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3 Findings, Conclusions, and Recommendations The Committee’s analysis of its statement of task, its research into the nature, funding, and work of the six Smithsonian research centers covered by this study, and its consultation with several federal agencies led it to various findings, conclusions, and recommendations, which are presented in this chapter. It should be noted that there is considerable potential for confusion as to what is meant by the term research budget. OMB’s table on the allocation of federal research funding (Table 1-1), for example, gives the total FY 2001 federal research appropriation to SI as $108 million. According to SI, however, that figure includes funding for research at SI units other than the six addressed in this study (about $20 million) and overhead costs for all SI research (some $35-40 million). The portion of the federally appropriated research budget allocated to the six science units when added together is about $52.5 million; this amount is divided among the six units as shown in the first columns of Tables 2-1 through 2-6. Also as shown in those tables, the budget of each unit is divided into a “research” component (top line) and an “other expenses” component (second line). (The nature of the “other expenses” is described in the footnotes of the tables.) The budget of each unit is also supplemented with trust funds, and the total budget for all six units from all sources amounts to just over $127 million (Table 1-2). In the following discussions, the term research budget refers to the federally appropriated amounts shown on the top line of each table unless otherwise specified.
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FINDINGS AND CONCLUSIONS The six research centers, taken together, embody an important component of SI’s research program and constitute a 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 each research center. In arriving at its findings and conclusions, the Committee drew on information received from the central offices of the Smithsonian and the research centers themselves, data-gathering interviews with SI staff and representatives of the research centers, the expertise and relevant knowledge of the Committee members themselves, and informal contact with members of the wider scientific community. 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. The terms of the creation of NMNH make it the nation’s repository for extensive collections of gems, minerals, meteorites, plants, animals, fossils, and other natural history specimens. NMNH has a responsibility to conduct collection-based research to derive knowledge and meaning from the collections not only for the sake of scientific advances, but also to enhance the management and public display of the materials. Without collection-based research, NMNH could become simply a warehouse of artifacts and stale information that would quickly fall out of step with advances in the sciences and ultimately fail as a source of public education and attraction. In addition, NMNH has a unique and critical role in the national natural history museum community with collections vastly larger and wider in scope than those of any comparable US institution. The breadth of its research mission and the extent of its service to the museum research community are correspondingly critical. Similarly, research by NZP is essential to its mission, allowing enhanced management and display of its live animal collections and the development of improved conservation practices for wild animal populations. Research is also an expectation under the terms of the zoo’s certification by AZA and other agreements that the zoo has entered into. Although large research programs are not a requirement for AZA accreditation, zoos are expected to have a long-term commitment to conservation and research in proportion to the size and significance of their
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collections. The Committee, therefore, believes that the permanent loss of the CRC conservation and research budget would not go unnoticed by AZA and could ultimately jeopardize the accreditation status and viability of NZP. SCMRE occupies a unique niche for highly specialized research that is vital to the work of the SI museums and that does not fit the mission of any other federal or state science agency or of most other privately funded entities. Because its work is paralleled by few institutions, this unit is highly valuable not just to the Smithsonian museums but to the museum community as a whole. 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. The Committee does not believe that the terms uniqueness and special contribution apply to the work of SAO, STRI, and SERC in the same way that they apply to the research of NMNH, NZP, and SCMRE. The Committee found, however, that SAO, STRI, and SERC are performing scientific research that is of high quality and is well respected by standard measures of scientific output and impact. For example, Pennisi (2001b) reported that STRI, SERC, and SAO rank in the top 1% of institutions in terms of their scientific impact as measured by the number of publications they produce and the number of citations that each paper receives. In addition, SAO, SERC, and STRI all have aspects that make them unique in the nation’s research enterprise, allowing research to be carried out on instruments unavailable elsewhere or in unique environments. SAO, for example, supports path-breaking and high-risk projects, such as the development of gamma-ray astronomy before its general acceptance as an important discipline; the concept of combining multiple mirrors into a single telescope, which led to the MMT; the development and operation of SMA, which will be the only interferometer operating in this wavelength regime until the new Atacama large-millimeter array, now under development, becomes operational; and the initial support of the red-shift survey, which led to the first quantitative mapping of the large-scale structure of the universe and the distribution of galaxies. SAO is active in nearly every field of astronomy and astrophysics; through the
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availability of its research and facilities, it makes a unique contribution to the Smithsonian’s mission and to the furtherance of astronomy in general. SERC is unique among field stations because of the Smithsonian’s ownership of 2700 acres of land, including 12 miles of undeveloped shoreline, and complete control of the Rhode River watershed. Taking advantage of the SERC site, staff scientists fill an important niche in environmental research by emphasizing long-term mechanistic ecosystem studies in a balanced program of watershed, marine, and terrestrial ecology. SERC maintains the largest group of scientists working together in a single location on multidisciplinary investigations of an integrated set of ecosystems subject to most of the environmental and natural-resource management issues faced by the nation today. They study a coastal watershed that is connected to an estuary, and their work is unusual by virtue of the variety of integrated ecosystems and land-use types in the watershed and the access to a protected site with appropriate instrumentation for long-term, landscape-scale studies. The emphases of SERC’s investigation of long-period, low-frequency processes are outstanding among research programs in these disciplines. STRI holds custodianship of Barro Colorado Island under a special agreement with the government of Panama and owns a complex of nine research stations throughout Panama. Those factors allow it to maintain the broadest research program of any US tropical research institution. Staff scientists conduct long-term integrated studies of tropical ecosystems that emphasize the understanding of biodiversity in marine and terrestrial systems and long-term tropical forest dynamics. STRI’s work on tropical forests and coral reefs is considered a cornerstone in tropical and marine ecology (Pennisi, 2001b). STRI is also renowned for its role in the training of tropical biologists from around the world. Although the Committee did not systematically investigate interactions among the science units, the opportunities for such interactions are obvious. For example, the ecologically oriented research of SERC and STRI are clearly complementary to the work of NMNH and NZP in systematics, evolutionary biology, and biodiversity conservation, and SAO and NMNH share work that focuses on the search for extrasolar planets and the evolution of solar systems. Thus, the research of SERC, STRI, and SAO can contribute not only to their own public outreach and education missions but also to the extensive public service provided by the museum and zoo. 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.
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Direct federal appropriations to the Smithsonian research centers are used primarily as core support for salary and infrastructure costs, with 63-84% going to salaries across the six centers (see Tables 2-1 through 2-6). Doing science, however, involves many other costs, including costs for equipment, supplies, computing, travel (of particular importance to field biologists), and support of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and research assistants. At SAO, SERC, STRI, and NZP, appropriated funding is not, for the most part, being used to pay for those other research costs. And although SI can raise private-sector funds and has endowment resources, the degree to which these resources supplement research budgets is small. The majority of supplemental research funding for the SI science centers comes from competitively awarded grants and contracts. Researchers at SAO, SERC, STRI, and, to some extent, NZP have been highly successful in competing for grants and contracts from other government agencies. In FY 1999 and FY 2000, for example, success rates of grant applications were roughly 56% and 67%, respectively, for SERC, 77% and 47% for STRI, and 50% and 60% for NZP.1 (Data on success rates could not be compiled for SAO, but 59% of SAO’s $112 million comes from government grants and contracts. See Table 2-2.) NMNH’s opportunity to compete for research contracts and grants has apparently been limited because NSF, the agency most likely to support research on topics relevant to the work of the museum, has placed restrictions on the funding of federal employees at NMNH. However, NMNH scientists were successful in 67% and 79% of the grants that they applied for in FY 1999 and FY 2000, respectively, with many of the awards coming from private foundations and other nonfederal sources. In contrast, the researchers at SCMRE derived less than $50,000 from competition for government grants in FY 2001, probably because little of its research overlaps with the missions of the granting agencies. In as much as the research centers are already competing for extramural grants to leverage the federal research funds that go mostly to salary support, these research centers are not functionally “exempt” from competitive peer-reviewed grant programs. The success of many Smithsonian scientists and managers in attracting external funds to their institutions reflects the quality and stature of SI’s scientific research and personnel. The research centers indicated that the two factors critical in their search for external funding are the quality and creativity of the proposed research and the association with SI and 1 These estimates are based on the list of proposals submitted and the list of awards received by SI scientists in FY 1999 and FY 2000 provided by SI. Similar data were not available for SAO.
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with SI’s worldwide reputation for having the highest standards of scholarship and scientific accomplishment. Although the Smithsonian is unique in many respects, its research funding structure is analogous to that of many other research entities, such as state-supported universities, in which direct government appropriations provide salary support for the scientific faculty and pay for utilities, space costs, and some fraction of administrative overhead. To do science, additional resources must be secured from other sources. In both public and private universities, in which state-appropriated or endowment funds typically provide some salary and operational costs, external funds from a variety of sources must also be raised to conduct research. The Committee did not find that Smithsonian researchers’ receipt of full (12-month) salary support constitutes a substantial advantage over university-based researchers. The latter usually receive 9-month salaries and obtain funds for another 2 or 3 months from contracts and grants. Some universities even provide 12-month salaries. Given the wide variations in salary among institutions and the need for both SI and academic researchers to compete for resources for computing, travel, and graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, any advantage of SI scientists in this regard would be small. The NAPA study (NAPA 2002) is expected to address those issues in greater detail. There also appears to be little consistent competitive advantage for federally funded scientists at the Smithsonian over federally funded scientists at NASA centers, USDA, or NSF-supported or NASA-supported national observatories, such as the National Optical Astronomy Observatories (NOAO), the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), and the National Atmospheric and Ionospheric Center (NAIC). 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. Numerous reviews of the nation’s scientific enterprise have concluded that the diversity of sources of funding for science and the diversity of institutions that conduct science, including the federal government itself, are good for the overall health of the US scientific enterprise (e.g., National Research Council, 1994). The federal government is the major supporter of basic research in the United States, and its role is crucial in many of the fields in which SI conducts research, such as astronomy, meteoritics, and ecology. In such fields, commercial applications are often remote from the effort to understand basic and general principles, and private funding can be hard to identify. (The Committee recognizes, however, the important role played by foundations and
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other private sources in the construction and commissioning of ground-based astronomical observatories.) Prospective merit review is the favored model for allocating federal funding for science, but it is not the only model, nor is it the dominant approach in some sectors of government-supported science, such as defense-related research and development (R&D). Cook-Deegan (1997) characterizes two alternative approaches—“formula-funding” methods, based on political, historical, or performance factors, and what might be called the “DARPA” or “strong-manager” model, in which staff experts decide how to distribute research funds. The strong-manager model is most developed in the realm of the DOD, and both the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Office of Naval Research, where this model flourishes, have achieved spectacular successes (particularly in information and communication technologies) using this approach when “outside-the-box thinking” is required to develop innovations. Although this year’s guidance to the science-funding agencies on R&D priorities from John H. Marburger, the current director of OSTP, and Mitchell Daniels, the current director of OMB, reaffirms the preference for merit-based competitive peer review, it also contains provisions for exceptions relying on other models. Programs should maximize the quality of R&D they fund through the use of a clearly stated, defensible method for awarding a significant majority of their funding. A customary method for promoting R&D quality is the use of a competitive, merit-based process. NSF’s process for peer-reviewed, competitive award of its R&D grants is a good example. Justifications for processes other than competitive merit review may include “outside the box” thinking, a need for timelineness, unique skills or facilities, or a proven record of outstanding performance [emphasis added; Marburger and Daniels, 2002]. The Committee believes that the Smithsonian science units exhibit “unique skills and facilities” and “a proven record of outstanding performance” and thus meet the criteria set forth in the FY 2004 budget guidance for use of a process other than peer review to allocate its research resources. Moreover, the Committee notes that a diversity of funding models and mechanisms can help to ensure that resources (such as properties belonging to or under the management of SERC and STRI or some of the instrumentation available at SAO) that may not lend themselves readily to use under the standard model for prospective merit review because of limitations of ownership or legal agreements are nevertheless used, and used effectively, to contribute to the nation’s scientific enterprise. It is, of course, fair to ask that research carried out with uncompeted
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federal support meet the same standards of excellence via retrospective merit review that are applied to research performed in university laboratories and industrial facilities. Both public and private research institutions should be evaluated according to similar standards and judged by quality and relevance, not only according to whether their research has been subjected to prospective peer review. 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. SI’s use of visiting committees made up of experts in the relevant research for programmatic review is similar to review of in-house or intramural research at other federal agencies. Past external reviews of the six SI research centers have assessed the quality of the research programs and their relevance to the institution’s mission. Those external reviews are very similar to the “expert review” that has been recognized by the greater scientific community as the most effective means of evaluating federally funded research programs (National Academy of Sciences/National Academy of Engineering/Institute of Medicine, 1999, 2001). The use of national searches for recruiting new scientists and the solicitation of external peer evaluation for individual performance, promotions, and so forth on approximately the same time scale as is common in universities appear to conform with what is expected at research institutions in the United States. However, the Committee found that the institutional review processes in place were at times lacking in depth (especially at the larger research centers, where reviews of individual departments have not been held regularly and have not involved external input until recently) and in frequency. For example, one external committee of eight members meeting for 2-3 days can hardly conduct a comprehensive review of the vast array of programs at SAO. The Committee noted that SAO is planning to institute a new system of more in-depth divisional review, and it strongly encourages SAO to follow through with its plan. The Committee also considers the newly implemented institutional review system at NMNH to be a big step forward toward comprehensive and insightful review. F: Communication between the research centers and the central management of the Smithsonian Institution appears to be weak. The Committee found that communication between the research centers and the central Smithsonian administrative offices in “the Castle” was
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not as good as it could and should be. The apparent lack of good communication contributes, on the one hand, to some misunderstanding by the government and the general public about the centrality of research to the Smithsonian’s mission and, on the other, to the Castle’s inability to articulate a strong message about Smithsonian research that matches the high quality of the research programs themselves. Consequences of Transferring Federally Appropriated Research Funds from the Smithsonian The remainder of the Committee’s findings and conclusions focus on the results of its consideration of the consequences of transferring the federal research funds now appropriated to the Smithsonian to competitive peer-reviewed programs. OMB’s original proposal for the FY 2003 budget was that this transfer be made to NSF. Although the Committee recognizes that there may be other agencies conducting peer-reviewed programs that might be appropriate to receive some of SI’s work, it has used NSF as its main point of reference, and consideration of potential transfers to other agency destinations is beyond the scope of this study. In addition, given the abbreviated timeframe for completion of its study, the Committee was not able to conduct its analysis at the level of individual programs at the science centers but rather considered only the case of transfer of the research budget of an entire research center to NSF. Clearly, the effects of reallocating SI research funds to NSF would differ according to the terms established for the transfer of funding. For example, the consequences of directing all funding classified by SI as “research” to be transferred to NSF would be much more severe than the consequences of transferring only the portion of the SI’s research funds that is not allocated to the support of salary and infrastructure costs. (In the latter case, the amount to be transferred would, in fact, be modest.) Of course, transfer of the entire federal appropriation—the amounts listed as “Totals” in Tables 2-1 through 2-6—would be extreme. Similarly, if the funds were transferred to NSF without any directives for their use, the stability of the SI programs would be much more threatened than if the transfers were made with directives to NSF to maintain the programs and simply open them up to competition. No details of suggested terms for the transfer of funds were provided to the Committee, and the time allotted for this study did not allow for a comprehensive consideration of all possible scenarios. The Committee elected to focus on four reasonable scenarios in evaluating implications: (1) transfer to NSF of all federally appropriated research funds, (2) transfer to NSF of only funds not allocated to salaries, (3) transfer to NSF of funds with no requirement to continue to invest the funds in
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the same or similar programs, and (4) transfer to NSF of funds with directives to maintain the programs but allow competition from non-Smithsonian persons and entities. As stated in Chapter 1, the Committee was not charged to assess the quality of the research at each of the six centers per se or whether the research programs fit SI’s mission. Those issues are currently being evaluated by the Smithsonian Science Commission, which is expected to deliver its report to the Board of Regents at the end of 2002. 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. In the event of the transfer of all federal research funds, including salary and infrastructure support, from SI, the funds would have to be replaced by trust funds (i.e. funds other than direct federal appropriations and transfers) if the SI science centers were to continue to operate as usual. The fraction of research budgets now provided by trust funds varies from virtually zero for SCMRE (which received only about $50,000 in trust funds in FY 2001) to about 70% for SAO. Given the current decline in SI income from commercial activities (gift shop and magazine sales) and other sources, it is likely that to survive, the research centers would have to replace the lost federal funds with outside funding from contracts and grants. The fact that small investigator grants typically cover no more than 2 or 3 months of salary in many of the scientific fields covered by the six research centers could present a major difficulty even if NSF were to maintain the scientific programs transferred from SI and simply manage them as its own. [Some models among NSF’s programs would allow for payment of full salaries. An example is the cooperative agreement under which the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) is operated by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR). For such a model to reduce effects on SI personnel, SI would have to be able to compete for and win such an agreement.] The results are likely to be, at best, major instability for SI scientific personnel and widespread disruptions to and loss of continuity in on-going programs. The only major exception might be the programs supported by the large NASA contracts at SAO, but even SAO
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would suffer major effects and experience a profound reduction in the breadth of its scientific programs. 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. Research is an integral part of the missions of NMNH and NZP and is inextricably linked to their effective management of their collections (see Finding A). Furthermore, because the salaries of many personnel critical to the mission of the museum and zoo (such as curators and veterinarians) are paid from the “research” part of their federal appropriations, transfer of the entire federally appropriated “research” budget could translate into severe cuts in the amount of support for the salaries of critical staff even though research is but one component of the roles they play at the museum and the zoo. (NMNH has undergone a reduction of 25% in the number of its curators by attrition over the last 10 years. The academic and research implications for reductions in systematics and taxonomy in the nation, as well as in the Smithsonian, deserve examination by further study groups.) Replacing funds for salaries of mission-critical personnel from the “nonresearch” portion of the museum’s and zoo’s budget would also probably produce severe funding shortages for their other nonresearch functions and activities. Transferring only the small portion of appropriated research funding not now allocated to salary and infrastructure at NMNH and NZP would result in smaller effects but is still likely to produce a lower level of investment in the topics addressed by NMNH and NZP, few of which are currently major components of NSF’s portfolio. Some of the effects could be offset by directing NSF to maintain programs in the affected fields, but it is not clear that this would be a viable long-term approach. Under such circumstances, it would become particularly important that the eligibility of NMNH personnel to compete for NSF funding be confirmed. In essence, such a smaller-scale transfer could still constitute a removal of the research functions of NMNH and NZP, which could endanger their standing in the museum and zoo communities. It should be noted that all modern zoos and natural history museums—such as the Bronx Zoo, the San Diego Zoo, the American Museum of Natural History, and the California
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Academy of Sciences—have their own research facilities. In addition, the transfer of research funding would result in a loss of the vital direct connection among research activities, collection needs, and the missions of the units. SCMRE was created to perform research. Without its federally appropriated research budget, its ability to fulfill the purpose of its creation would be severely damaged, and it would most likely cease to exist, given that its appropriation represents nearly 90% of its budget. Because SCMRE’s research is highly specialized and does not fit the mission of any of the other federal science agencies, it is very unlikely that the lost federal funding could be readily replaced via competitive grants. (Although it is also possible that NSF could be directed to maintain an SCMRE-style program with the transferred funds, this would be a clear mismatch for NSF, which has little in-house expertise in managing such a program.) It is also unlikely that private foundations and granting agencies would be able to make a long-term commitment to sustain SCMRE. SCMRE might be able to continue some of its operations by charging client museums for its services, but this mode of operation would be precarious, at best. The termination of SCMRE could have serious repercussions for the Smithsonian’s museums and the museum community as a whole. The hundreds of material analyses that SCMRE performs for the Smithsonian museums each year would have to be either contracted out or performed by museum staff; this would burden museum budgets, and it might not even be feasible if museum staff lack the technical expertise necessary for the more sophisticated preservation and conservation work. In addition, SCMRE helps to place museum objects in contextual frameworks that the public can relate to, thereby making exhibits more lively and interesting. The benefits that SCMRE provides to both its professional community and the public would probably be lost. In short, the Committee believes that transferring the research funding of NMNH, NZP, and SCMRE to NSF would have numerous harmful effects. Given that it is the Committee’s judgment that the research performed by NMNH, NZP, and SCMRE is an intrinsic part of their missions and is justifiably characterized by the terms unique and special contribution (Finding A), the Committee believes that such a transfer would be inappropriate and that these centers should continue to be exempt from open competition for research funding. 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
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Smithsonian could produce consequences ranging from moderately or seriously deleterious to termination of their operations. In evaluating the consequences of a transfer of federally appropriated research funds from SAO, SERC, and STRI to NSF, the Committee considered two cases: (1) transfer of all federally appropriated research funds and (2) transfer of only the funds not allocated to salaries. Although the federal research appropriation makes up only a portion of the total research budgets for the three science centers, it provides a strong foundation for their ability to participate broadly in the research enterprise, with the majority of the appropriated funding going toward staff salaries (63% in SAO, 74% in STRI, and 82% in SERC; see Tables 2-2, 2-4, and 2-6, respectively). The supported staff serve as “nucleation sites” for larger research efforts. The federally appropriated funding is highly leveraged, and there is extremely little discretionary money from the appropriated funds per research staff member. In the first case, the loss of all federally appropriated research funding would severely erode the ability of the centers to support their core staff. Although all three of the centers bring in substantial funding through competitive grants and contracts, increasing this category of support is not necessarily a reliable means of covering the lost funding for full salaries, as noted earlier. Trust funds other than federally funded contracts and grants would have to make up the difference, or staff would have to be let go. Under such circumstances, the centers might cease to function as world-renowned centers of excellence. Although SAO is far less dependent on the direct federal appropriation for salaries because of its relatively large supplemental income from NASA contracts, the federal funding does support about 64 SAO full-time-equivalent staff scientists who engage in a large variety of astronomy and astrophysics work that far exceeds the scope of what is performed for NASA. SAO’s breadth of expertise has, in fact, been the foundation on which SAO operations were built. For instance, the long-term expertise in the high-energy group was fundamental to the development of the Chandra project, which led to the contract awarded by NASA. Although SAO might survive on only its contract and grant income, it is likely that its current role as the multifaceted long-term research center it is today would be difficult to maintain with only outside funding. Marine and estuarine research is reasonably, albeit not lavishly, funded in the overall US scientific community. There is a tradition in the marine sciences of supporting quasi-soft-money research institutions, such as the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and parts of the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL). These organizations typically have large open-ocean research components
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with substantial funds allocated to maintain research vessels and physical oceanographic research. Each also has existing relationships with larger academic or government institutions that provide support for infrastructure, salary support, appointments for faculty, and so on. It is, however, extremely rare for such institutions to focus on estuarine and coastal issues, as does SERC. In addition, it is not clear whether there is sufficient funding overall in this community to absorb one more soft-money institution. It might be possible for SERC to maintain its research continuity and productivity in the marine sciences community, but it is likely to be difficult. Unlike the situation in the marine sciences, few research institutions in terrestrial ecology and environmental science are supported solely through extramural funds. There are some examples, such as the Ecosystems Research Center (part of MBL), the Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC), and the Natural Resources Ecology Laboratory (a research center within Colorado State University). But with the exception of WHRC, each has an existing relationship or is part of a larger institution that provides support and services. Each is also substantially smaller than STRI in numbers of senior scientists and total staff. WHRC and MBL have endowments that have been built up over periods of years, and all are active fundraisers. STRI has also been a successful fundraiser, but its opportunity to build an endowment has been limited, and this limitation could pose a substantial hurdle. Perhaps most important, research budgets for terrestrial ecology, environmental science, and conservation biology are not as large as for the marine sciences and have not been growing. There is little room for adding independent institutions with needs for administrative and operational support as well as support for the actual science to the mix. The impacts of the second case, transferring only the parts of the federally appropriated research budgets that are not allocated to salaries, could be much less significant. The scientific staffs of SERC, STRI, and SAO have impressive track records in winning grants and contracts, and presumably could continue to do so for other research expenses. They might, however, have less discretion in their choices of research topics, given that NSF might decide not to entertain proposals dealing with some of the long-term work in which they are now engaged. NSF could, of course, be directed to maintain the SI programs and merely open them to competition, which might ensure that some of SI’s research programs would continue. The least damaging alternatives for all three science units could involve transfer of their federal research funds to NSF with the understanding that NSF would continue to operate the research units under contracts or cooperative agreements awarded via peer-reviewed competitions. Such contracts or agreements can include provisions that allow the funds
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that NSF awards to be used to pay salaries, infrastructure costs, and so on. For example, NSF’s cooperative agreement with UCAR provides funds for NCAR staff salaries, operation and maintenance of equipment and campus buildings, and other fundamental expenses. For such terms to hold out at least the possibility of reducing impacts on SERC, STRI, and SAO to a minimum, it would be necessary to allow the Smithsonian to engage in open competition. There could, of course, be many practical considerations that could create difficulties that the Committee is not equipped to analyze in any depth. Would, for example, the ownership of the SERC properties by the Smithsonian pose serious barriers to NSF management? (Typically, the facilities operated by NSF in this way belong to NSF.) Would the agreements between the Panamanian government and the Smithsonian preclude or hamper transferring the management of STRI to NSF? And how likely is it that the uncertainties associated with the need for SI to compete to manage and operate its facilities under contracts or agreements with NSF would drive key staff away before the outcome of the competition was known? These are only some of the many issues that would need to be considered if the proposal to transfer the research funding of SAO, STRI, and SERC to NSF were pursued. 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. If SAO, SERC, and STRI were maintained more or less intact under the direct management of NSF or via an agency-sponsored consortium and the scientists that they house continued to seek outside research support as they do now, it is difficult to see that there would be much net cost or benefit to the overall national scientific enterprise. However, there would still be organizational risks. NSF, in particular, generally operates research facilities that are clearly called for in a national process that has reached out to the relevant research communities. Typically, NSF-operated facilities are ones that would be difficult or uneconomical for single universities to sustain by themselves—for example, large space-based or ground-based telescopes, research vessels, aircraft, and state-of-the-art supercomputers. NSF usually supports such facilities and their research infrastructures as community resources, so there are explicit rules and opportunities for scientists from all over the country (and in many cases visitors from other countries) to use them. STRI has those features to some degree, but SAO and SERC do not, although they have active and
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productive programs for enabling visiting scientists to maintain research projects in their nearby field sites. Because it would be difficult to justify the Smithsonian astrophysical, environmental, and tropical research laboratories as national facilities, in the way that the NCAR or the Antarctic research stations are justified, there is a risk that they would be perceived as out of place in the overall mission of NSF. For example, the Committee considered SAO and the nature of the national observatories funded by NSF. The major national astronomy user facilities use a variety of management models. NOAO is managed by Associated Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), a not-for-profit corporation, under a cooperative agreement with NSF. NRAO is managed by Associated Universities, Incorporated, also under a cooperative agreement with NSF. The Hubble Space Telescope is operated by the STScI, also set up by AURA under a contract with NASA. NAIC at Arecibo is managed by Cornell University with substantial external oversight. These models have various levels of community oversight, usually including community involvement in their governance (for example, on their boards of directors or oversight councils, visiting committees, search committees for observatory directors, user committees, and peer-review committees) and concurrence of a contract-mandated sponsoring agency (NSF or NASA) on major policy and governance issues.2 Because SAO is not a service organization, none of those models would be truly appropriate for SAO without a profound restructuring of its mission and direction. Only a modest fraction of SAO’s current activities could be restructured into unique national “user facilities” that could justify support from NSF. The Committee sees no benefit of such an arrangement. The Committee could see no management or organizational advantage, or any question as to the current quality of the science that these centers are producing, that would warrant changing the current system of federally appropriated research funding in support of SAO, SERC, and STRI through the Smithsonian. Rather, the Committee believes that the benefits of opening up their research programs to competition would be so marginal as to be outweighed by the costs in uncertainty and disruption. The Committee is not claiming that the Smithsonian’s management of these science units is without flaws; for example, shortcomings in communication and reporting within and between the centers and SI were obvious to the Committee. But the Smithsonian and its research centers are addressing these issues with the assistance of the Smithsonian Science Commission at the institution level and in a series of efforts at the center 2 Note that the Chandra X-Ray Observatory is operated by the Chandra Science Center at SAO itself, under contract with NASA; it has users and peer-review committees established in accordance with its NASA contract.
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level, such as SAO’s Long-Range Planning Committee and Issues Committee. Such efforts should be allowed to come to completion, and the changes recommended should be implemented and tested. 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. The disruption of scientists and their activities at the six research centers would cost the scientific community some progress and lead to some setback of their fields of research. For example, a substantial potential danger of switching SAO, SERC, and STRI into the soft money arena is the disruption or end of valuable long-term research that has been judged by external review to be excellent. The core support of the SAO x-ray astronomy group in the 1970s and 1980s, for instance, led not only to productive research with predecessor facilities but also to the development of the concepts and technology that enabled the building and operation of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, the foremost x-ray telescope in the world and a productive national facility available to all astronomers. That experience has been repeated in other fields of astronomy at SAO. Similarly, much of SERC’s and STRI’s research emphasizes studies that depend on long-term monitoring, a category of projects that has never fared well in open competition for 3-year grants but whose value is becoming ever clearer in light of global environmental change. In a scenario in which SI would be left with sufficient resources to support the salaries of the SERC and STRI staff, these long-term programs could plausibly continue to be funded by NSF, although none of its current programs would accommodate them without substantial changes in policy. For example, NSF’s Long Term Research in Environmental Biology (LTREB) program is designed to provide funding to help maintain continuing long-term research projects. Awards for this program are, however, made only to hypothesis-driven projects and are limited to a maximum of $60,000 per year for up to 5 years (maximal total award, $300,000). The LTREB program does not support basic monitoring efforts. A more appropriate option might be NSF’s 6-year renewable Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) program, which emphasizes long-term studies. Under its current policies, however, the LTER program does not consider unsolicited proposals and accepts proposals only during periodic open competitions. The last such competition for LTER funds was held in 2000, and no date has been set for another.3 Unless NSF were directed to continue support for 3 The Committee consulted the program director of LTER regarding the format and date of an LTER competition.
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SI’s long-term environmental projects as a priority component of the LTER or another appropriate program, a transfer of funds to NSF could result in a loss of funding for some or all of SI’s valuable long-term studies. Given the vast array of long-term monitoring undertaken by SERC and STRI, some projects might not be suitable for LTER competition. However, it should be noted that NSF’s advisory body, the National Science Board, recently recommended that NSF substantially increase its investments in existing long-term research programs and establish new support mechanisms for additional long-term research (National Science Board, 2000). Of course, even if NSF were to commit to continued funding for SI’s long-term studies, SI scientists would have to compete for the right to continue to work on them, assuming that no restrictions were placed on their doing so. Would the transfer of funds to open competition without a commitment to maintain the existing facilities benefit the field and other researchers? In the Committee’s judgment, it is quite unlikely to do so. There would no doubt be some benefit in having some “extra” funds available in appropriate competitions and panels, and some of the researchers now at the Smithsonian would no doubt continue to be successful in competing for them. But science is not accomplished only by winning competitive grants. It also requires infrastructure, planning, facilities, and a reasonably stable administrative structure for which the support of productive scientists has high priority. These more operational and programmatic needs would certainly be endangered, with slim prospects for replacing them or making up for them. In this case, the overall effect on the relevant scientific fields is likely to be adverse. Even with a commitment to maintain the facilities under NSF management, disruption, uncertainty, and the need for SI to divert resources to engage in the competitive process are likely to reduce productivity and erode morale for benefits that again, in the Committee’s view, are far outweighed by costs. 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. The work of the six scientific research centers is compatible with and legitimized by the Smithsonian’s charter to “increase and diffuse knowledge.” Each of the centers relies on its federal support to function effectively. The federal appropriations provide reliable, long-term support for core research staff, just as universities provide support to their tenured professors. If a transfer of sponsorship of the research centers could be carried out in an institutional framework that preserved tenure-like support for the
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core research staff, the scientific productivity of the research centers might be preserved, but the mission of SI would still be damaged. Severing the link could have serious consequences for the overall reputation of the institution. It is broadly recognized that the association of the six centers with SI helps to leverage support from donors and acts as a magnet for the best professional and administrative staff. Having lost some of its ability to generate knowledge, SI would not be in a good position to recapture it even if its fiscal situation improved. There would certainly be a strong adverse reaction in the scientific community. Severing the link between SI and its research centers could also have substantial adverse effects on the SI collections, the quality of its exhibits, its international programs and collaborations, and its public-education activities. Entities that have active research programs find it easier to keep in step with advances in the sciences and ultimately to maintain vibrant mechanisms for public education and to remain public attractions. The Smithsonian collections at the museum and zoo could suffer greatly if separated from the research programs through which they maintain currency and relevance. Science is a dynamic, creative process, and collections and exhibits that do not have a chance to benefit from interaction with active scientists have difficulty in maintaining the excitement and interest needed to make them successful. If the Smithsonian did not have its science centers, it would have to invent new links to the scientific community to ensure that the quality of its exhibits and public education did not decline. 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
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“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.
Representative terms from entire chapter: