WASHINGTON, D.C.--After a tumultuous month of wild speculation, the Smithsonian Institution today unfolded new plans for a shake-up of its research. At a press conference here, Smithsonian secretary Lawrence Small announced that he would keep open one of two centers whose closure he announced recently. At the same time, the Smithsonian's Board of Regents gave Small the go-ahead to set up a scientific advisory board aimed at condensing his institution's varied research programs into just a few centers of excellence.
The 155-year-old Smithsonian has 16 museums, the National Zoo, and a half dozen remote research units, all of which get about two-thirds of their funds from the federal government. In April, as part of the fiscal year 2002 budget, Small had called for the closing of the National Zoo's Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Virginia, and the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education, based in Suitland, Maryland (ScienceNOW, 10 April). Giving in to strong protests from members of Congress, conservation organizations, and scientists (ScienceNOW, 16 April), Small decided yesterday to keep the Front Royal facility open. But he did get permission today from the Regents to shut down the materials research center, which would save $2 million.
The Regents also approved a much-discussed reorganization plan, even though the plan is little more than a rough sketch. Since Small took over the helm 18 months ago, he has stressed the need for tighter focus in scientific efforts, if only to make it easier to explain the Smithsonian's research to potential donors. Private funds are increasingly important to the institution, as support from the federal government has barely kept up with inflation. "What we're trying to do is focus on the science that we think we can do well and put resources in those focal areas," says J. Dennis O'Connor, the undersecretary for science at the Smithsonian.
Also today, Small announced that Frank and Wynnette Levinson, of Palo Alto, California, and their family have donated $10 million to the Smithsonian through their Celerity Foundation. Although the money is earmarked for basic biological research, Small didn't say which institutes would benefit from the gift, the largest single private donation to basic research in the Smithsonian's 155-year history. Small added that another $4 million is expected from a second donor soon.