Web Extra:   Aug. 28, 2001

Smithsonian scientists propose changes

Scientists at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington have written and circulated a 13-page plan with their own ideas for reorganizing research operations at the Smithsonian Institution.

The plan would divide science at the Smithsonian into three institutes, dealing with astrophysics, natural sciences and environmental sciences. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory at Harvard would make up most of the astrophysics institute, and the NMNH would dominate the natural sciences. The plan would also create two Smithsonian-wide bodies: a directorate to run research, comprised of the directors of the three proposed institutes, and a council, including the heads of most research-performing branches, to advise on scientific objectives. The authors emphasize retaining close ties between the administration of research and exhibits. Directors at the major Smithsonian museums would retain their roles of oversight of research, public programs, development, and building operations at their museums.

The three proposed institutes are similar in size and two already exist as "science bureaus" of the Smithsonian, says Brian Huber, an NMNH palaeobiologist and one of the authors. The environmental-sciences directorate would combine several smaller centers such as the Conservation and Research Center, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and field stations to help unite them in scientific planning, decisions on budgets distribution, and hiring decisions.

Huber acknowledges that this organization makes more sense administratively than scientifically given the differences in research scope and objectives among Smithsonian research centers.  But he is hopeful that the centers will retain substantial autonomy. He says, "The larger research stations have unique scientific missions because of their locations and their specialized facilities, and we wouldn't want to see science sacrificed for the sake of administrative streamlining."

Scientists at NMNH have not been pleased with the reorganizations recently proposed by Secretary Lawrence Small (See "Panel to discuss Smithsonian's future," Geotimes, August 2001). To accommodate all parties, the Smithsonian's Board of Regents appointed a senior scientific advisory panel in July, which includes two earth scientists: Doug Erwin, a paleontologist at the NMNH, and Bruce Campbell, a geophysicist at the Air and Space museum. The scientist-written plan has already been circulated to the panel members, and NMNH scientists hope to discuss it at the first panel meeting in September.

Huber says that circulated drafts of the plan were well received although it "is a proposal for the Science Commission to consider, but we are not assuming that they will adopt all or any particular part of it."

Emily D. Johnson

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