Study: Smithsonian merits funds


Published: Friday, November 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 31, 2002 at 10:55 p.m.
WASHINGTON - Scientific research at the Smithsonian Institution is unique and of such high quality that it deserves continued federal funding, a pair of outside studies recommended Thursday.
Last year the White House Office of Management and Budget proposed to switch some Smithsonian funds to the National Science Foundation, forcing the Smithsonian to compete with other scientists for grants. When that drew fierce opposition OMB asked for a review of Smithsonian science, suggesting that it was not original enough to deserve noncompetitive funding.
The National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that work at three Smithsonian centers - the National Museum of Natural History, the National Zoo and the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education - is unique and deserves its own source of money.
The Museum of Natural History studies a wide range of issues in biology, geology and anthropology, and its scientists do studies around the world. Besides its public animal exhibits the National Zoo operates a Conservation and Research Center in Virginia where it raises and studies animals. The materials center assists museums in analyzing and preserving their collections.
Three other Smithsonian centers - the Smithsonian's Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass., Environmental Research Center on the Chesapeake Bay and Tropical Research Institute in Panama - do "world-class" science, the council said, and changing the source of funds would hamper their work.
The National Academy of Public Administration, an independent organization that was also asked to reviewlook at the Smithsonian science programs, issued a separate report also calling for continuation of direct funds for Smithsonian science.
"Both reports speak to the secret of Smithsonian science, and I think both of them will go a long way to uncovering that secret," commented David L. Evans, Smithsonian undersecretary for science. "The secret is, there is a long tradition of very high-quality science practiced by renowned scientists who have very little exposure outside of their own field."
The Research Council panel was headed by Cornelius J. Pings of Pasadena. Calif., president emeritus of the Association of American Universities.
In a statement, Pings said that there would be "little or no scientific benefit to transferring funds away from Smithsonian research to a competitive mechanism.
"In fact, withdrawing federal support would likely lead to the demise of much of the institution's research and compromise its mission to 'increase and diffuse knowledge,"' Pings said.
The Smithsonian Institution had operating expenses of $631 million in fiscal 2001, but Evans said the various missions of the institution are so intermixed it is impossible to detail what portion of that goes to science research. Some 57 percent of income is from federal funds, 21 percent from private grants, 12 percent from government grants and contracts, 5 percent from investment earnings and 4 percent from business ventures.
The Research Council panel did say that the Smithsonian's internal evaluation of its research and scientists is inconsistent, and that communication between the research centers and the central management of the institution appears to be weak. It recommended regular, in-depth reviews by external advisory committees for all six science centers, especially for areas that do not routinely compete for grants and contracts.
The future direction of science programs at the Smithsonian is also under study by an independent commission organized by the Smithsonian itself. That group is expected to issue a report in January.

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