Interim Report


Interim Report of the Science Commission (05.02.02)

Science is an essential part of the Smithsonian mission to "increase and diffuse knowledge." The Smithsonian has outstanding people, facilities and opportunities in scientific research. It is the Commission's goal to help the Smithsonian achieve its potential as a scientific organization, and these interim report consensus recommendations are a small step in that direction. The final report of the Science Commission will be transmitted to Secretary Small and the Board of Regents in December 2002. The Commission has reached several unanimous conclusions, and the onset of the 2004 budget cycle and the pending departure of the Under Secretary for Science, Dennis O'Connor, make it appropriate to provide the Secretary and the Regents an interim report on our deliberations. The items discussed below are only a small subset of the many issues we have been considering, but involve issues on which we have reached consensus and which require action before submission of the final report. The latter will include a broad vision for Smithsonian science and a number of specific recommendations relating to the Commission's charge.


It is the consensus of the Commission that the quality of scientific leadership is the critical factor in the future success of Smithsonian science.
The Smithsonian Institution and its component science units can neither maintain nor advance its international reputation without effective scientific leadership. Such long-term leadership is essential in the recruitment, promotion, and motivation of scientific excellence at the Smithsonian. The Institution currently faces extremely worrisome voids in leadership that must be filled as promptly as possible, with interim appointments now and the commencement of international searches for the two key vacated positions. While the science budget is under a congressional mandate to remain stable until the Science Commission issues its final report to the Regents, it clearly is under threat and new leadership is needed as soon as possible to work with the Secretary to improve the financial prospects for Smithsonian science.

  • The Commission strongly recommends that the Smithsonian Institution and Secretary Small should immediately initiate an international search for a new Under Secretary for Science.
    The Smithsonian urgently needs an individual of stellar scientific reputation, vision, leadership, and management skills to guide the science portfolio and serve as the principal spokesperson for Smithsonian Science. This individual must have a deep personal commitment to scientific excellence, and both the vision and skills to advance the cause of science. Once appointed, the Under Secretary must help the leadership at the Natural History Museum and Environmental Research Center develop their independent courses, and develop plans for the transition in leadership at the Astrophysical Observatory. This search should be entrusted to a committee composed of a diverse selection of Smithsonian scientists and management, external researchers and museum professionals.

  • The Commission also strongly recommends that Secretary Small immediately initiate an international search for an appropriate leader for the National Museum of Natural History.
    The long-term lack of stability in the Director's office has had a detrimental impact on all facets of museum activities (8 Directors and Acting Directors in the past 20 years). The frequent turnover of Directors appears to be due, in part, to the failure of previous Secretaries and Assistant/Under Secretaries for Science to delegate sufficient authority and responsibility to attract the exceptional candidates this position demands. The Associate Director for Science and Collections has extensive experience with scientific management and policy but is not a scientist and serves concurrently as Director of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. The Commission does not believe that "double-hatting" is, in principle, a good long-term management strategy. With the imminent departure of Drs. O'Connor and Rubinoff, there will be no museum scientists at administrative levels above the Department Chairs and until recently scientific input to the Director's Office has been lacking. As discussed in more detail below, there is a critical need to reinvigorate the Directorship of the Natural History Museum. Under the present circumstances, and given the history, we strongly urge that the individual chosen as Director of the Museum be a scientist of stature with demonstrated museum experience, a clear understanding of the special opportunities for research in a natural history museum, and the ability to pursue strongly the financial and other support needed to realize these opportunities. Whereas the Under Secretary for Science should be primarily a scientist and an administrator with a proven track record, the Director of the Natural History Museum should definitely be a museum professional who knows large institutions of this type well and accepts significant collections research and public programming responsibilities. For these reasons, we strongly recommend that two separate searches are required.

A. Criteria for Scientific Leaders

    Personal criteria
  • For the Under Secretary an international reputation as a scientist is required to provide sufficient internal and external credibility. Some Unit Directors may not be scientists, but all must have an appreciation for scholarship, a curiosity about science, and an understanding of the demands of leading a scientific organization.

    Leadership criteria
  • Demonstrated personal commitment to excellence, including the determination to hold scientists accountable for performance, given the freedom and support they enjoy.
  • Demonstrated ability to identify and articulate clear institutional vision and goals, to communicate a vision to engage the staff, and the management skills to ensure effective implementation of this vision.
  • Support for, and understanding of, basic research.

    Management criteria
  • Ability to communicate by speaking and listening to staff at all levels.
  • Awareness of the greater Smithsonian context and knowledge, and experience working in the Washington science policy arena.
  • Excellent organizational skills and multi-tasking ability.
  • Willingness and ability to raise funds.

B. Selection of Scientific Leaders

These comments are largely predicated on the need to complement the talents of the present Secretary of the Smithsonian. With the exception of Department Chairs, selection of leaders at all other levels should involve national searches by an appropriate committee of Smithsonian scientists and representatives of management; inclusion of external representatives may also be indicated.

Undersecretary for Science - The Under Secretary for Science must be an outstanding scientist of international reputation, unquestioned scholarship, and outstanding management skills.

Scientific Unit Directors - Unit Directors must increasingly focus on fund raising and successful grantsmanship. The strong preference should be for scientific leaders, although in exceptional instances non-scientists with outstanding management and development skills may come to the fore. All Directors of scientific units must have an appreciation and curiosity about science. In the past, the Directorship of Natural History has been a term appointment; this is no longer an effective leadership strategy. Recruitment of such individuals will require the central Smithsonian administration to delegate appropriate authority and support to make these positions attractive, which has clearly not happened in previous searches for Natural History Directors. The Unit Director must be given significant budgetary authority and be a major participant in central budgetary planning.

Directors of Research within Units - Several units are of sufficient size that the primary role of the director will be fund raising and general oversight, necessitating the delegation of primary responsibility for research. If the Unit Director is a well-respected and accomplished scientist, the Director of Research position may be primarily managerial and may not need to be filled by a scientist, although this would be desirable. If the Director lacks such qualifications, the head of research should be a noted scientist in an appropriate discipline, with management expertise and the ability to articulate the scientific goals for the unit.

Department Chairs/Division Associate Directors - Chairs must be credible and active scientists, generally chosen from within the unit. Scientific Divisions and Departments generally benefit from long-term stability of Chairs, but this will often require unit senior management to provide sufficient administrative support in the form of GS12-14 Departmental Administrators to allow the Chair or Associate Director to provide effective leadership while maintaining an active research program. This recommendation has obvious implications for effective department size.


Structural organization is not the primary problem confronting the Institution. It is the consensus of the members of the Science Commission that there is an urgent need for greater transparency in the development of research priorities and budgets.
There is no single strategic plan for Smithsonian Science, yet several plans at the unit level are very clear and focused upon particular scientific activity. In general, scientists play little role in formulating institutional policy, and may not be well represented even at the unit level. The lack of significant, broad-scale visibility of Smithsonian science is tied directly to the absence of direct scientific staff input to the institutional planning and "outreach" efforts. The Commission believes that these deficiencies can be remedied without sweeping structural changes. Minimal changes in structure, effective implementation of existing policies and lines of authority, and visionary leadership of key units, are required. We are investigating a modest restructuring of the Smithsonian science efforts, with an emphasis on facilitating planning, communications, and performance assessment. The core of this new structure is a strong planning and advisory staff within the Office of the Under Secretary, in conjunction with coordinated strategic planning on the unit and department levels, so that the visions of the scientists throughout the Smithsonian Institution can be coordinated into an overall vision. The Commission is still deliberating on the most valuable and cost-effective way to implement these goals. We will present a detailed plan in our final report. Structural aspects of the Conservation Research Center at the National Zoological Park and the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education remain under study.

  • The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center is a growing and vibrant organization doing excellent work at the forefront of ecological research on the coastal interface. This largely independent unit with its own Director should report directly to the Under Secretary for Science.
  • We also recommend that the scientists and scientific curators establish a committee of unit representatives that would be available to advise the Castle on policy matters affecting science across the Institution. This committee should be proactive in raising important issues with the Smithsonian administration and in facilitating dialog on policy, budget, and organizational issues. Again, the Commission will present much more detailed considerations in this regard in its final report.
  • The Science Commission has also reached consensus that better communication of scientific results and the role of science to the Secretary, the Regents, Congress, and the public is critical.

The Executive Committee of the Science Commission looks forward to the opportunity to discuss its progress at the Regents' meeting in June.

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