in the president's 2003 request to Congress, which has yet to complete action on the federal budget.
The two panels came to similar conclusions: "Don't touch what isn't broken." In particular, the reports argue that federal funds provide "core" support that gives Smithsonian researchers an even chance to garner funding from other federal agencies. "The staff is doing very well competing on the outside," says Cornelius Ping, head of the NRC committee. That successful track record, he adds, should also allay OMB's fears about the quality of the research.