Skip navigation
Share this page
Science Commission Update
March 29, 2002

The Science Commission was appointed by the Smithsonian Board of Regents in July, 2001. The Commission is chaired by Dr. Jeremy Sabloff and consists of 13 external and 5 internal members and has scheduled 8 bimonthly meetings, with 4 completed to date. The Executive Committee (Drs. Sabloff, Baker and Moses) has met with Science Directors, OMB, House Staff, Wes Williams (Board of Regents), Bruce Alberts (NAS) and with Smithsonian Staff.

The Science Commission Subcommittees have been organized and working in accordance with the Regents' charge:

a. Organizational Structure (Peter Raven): museum exhibits and science must be strongly linked
b. Science Education (Jim Baker): many strong programs in need of better coordination
c. Enhancing Public Recognition (Yolanda Moses): broadly strengthen relations with congressional members
d. Performance Evaluation (Marvalee Wake): system needs to recognize contributions to both increase and diffusion of knowledge
e. Qualifications for Leadership (Douglas Erwin): key importance of science background for NMNH Director and others

The Science Commission's information collection effort has included the following activities:

a. individual statements from staff scientists about their research activities and the importance thereof
b. programmatic statements from departments and science units
c. budgetary information
d. town hall meetings and site visits to NZP/CRC, SAO, CEPS, NMNH, SCMRE, SERC and STRI.

The following issues have been under the Commission's consideration:

a. Long-term problems have existed over the past 15-20 years;
b. The need for strategic planning that links goals with funding sources, budget; current mode is reactive not proactive responses to long-standing budgetary problems (e.g., major loss of curators - 25% in past 12 years);
c. The need for exploration of other funding sources and acceleration of progress with foundations;
d. Management:
  • Lack of effective communication within NMNH, between NMNH and other units, and between all the units and senior management
  • Lack of transparency of decision-making, especially budgetary, throughout the SI. The strength of SAO, STRI, and SERC, where there has been more transparency, as well as long-term leadership, is evident in contrast to the NMNH, where such transparency has apparently been relatively lacking, as has long-term leadership (8 Directors/Acting Directors in past 20 years)
e. The Commission sees science as one key element in helping understand global interdependence, from biodiversity to anthropology. The research and public outreach capabilities of the Smithsonian make it unique for promoting this goal. Natural history museums can also advance conservation goals. This powerful point needs careful study by the NMNH and "out of the box" thinking for science, linking collections with biodiversity and conservation;
f. The NMNH building was built for 19th century research and needs adequate support for its collections; and,
g. More cooperation with other non-Smithsonian museums is essential for national progress.

The Science Commission expects to produce an interim report for the Regents' May meeting to focus on strengthening science and a final report by December 2002. The major problem confronting science at the Smithsonian is one of process not structure. There is a lot of high-quality, important research going on at the Smithsonian, but it clearly could be even better, more efficient, and more directed. The Commission hopes to provide strong recommendations to the Regents on how such improvement can be accomplished in a cost-effective manner.

Return to Main Page