The National Academy of Sciences, the nonprofit society that was recruited by a congressional committee to perform an independent review of a spate of animal deaths at the National Zoo, is part of a joint business venture with the Smithsonian Institution, which runs the zoo.
The Smithsonian and academy have a partnership to operate the National Science Resources Center, which has generated as much as $6 million in recent years selling science curriculum kits to school districts across the nation. The Smithsonian's undersecretary for science, David L. Evans -- who oversees the zoo -- is an advisory board member for the center.
Under the joint venture, the Smithsonian provides staff and offices for the science center. The National Academy of Sciences provides operational support.
Officials of the Humane Society of the United States expressed concern that launching a review of animal deaths will accomplish little unless independent members do the examination and closely delve into the work of zoo management, veterinarians and other personnel.
"That's too close to the heart to make much sense," Richard Farinato, Humane Society vice president, said of the business venture. "They are going to keep it [review of zoo deaths] as close to in-house as they possibly can."
Officials with the academy said they will ensure that none of those working on the zoo study has ties to the science center's activities.
Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small, zoo Director Lucy H. Spelman and the House Administration Committee agreed March 5 to ask the academy to step in, amid controversy over the accidental poisonings Jan. 11 of two red pandas and other animal deaths. Interviews and zoo records indicate that human error might have contributed to the deaths of at least eight other rare animals at zoo facilities since 2000.
The plan to seek an outside study came at a congressional hearing at which Small agreed to unannounced visits by inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It later turned out that the USDA should have been conducting surprise inspections for decades but mistakenly did not believe it had the authority.
House Administration Committee Chairman Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) and ranking minority member Rep. John B. Larson (D-Conn.) expressed confidence in the ability of the academy to conduct an independent review. Michael Kirk, a spokesman for Larson, said the congressman "doesn't feel a revenue-generating initiative" will compromise the work of the academy, a private society of scholars that specializes in scientific and engineering research.
Ney said Thursday that the study could cost up to $500,000 and that the funding could come from the Smithsonian's budget or an appropriation by Congress.
Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas, who said earlier this month that Small might have suggested the choice of the science academy for the review, referred questions to Congress.
According to a memorandum of understanding between the Smithsonian and academy, the academy maintains the account containing funds received from sales of the curriculum kits and then disburses the money to the Smithsonian after the two agencies agree on the science center's budget. The center also receives grants.
The contract states that the center's executive director, Sally Goetz Shuler, reports to the Smithsonian's Evans. Evans is one of two Smithsonian officials required to serve on the center's advisory board. David Jenkins, a former associate director at the zoo, recently left the board.
The process of establishing the zoo study will be supervised by E. William Colglazier, executive officer of the academy and the National Research Council. Colglazier also oversees the academy's involvement in the science center.
Colglazier said Friday that efforts will be made and that safeguards are in place to keep biases from slipping into the zoo report. Researchers will be vetted by a separate board to make sure they have no connection to the Smithsonian or the zoo, and none of the employees who work on the joint venture will participate in the study, he said.
"They are two separate activities," Colglazier said of the review of deaths at the zoo and the joint venture.
The National Academy of Sciences has conducted studies of Smithsonian operations in the past. In the fall, the National Research Council, an arm of the academy, criticized an Office of Management and Budget proposal to move science programs out of the Smithsonian.
The curriculum kits, tailored for elementary school students, emphasize hands-on methods of learning and have won nationwide attention. The curriculum's growing popularity has boosted revenue into the millions of dollars and captured about 12 percent of the grade-school science curriculum market share, an analyst at the center said.