Changing the Mission of the Smithsonian

The Smithsonian's mission, "the increase and diffusion of knowledge" was mandated by founding donor, James Smithson, in his will in 1829, and reaffirmed in the enabling act of Congress that founded the Smithsonian (9 Stat 102). Small has stated in speeches and articles that this phrase is quaint and outdated and needs to be discarded. We believe that Lawrence M. Small has no legal authority to change the legislated mandate of the Smithsonian. Only the United States Congress can do that.

In September of 1993, a panel of 22 members, many of whom were scholars, were commissioned to report and make recommendations on the future of the Smithsonian. They returned their recommendations in May of 1995, after roughly 1.5 years of work. Their recommendations included the following:

  • Science proceeded most productively in separate bureaus where scientists had academic freedom and worked independently.
  • Decentralization was preferred over the centralization of science.

Despite these recommendations, Small continues to claim that:
  1. there have been no detailed reviews of science in the last decade (or more!)
  2. that centralization and a small handful of "centers of excellence" will serve the scientific community better than the current system. (What is the basis for the concept of less than 10 areas of excellence? NO scientific organization does this. Universities, research institutes, etc. do not limit themselves to under 10 departments or areas of excellence. Many universities actually split departments for funding purposes.)

These assertions are based only on his na´ve non-academic beliefs, and run counter to the recommendations of external scientists carefully chosen to review SI policies and make recommendations. He believes that he was appointed to "lead" rather than "preside" over the Smithsonian (words from his town meeting, available from http://zootv1.si.edu/trainingtv/), but lacks the informed vision and leadership skills necessary to bring positive change to the Smithsonian.

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