Boost in Smithsonian scientific research endorsed

January 19, 2003|By Michael Kilian | Michael Kilian,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - The long-raging conflict between Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small and the 156-year-old institution's scholars and scientists has been resolved, largely in favor of the scientists.

A report prepared by 18 of the nation's leading science experts urged that scientific research at the Smithsonian be strengthened and expanded, rather than curtailed to accommodate fiscal constraints.

It warned, however, that the taxpayer-supported Smithsonian is seriously underfunded and needs new revenue sources.

Commissioned in 2001 by the institution's Board of Regents, the report recommended that the world's largest museum and research complex maintain two facilities that Small had tried to close: a wildlife conservation research center in Front Royal, Va., and a museum exhibition support center in Washington.

It also called for the restoration of curatorial and other research positions that were lost to budget-cutting under Small and his predecessors.

And it faulted a "lack of effective, long-term leadership" and high turnover for undermining the science research programs at the Smithsonian, which for much of its history was the nation's leading scientific research facility before it became known primarily for its museums and collections.

The commission noted that the National Museum of Natural History, which employs the institution's largest number of scientists and possesses 120 million artifacts and specimens, has had 11 directors in that last 22 years. It has lost 30 of the 131 curators it had a decade ago, according to commission Chairman Jeremy Sabloff.

The regents, led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Chief Justice William Rehnquist, endorsed the report's findings and recommendations, as did Small.

A former mortgage company executive and the first individual who was not a scientist or academic to head the Smithsonian, Small took office in 2000 vowing to run the sprawling, highly idiosyncratic institution on sound business principles.

Small's cost-cutting and reorganization efforts prompted a revolt by the scholars and scientists, who complained he was diminishing research in favor of converting the institution into a crowd-pleasing tourist attraction emphasizing entertainment.

In a joint statement prior to the appointment of the science study commission, the director and president of Brookfield Zoo and the presidents of the Shedd Aquarium and Lincoln Park Zoo said they were "dismayed" by Small's cutback attempts, adding, "One should not promote the Smithsonian's treasures around the country when the fundamentals of the institution are being abandoned."

The commission did endorse Small's proposal for the creation of a more highly focused science program at the Smithsonian, calling for efforts to be directed at the origin and nature of the universe, the formation and evolution of Earth and similar planets, discovering and understanding life's diversity and the study of human diversity and cultural change.

But Sabloff, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, emphasized that the report also backs the continuation of the Smithsonian's traditional "curiosity-driven" research not necessarily linked to major projects.

Michael Kilian is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

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