Press Briefing

Opening Statement for
Dr. Jeremy A. Sabloff
Chairman, Smithsonian Science Commission
Press Briefing
Sept. 7, 2001

The Smithsonian Science Commission convened for the first time in an all-day session yesterday. Seventeen of the 18 members were present; Dr. Francisco Ayala of the University of California at Irvine was unable to attend due to a prior commitment.

I opened the meeting by observing that the seven-part charge to the commission from the Smithsonian Board of Regents is a daunting one, and made all the more so by the level of expectation placed on us by the Smithsonian, the U.S. Congress, the press and the public.

A copy of the charge is available for you after the briefing. I also reaffirmed my belief that the commission can make a contribution that will not only help science at the Smithsonian, but aid in the advancement of science around the world. One of the Regents to whom I’ve spoken characterized our time as a defining moment for science at the modern Smithsonian that could have positive affects for years to come.

Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small welcomed the commission, expressed his gratitude for their voluntary service and reiterated that the Smithsonian is at a turning point in its history.

He noted that science has been at the heart of the Smithsonian since its founding and has a tradition of excellence that must be preserved in the context of the many challenges that face the Institution today, including aging buildings, outdated exhibits and what he called the “insidious hollowing-out of the scientific research staff” by shrinking federal budgets over the last decade. The depletion of resources and decline in staff have to be setting off alarm bells for the commission, he said, adding that the situation cannot be allowed to go on. He exhorted the commission to ask if where the Smithsonian is today is where we want to be in the future; to set clear, compelling directions for science; and not to prolong a situation that allows for an enormous disparity between the quality of science at the Smithsonian and the public’s understanding of it. “Give us work we can act on and use to address our challenges,” he said.

Since this was our first meeting, much of the time was devoted to procedural matters. I proposed and the commissioners accepted a schedule of bimonthly meetings, with two more between now and the end of the year – one in late October and another in December. I will set specific dates for the two-day sessions when I return to my office.

In terms of when we will ultimately submit final recommendations to the Board of Regents, I will say what I’ve said from the beginning: Given the importance and enormity of the task before us, we will take as long as it takes to do it right. Of the dates that have been bandied about, I can tell you we will not be finished by the end of this year, and not necessarily before the May 2002 Regents’ meeting. Within a year is a good frame of reference, but we want to be sure that expectations are reasonable and realistic.

That being said, we are acutely aware of the perception among some scientists and researchers at the Smithsonian that normal activities are suspended pending the outcome of the commission’s deliberations. It is important to appreciate the distinction between the programmatic stalls imposed by financial constraints – some grant programs have been curtailed by the fiscal year 2002 federal budget, for example – and those actions that have to await the commission’s report, many of which are organizational and administrative. The commission appreciates the extent of disruption to business-as-usual at the Smithsonian over the past five months. We agreed to prioritize the answers to the questions raised by our charge, and, if possible, make interim reports to the Regents in the interest of keeping things moving forward. In the meantime, however, my colleagues and I cannot stress strongly enough the importance of carrying on the day-to-day activities of science at the Institution.

The commission is keenly interested in comments, suggestions and perspectives from members of the Smithsonian’s scientific community. A group of scientists at the Museum of Natural History already has submitted a proposal, and our briefing materials contained organizational models submitted by senior management for which I’ve requested narrative accounts. However, we want to hear from as many people as possible. To that end, I will be sending a letter to every scientist and researcher in the Institution in the next couple of weeks, soliciting individual input by letter and e-mail. I will share the comments I receive with the other commission members.

Additionally, small, sub-groups of commissioners will conduct site visits and hold town hall meetings at each of the Smithsonian’s research centers. The commission regards the Regents’ charge as a series of questions to which we must formulate answers. The first and principal charge, the question of priorities for Smithsonian scientific research and strengthening the scientific enterprise in the years ahead – within the existing level of institutional financial and fiscal resources – will be addressed by the commission as a whole. For the others, we divided our membership into subcommittees according to individual interest in each subject.

The subcommittee to grapple with the question of how scientific research should be organized to make the optimal use of the Institution’s resources consists of Drs. Alice Alldredge, Bruce Campbell, Peter Crane and Peter Raven (leader). How the relationship between research and public programs can by enhanced will be handled by Drs. James Baker (leader), William Fitzhugh and Stephen Hubbell. What should be done to improve public recognition of Smithsonian science will be, addressed by Drs. Candy Feller and Yolanda Moses (leader); I will ask Dr. Ayala to serve on this subcommittee, as well.

The standards and procedures used to evaluate the performance of researchers and scientific organizations will be addressed by Drs. Robert Kirshner, Simon Levin, Warren Wagner and Marvalee Wake (leader). The qualifications necessary for effective leadership in key Smithsonian scientific organizations will be discussed by Drs. Douglas Erwin (leader), Jeremy Jackson and Beryl Simpson. Commission staff will facilitate conversation among the groups and an executive committee, consisting of Dr. Baker, Dr. Moses and myself, will act as liaison among them, and as a source of necessary resources and information.

Much of the afternoon was dedicated to an opportunity for each commission member to express individual concerns, perceptions and areas of special, personal interest. This roundtable discussion brought home to me once again the extraordinary level of commitment and dedication to advancing scientific excellence at the Smithsonian and in the world at large on the part of each commissioner. The breadth and depth of research, academic and administrative experience represented here is truly stunning. These are strong- and independent-minded people with much to bring to this table. I look forward to working with them, and with you.

Before I take your questions, I want to be sure you have the new web address. (one word).

Media attending:

Jacqueline Trescott, The Washington Post
Randy Schmid, Associated Press
Josh Gewolb, Science
Jeffrey Cohn, BioScience
Ellen Paul, American Institute of Biological Sciences

Staff attending:

David Umansky, Director of Communications
Linda St. Thomas, Associate Director for Media Relations, Office of Public Affairs
Elizabeth Tait, Science and Research Communications, Office of Public Affairs

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