Scientific Research at the Smithsonian Institution

October 2002 - The Smithsonian Institution is a unique organization, established in 1846 “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” It has grown over the years and is now composed of 16 museums and galleries, the National Zoo, and numerous research facilities in the United States and abroad.

The National Academy of Public Administration (the Academy) and the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences were jointly commissioned to study this issue. The Academy’s assignment focused on determining Smithsonian research program costs; examining research management models used by other academic institutions, museums, and private organizations; and identifying factors that might give the Smithsonian scientists an unfair advantage over others when competing for funds.

Findings and Recommendations

  1. Data for Smithsonian scientific research, included in the budget and accompanying explanatory material, engender a low level of confidence. The Panel recommends that funding decisions and related analyses rely on the actual cost of running the science centers, with appropriate adjustments, rather than the research estimates currently presented in the budget.
  2. Appropriations provide the Smithsonian with funds for core support functions and salaries of researchers who develop proposals. The Panel recommends the continuation of core support appropriations for all Smithsonian science centers consistent with the NRC report recommendations.
  3. Numerous factors may tilt a competitive process toward different organizations competing for grants and contracts, but Smithsonian researchers do not have a consistent advantage when they seek competitive funding. The Panel recommends that the Under Secretary for Science examine the perceptions and practices of the science centers’ researchers and managers regarding NSF grants, and establish a mechanism for keeping them informed of changes and best practices.