The Smithsonian's scientists should be able to count on a steady source of federal dollars because the research done at the institution is unique, two studies ordered by the White House concluded yesterday.
The unusual scrutiny of the Smithsonian's science budget came after the Office of Management and Budget suggested shifting the money to the National Science Foundation. Under the proposal, Smithsonian researchers could apply for grants from the NSF but wouldn't be guaranteed anything.
The two studies, by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Public Administration, considered the strategy and reached identical verdicts: Bad idea.
A withdrawal of core funding would probably disrupt the Smithsonian's science work, which dates to its founding 155 years ago, the studies said.
But the studies strongly recommended that the Smithsonian correct inconsistencies in the way it reviews its research and its individual scientists. And both studies urged the Smithsonian to set up external committees to scrutinize all six science centers on a regular basis.
There was one other point of agreement: The Smithsonian hierarchy should champion its scientists and their work.
"The six science centers are very important contributors to the American science enterprise," said Anthony C. Janetos, a committee member and a senior research fellow at the Washington-based H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment. "It is an astonishing breadth from paleontology to radio astronomy."
In general, the public is not as familiar with the research arms of the Smithsonian as with its museums in Washington. Yet important and often unusual research is being conducted by the National Museum of Natural History, the National Zoo, the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education in Suitland, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass., the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, the reports concluded.
The new undersecretary of science at the Smithsonian, David L. Evans, said yesterday that he endorsed the recommendations of the two boards. "Each one commented that Smithsonian science is one of the best-kept secrets in town," Evans said.
The OMB asked the committees to evaluate whether the departments should be more involved in bidding for competitive grants, rather than receiving a little-questioned annual federal subsidy, and whether that collective appropriation should be transferred and opened up to all scientists through the NSF. The studies found that the six science centers receive about $52.5 million from the federal government for research.
Shifting the money to the NSF would undercut the Smithsonian's basic mission and jeopardize the reputation of the institution's science operations, the studies said.
"We found no advantage in transferring the money to NSF. In fact, that would probably lead to a loss of programs and personnel and a morale problem," said Cornelius J. Pings, chairman of the NAS study. The authors of the NAS study said the Smithsonian facilities should not have to compete for core support from the government.
The work at the Natural History Museum includes the only volcano documentation project in the world, as well as a nationally recognized forensic anthropology team. The National Zoo, along with the Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Va., has received international praise for its work in conservation biology and programs aimed at reintroduction of endangered species. At the Suitland center, Smithsonian scientists have developed ways to conserve all sorts of artifacts, from pottery to photographs.
The work at the Astrophysical Observatory, which operates the Chandra X-ray Observatory Center under contract with NASA, received a world-quality rating from the studies. The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, situated on the Chesapeake Bay, is recognized as the leader in research on "biological invasions in marine ecosystems," the NAS study said. In Panama, the scientists are conducting long-term studies of tropical trees, flowers and insects.
Evans said the endorsements did not consider whether the Smithsonian would expand its scientific research. That question is to be addressed in a blue-ribbon report that is due early next year. This third assessment of science at the Smithsonian was organized by the Smithsonian Board of Regents after initial moves to cut some of the research divisions by Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small were criticized by members of Congress and international scientists, as well as the institution's scientific staff.