Smithsonian Head Steps Down

26 March 2007 (All day)

Smithsonian Institution

Lawrence Small has left the Smithsonian.

Lawrence Small, the controversial head of the Smithsonian Institution, resigned over the weekend in the wake of reports that he inappropriately spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of the organization's money. The uproar has put in jeopardy Congressional support for the Smithsonian.

Small took the reins of the Smithsonian's zoo, six research centers, and 19 museums in 2000. He immediately alienated many of the 500 scientists under his purview with calls to reorganize research programs and threats to close a zoological field station and a lab for materials science research and education (Science, 13 July 2001, p. 194). That same year, the Board of Regents, the Smithsonian's independent advisory board, called for an independent assessment of Smithsonian research to see what changes were warranted; the ensuing report's recommendations led to changes that helped restore morale and get the scientific programs back on track (Science, 27 February 2004, p. 1283).

But Small was in hot water again last week when the Washington Post made public an internal Smithsonian auditing report. The report claimed that Small billed the institution more than $450,000 over the past 6 years for various personal expenses, including the upkeep of his home and swimming pool, as well as $13,000 for an office conference table and $31,000 for office upholstery. There were personal travel expenses as well.

On 22 March, Senator Chuck Grassely (R-IA) got the Senate to pass an amendment to the 2008 budget resolution that froze the $17 million increase slated for the Smithsonian until reforms in ethics and accountability were put into place.

Faced with the negative press, Small submitted his resignation to the Board of Regents on Saturday. The move went over well with some Smithsonian scientists. "He never really locked into the academic traditions of the institution," says Brian Huber, a paleobiologist with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, who worried about Small's business focus. "It's good news."

Small's temporary successor is Cristián Samper, head of the National Museum of Natural History. Samper joined the Smithsonian in 2001 and has spent much of his earlier career focused on biodiversity and other environmental issues in South America. Huber gives Samper high marks, crediting him with helping the museum recover from low morale and devastating budget cuts. "He's been a fantastic director," says Huber. "I hope Cristián feels he's got a few more years work to do here before [moving on]."

Related site

Posted In: