Science for mankind's sake

January 21, 2003

THE HOPE DIAMOND, on display at the Smithsonian Institution, is attracting quite a crowd. Hopefully, the visitors are not so blinded by the glitter that they lose sight of the Smithsonian's broader mission of increasing and disseminating scientific knowledge.

On Jan. 7, the Smithsonian Science Commission, 18 scientists appointed by the institution's Board of Regents, released a report arguing that the Smithsonian's scientific mission is faltering, in large part due to the erosion of funding for long-term research. To restore the Smithsonian's prominence as an international science leader, its unfocused and underfunded research functions need better management and committed resources, the commission's chairman said.

What does this have to do with throngs lining up for free to see a 45.52 carat rock? The Hope Diamond exhibit shows the connection between precious gems, geological and astrological forces, and humankind's place in the universe. The minerals and gems were culled from a National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) collection of 124 million items, by a team of more than 100 designers, scientists and curators. The exhibit cost $17 million dollars, $13 million of which were private donations; the expense included museum hall renovations.

These figures do not include the salaries of scientists and conservators who excavated, catalogued, maintained, made advancements -- all of which laid the foundation for this exhibit. Most of them are federal employees, whose salaries account for about 90 percent of NMNH's federal appropriations. Federal funding has not kept pace with mandated salary increases, forcing NMNH to use attrition to reduce staff, including scientists. This has happened across the Smithsonian, not just at NMNH.

Congress should appropriate funds to cover the mandated salary increases of Smithsonian employees involved in long-term research and conservation efforts. The museums and research facilities, meanwhile, could do their part by making sure the public sees the science that happens behind the scenes, and more aggressively pursuing private grants and donors.

The Smithsonian is more than the nation's attic, filled with gems and other treasures waiting to be put on display. It is an assemblage of archives, research databases and laboratories that are uniquely suited for long-term research that increases mankind's understanding of the world it inhabits. It is a public trust. Honor it.

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