Engineer Tapped to Run Smithsonian

17 March 2008 (All day)

Georgia Institute of Technology

Foundation work.
G. Wayne Clough will take over efforts to shore up the Smithsonian.

Engineers are known as no-nonsense problem solvers. Those skills will be tested when G. Wayne Clough, president of the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta, becomes head of the Smithsonian Institution in July. A civil engineer who specialized in seismic disturbances, Clough is taking charge of an organization that has been shaken by leadership scandals and the sudden resignation of its Secretary last year. The Smithsonian also faces daunting renovation costs for some of its 19 museums, National Zoo, and nine research centers.

"A lot needs to be done," says Jeremy Sabloff, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania. Sabloff chaired an independent panel that in 2003 came up with more than 80 recommendations on improving Smithsonian science after controversial policy changes by Lawrence Small, who later resigned (ScienceNOW, 7 January 2003). The former head first alienated scientists with his corporate approach and later drew fire for questionable expenses and other practices that resulted in Congress demanding governance reform (ScienceNOW, 26 March 2007). In addition, Small and his predecessor were the only two nonscientists to head the institute, leaving Smithsonian researchers feeling that they received short shrift. "I hope that the new Secretary will take immediate steps to publicly show support for the central role that scientific research plays at the Smithsonian," says Sabloff.

Science advocates are optimistic. Clough earned a Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley, with an emphasis in earthquake engineering and has published 130 papers, reports, and book chapters. During his 14 years at Georgia Tech, the research budget more than doubled, from $212 million to $425 million per year. "If you look at [Clough's] track record, he supported the engineering programs, but he also did marvelous work in the sciences and the humanities," says Jean Lou Chameau, president of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

Clough, too, wants to assuage researchers. The Smithsonian "is all about creating knowledge," he said Saturday at the press conference in Washington, D.C., announcing his appointment. "Research is a very a central component."

Still, finding the money is going to be tough. The Smithsonian relies on the federal government for 70% of its $1 billion budget, and because Congress is loath to foot the bill for the $2.5 billion shortfall for infrastructure, the Smithsonian has been squeezed for new science initiatives. Its governing Board of Regents is now considering a private fundraising campaign, which Clough has experience with. He led two capital campaigns at Georgia Tech, which netted about $1.5 billion. Also, Clough has been a Washington, D.C., insider as part of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and the National Science Board, which oversees the National Science Foundation.

Charles Alcock, director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, thinks Clough is up to the challenge. Clough's expansion of the Georgia Tech research program "leads me to be optimistic that he will be supportive and actually helpful in supporting science, which is something we do think has been neglected in the previous administration."

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