Executive Summary

The Smithsonian Institution (SI) was established as an independent trust instrumentality in 1846 dedicated to “the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men” as laid out in James Smithson’s bequest to the US government. To accomplish its mission, the Smithsonian throughout its history has combined high quality research conducted by its scientific research centers with public outreach through exhibitions of its collections in museums. Although the Smithsonian’s science centers and their research are highly regarded by the scientific community, they are much less well known to the general public than their museums.

The Smithsonian Institution receives an annual federal appropriation toward its operating costs, which includes funds in support of research at the Smithsonian. In the FY 2003 presidential budget, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) called for a review “to recommend how much of the funds directly appropriated to the Smithsonian for scientific research should be awarded competitively,” and proposed to transfer these funds to the National Science Foundation (NSF). Specifically, OMB expressed concern about the Smithsonian’s classification of its allocation of federal research funds as “inherently unique”—that is, research programs that are funded without competition.

The apparent absence of competition in the Smithsonian science centers raises concerns about a lack of quality assurance in Smithsonian research. Moreover, it is fair to ask whether the federal support given to the Smithsonian’s science programs could be used more effectively for science if the funds were awarded through a competitive process open to all researchers. After the release of the budget document, the Smithsonian



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Executive Summary The Smithsonian Institution (SI) was established as an independent trust instrumentality in 1846 dedicated to “the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men” as laid out in James Smithson’s bequest to the US government. To accomplish its mission, the Smithsonian throughout its history has combined high quality research conducted by its scientific research centers with public outreach through exhibitions of its collections in museums. Although the Smithsonian’s science centers and their research are highly regarded by the scientific community, they are much less well known to the general public than their museums. The Smithsonian Institution receives an annual federal appropriation toward its operating costs, which includes funds in support of research at the Smithsonian. In the FY 2003 presidential budget, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) called for a review “to recommend how much of the funds directly appropriated to the Smithsonian for scientific research should be awarded competitively,” and proposed to transfer these funds to the National Science Foundation (NSF). Specifically, OMB expressed concern about the Smithsonian’s classification of its allocation of federal research funds as “inherently unique”—that is, research programs that are funded without competition. The apparent absence of competition in the Smithsonian science centers raises concerns about a lack of quality assurance in Smithsonian research. Moreover, it is fair to ask whether the federal support given to the Smithsonian’s science programs could be used more effectively for science if the funds were awarded through a competitive process open to all researchers. After the release of the budget document, the Smithsonian

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commissioned reviews by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) to address the questions raised by the OMB. This is the report of the NAS review; the NAPA study will be the subject of a separate report. The Committee on Smithsonian Scientific Research was charged to provide specific recommendations and a rationale with criteria on what parts of the Smithsonian’s research portfolio should continue to be exempt from priority setting through competitive peer-reviewed grant programs because of uniqueness or special contributions. The charge to the Committee called for a review of the scientific research centers that report to the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for Science—the National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the National Zoological Park, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education, and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. The Committee was also charged to consider the effects on the Smithsonian, the research centers, and the relevant scientific fields of re-allocating the current federal support to a competitive process. Finally, the Committee was asked to make recommendations on how any Smithsonian science programs that continued to receive direct federal appropriations should be regularly evaluated and compared with other research in the relevant fields. The Committee was not asked to review the funding of SI research centers that report to the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for American Museums and National Programs. To respond to its charge, the Committee examined the research programs and the funding structure at the six Smithsonian scientific research centers. It also considered possible consequences of removing direct federal appropriations to the Smithsonian science programs and reallocating the funds to open competition. In carrying out its review, the Committee established a framework of criteria to be applied to its review of the Smithsonian research centers in the execution of its task. The Committee considered The nature of the Smithsonian as a scientific institution. How uniqueness and special contribution apply to each of the six science centers covered by the study. In the context of this study, uniqueness and special contribution may have many meanings that refer to special attributes associated with a particular research center. How opening some of or all the support now given to each of the centers to a competitive process would affect the science involved. How the centers might be evaluated regularly to ensure that the quality of their science is maintained if any of the six are deemed to be unique and to warrant continuation of the current system of support.

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The six research centers, taken together, embody SI’s research program and constitute the mechanism whereby SI carries out its charter to increase and diffuse knowledge. The Committee considered the work of each SI unit, its role and status in the scientific enterprise, and whether the terms uniqueness and special contribution should be applied to its research. In arriving at its findings, conclusions, and recommendations, the Committee drew on information received from, and interviews with, representatives of the central offices of the Smithsonian and the research centers, on the expertise and relevant knowledge of the Committee members themselves, and on informal contact with members of the wider scientific community. FINDINGS AND CONCLUSIONS A: The research performed by the National Museum of Natural History, the National Zoological Park, and the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education is inextricable from their missions and is appropriately characterized by the terms unique and special contributions. B: The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute are world-class scientific institutions that combine facilities, personnel, and opportunities for specialized long-term research that is enabled by the stability of federal support. These units are engaged in research that supports the mission of the Smithsonian Institution as a whole—increasing knowledge and providing supporting expertise for the activities of other SI units, including educational activities. C: Funding for research at the Smithsonian’s research centers comes from a mix of sources, including a substantial fraction received through open competitive programs. D: The Smithsonian Institution plays an important role in the overall US research enterprise and contributes to the healthy diversity of the nation’s scientific enterprise. E: Mechanisms at the Smithsonian scientific research centers for evaluating overall scientific productivity and for evaluating the productivity of individual scientists are variable and inconsistent. F: Communication between the research centers and the central management of the Smithsonian Institution appears to be weak. Consequences of Transferring Federally Appropriated Research Funds from the Smithsonian The following findings and conclusions stem from the Committee’s

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consideration of the consequences of reallocating the federal funds appropriated currently to the Smithsonian to a competitively peer-reviewed program at NSF. G: In general, transfer of all federal research funds (including salary and, in some cases, infrastructure support) would greatly reduce and possibly eliminate the role of the federal government in the long-term support of the core scientific research staff who provide the foundation of the Smithsonian research program. A withdrawal of federal support of this magnitude would make maintaining the staff and programs of the centers extremely difficult and would very likely lead to the demise of much of the Smithsonian’s scientific research program. H: Transferring the federally appropriated research funds for the National Museum of Natural History and the National Zoological Park to competitive programs at the National Science Foundation is likely to jeopardize their standing in the museum and zoo communities and could seriously damage aspects of their nonresearch roles. If the fund transfer were large and included salary support, the positions of critical museum and zoo personnel could be threatened. Loss of core funds could also lead to the closure of the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education. I: Transferring directly appropriated funds from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute to a competitive mechanism while trying to maintain the centers in the Smithsonian could produce consequences ranging from moderately or seriously deleterious to termination of their operations. J: The Committee could not identify any substantial advantages with respect to organization, management, or quality assurance that would accrue from changing the current system of federally appropriated research funding for the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. K: The Committee identified little or no scientific benefit of transferring federal funds away from the Smithsonian. The implications for the relevant scientific fields are likely to be adverse. L: The broad mission of the Smithsonian Institution would be compromised if the links between the Smithsonian and its research centers were broken by transferring sponsorship of the centers to the National Science Foundation.

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RECOMMENDATIONS Research is an intrinsic part of the mission of the National Museum of Natural History and the National Zoological Park. These centers should continue to be exempt from open competition for research funding because of the uniqueness and special contributions conferred by association with their collections. The Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education occupies a highly specialized research niche that is of unique and major value to museums of the Smithsonian Institution and to the museum community at large. Hence, the Committee believes that the center should continue to be exempt from open competition for research funding because of its uniqueness and special contributions to the museum community. The Committee believes that the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center should continue to receive federally appropriated research funding. Use of public funds by these facilities is already producing science of the highest quality. Much of the “research funding” (for other than salary and infrastructure costs) is already obtained via competition. Any benefits of shifting these three facilities to the jurisdiction of another organization would be greatly outweighed by the harm done to their contributions to the relevant scientific fields. Regular in-depth reviews by external advisory committees are essential for maintaining the health, vitality, and scientific excellence of the Smithsonian Institution. Although details of the nature and processes of the reviews may vary to accommodate differences among the six centers, such institutional reviews should be uniformly required for all six Smithsonian science centers and for their individual departments, if warranted by their size. Retrospective external peer review is especially important for areas not routinely engaging in competition for grants and contracts. Regular cycles of review followed by strategic planning offer the best means of ensuring that the quality of SI’s science is maintained. The research programs at the Smithsonian Institution provide essential support to the museums and collections, make substantial contributions to the relevant scientific fields, and fulfill the broader Smithsonian mission to “increase and diffuse knowledge.” The Committee urges a stronger sense of institutional stewardship for these research programs as integral components of the Smithsonian. The Secretary and the Board of Regents should improve communication with the research centers and become strong advocates for their goals and achievements in a manner that is compelling to the Executive Branch, Congress, and the public.