Smithsonian Science

Extending a Recording Discoveries and Innovation

English scientist James Smithson’s only mandate for the Institution that would bear his name was the “increase and diffusion of knowledge,” and from the Smithsonian’s first days, in 1846, that mandate has been interpreted to include scientific research. The Smithsonian was scientific from the start, as it was throughout all its subsequent years of growth into what is now the world’s largest museum and research complex. And science remains at the core of our mission today. But because there now exist so many institutions to conduct scientific research, on a scale and at a cost no one could have imagined in 1846, or even 1946, we must define with great care the contribution a 21st-century Smithsonian can make to the Institution’s long tradition of scientific excellence.

From my first days as Secretary, I have strongly and publicly proclaimed my intention to enhance science at the Smithsonian. But how do we best support and enhance science? That is the urgent question we have sought to answer.

We began by gathering the essential factual data about scientific activity at the Smithsonian. What we found was a source of both pride and concern: the range of our scientific inquiry is vast, but our financial resources are far less extensive. Although the Institution is not dependent solely upon federal funds to carry out its scientific mission, most of our scientific research support comes from taxpayer dollars. But even that support has not always kept pace with inflation and cost-of-living pay raises. Moreover, the Smithsonian has attempted to maintain, and even expand, its base of scientific operations each year. As average salaries have increased, however, the number of people on the payroll has necessarily decreased—between 15 and 30 percent in some science departments since 1992.

Although we have received programmatic increases from Congress for our cutting-edge work over the years in, for example, astrophysics, support (in inflation-adjusted dollars) for others of our scientific research programs has not grown overall. We are unequivocally committed to changing that, as we are to maintaining the many excellent scientific programs, in addition to astrophysics, that now flourish at the Smithsonian—in anthropology, tropical biology, marine science, mineral science, systematics (the identification of species) and paleobiology, to name but a few disciplines. We are no less committed to sustaining the National Zoological Park as a world-class center of research in reproductive sciences and conservation biology of endangered species, nutrition, veterinary medicine and pathology, and animal behavioral studies—and as a center, too, for training a new generation of experts in those fields.

The first step toward ensuring the most productive possible environment for science and scientists at the Smithsonian is to structure our approach to meet the scientific agenda of the 21st century. The great questions the world faces today—especially about biodiversity, conservation and global environmental change—will be answered most effectively through multidisciplinary, collaborative approaches. How do we engage the Institution’s scientists and great collections and facilities in those vital collaborative enterprises?

Our inquiry led us to conclude that we must do nothing less than chart—for the first time in many years—a strategic new course for science at the Institution and align our human, physical and financial resources in a powerful new array.

If our efforts are to succeed, we must create a structure that enables the scientific endeavors of the Smithsonian to be defined more precisely, carried out more effectively and understood more clearly by donors in both the public and private sectors. We shall continue to work with Congress to explore all options for increased taxpayer support of our scientific research, but such support is likely to grow only gradually. Because the new agenda for science requires that we expand our research support significantly, we shall turn as well to the private sector. Beyond the tax dollars they contribute to the Smithsonian, the American people are extraordinarily generous to the Institution. For the first six months of this fiscal year, we have raised more than $121 million from the private sector, an increase of 134 percent over the same period last year—itself a record year that brought more than $206 million to the Institution!

To introduce far-reaching change at a 155-year-old institution is to invite trepidation, and we will do everything possible to allay the concern. All of us at the Institution share the same goal, which is to extend a record of discovery and innovation that reaches from the ocean depths to the edge of the universe. Working together, we shall add new chapters to the history of that great tradition.

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