Opening Statement for Dr

Opening Statement for
Dr. Jeremy A. Sabloff
Chairman, Smithsonian Science Commission

Press Briefing
Nov. 13, 2001

Present at this, the second meeting of the Smithsonian Science Commission were Drs. Alice Alldredge, Francisco Ayala, James Baker, Bruce Campbell, Ilka Feller, William Fitzhugh, Stephen Hubbell, Jeremy Jackson, Robert Kirshner, Beryl Simpson and Warren Wagner

I opened the meeting by recounting the work of the commission’s executive committee – comprised of Dr. James Baker, Dr. Yolanda Moses and me – since our first meeting in September.  Externally, we met with relevant staff in the Office of Management and Budget and the Committee on House Administration.  We found that neither organization has a real appreciation for the scientific activities of the Smithsonian.  Internally, we met with the directors of all the Institution’s science organizations, asking them what they want included on the commission’s agenda.   

The individual research statements and other information and materials provided to the commission all are impressive.  The topic of structure is the most often raised; leading me to conclude that the Smithsonian is more bureaucratic than I had anticipated.  There is no process for strategic planning and implementation, and a consequent lack of shared vision among the staff.  At the same time, there is no transparency in the administration of the Institution.  Staff do not know what is happening or how decisions are made, and play no part in decisions.  It will not be enough for the commission to tackle defined systematic problems.  We must also address the culture of science at the Smithsonian, improve internal communication and identify ways in which scientists and administrators can work together more constructively.

Dr. Baker, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from 1993 to 2000, gave the commission a presentation on the strategic planning and budgeting process he introduced in that agency.  Teams comprised of representatives from all parts of the agency played a vital role in developing and reviewing the strategic plan, which set the course for the succeeding ten years.  There was similar across-the-board involvement at the level of the implementation plan, which looked ahead five years.  All programmatic initiatives had to be linked to the budget, which when the process began contained 165 items.  That number was reduced to seven thematic areas, giving NOAA scientists and external audiences a better sense of what the agency was trying to accomplish.

Scientists advocated for their projects to members of Congress, conveying their personal enthusiasm and excitement.  Constituent groups including universities, environmental groups and industry were consulted on the plan.  Cooperative activities with other agencies and organizations were sought, as well.  Good communication internally and externally improved the understanding and focus of NOAA missions.  By involving agency people in the planning and budgeting process, NOAA succeeded in increasing its annual federal budget from $1.8 billion to $3.2 billion.

The commission discussed the applicability of the NOAA model to the Smithsonian, with many members embracing the concepts of developing themes and involving scientists in the budgetary process.  Since we have talked about not waiting for our final report to begin taking action, I offered to promote to Secretary Small the idea that the Smithsonian think about strategic planning, perhaps with the help of a skilled facilitator.

Next, we took up the Report of the Integrating Committee on the National Museum of Natural History as a foundation for our deliberations about the museum, looking specifically at the recommendations of that group that have been implemented.  Two in particular were identified:  The assimilation of the various biology departments into one, over-arching Department of Systematic Biology, and the plan to move the Laboratory of Molecular Systematics from the Museum Support Center in Suitland, Md., to the museum. 

Comparisons were made to the report of the NMNH Science Council, intended to be more of an intellectual document discussing scientific priorities for the museum.  That report’s recommendation that a scientist be added to the Natural History executive committee has come to fruition under acting director J. Dennis O’Connor, who includes all department chairs in the executive committee meetings.

The Integrating Committee’s address to infrastructure matters led to a discussion among the commission about the need to digitize collections to improve access by scientists and students around the world.  There was also talk about relationships with local universities and the extent to which a Washington, D.C. location facilitates or detracts from such professional interaction.

The leadership question – the Integrating Committee’s recommendation for distinguished scholars-in-residence and renowned scientists in key positions – prompted discussion about the expense of “visible” hires, the fact that often they bring with them a cadre of young talent and their role in enhancing a museum’s prestige and competitiveness for research funding.

The commission also touched on the availability of NSF funding for some disciplines and not others, as well as the importance of an aggressive attitude on the part of scientists who are successful in finding money for research, be it from grant-making agencies or private sources – a drive that is not consistently high within Natural History. 

After lunch, the Commission met in executive session with the members of the NMNH Science Council and the acting chairman of the Department of Systematic Biology to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the Council and Integrating Committee reports and to solicit views on priorities for strengthening research in the museum.

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