Smith­so­nian Ben­e­fits When ‘Science’ Is on Sec­re­tary’s Ré­sumé

The Washington Post Sunday - - Close To Home - — Michael C. Dorf

T he res­ig­na­tion un­der fire of Lawrence M. Small, sec­re­tary of the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion, com­pletes more than a decade of di­min­ish­ment that started with the Smith­so­nian’s shift from sci­en­tist sec­re­taries to busi­nes­sori­ented sec­re­taries.

Since the Smith­so­nian’s found­ing in 1846, there have been 11 sec­re­taries. From the first, Joseph Henry, through the ninth, Robert McCormick Adams, who re­tired in 1994, all were prom­i­nent sci­en­tists, spe­cial­iz­ing in physics, nat­u­ral science, as­tron­omy, pa­le­on­tol­ogy, as­tro­physics, or­nithol­ogy, psy­chol­ogy, bi­ol­ogy and an­thro­pol­ogy. The Smith­so­nian Board of Re­gents changed course with the se­lec­tion of I. Michael Hey­man, a law pro­fes­sor and Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley chan­cel­lor, pri­mar­ily cho­sen for his skills in rais­ing funds, build­ing fa­cil­i­ties and man­ag­ing them. The re­gents con­tin­ued with Small, a for­mer ex­ec­u­tive at Fan­nie Mae and Citi­corp.

Ap­par­ently, how­ever, the re­gents didn’t un­der­stand the mys­tique that the sci­en­tific knowl­edge and back­grounds of the pre­vi­ous nine sec­re­taries cre­ated with Congress.

Re­gard­ing Sec­re­tary Samuel Pier­pont Lan­g­ley, the renowned as­tronomer who served from 1887 to 1906, then-House Speaker Joseph Can­non (R-Ill.) ap­proved Lan­g­ley’s re­quest for “$10,000 to ex­per­i­ment in build­ing a fly­ing ma­chine,” say­ing the sec­re­tary was “a great sci­en­tist . . . an ex­cep­tion among gov­ern­ment ex­perts . . . and my con­fi­dence in him made me more le­nient in con­sid­er­ing the ex­trav­a­gant prospec­tuses of oth­ers.”

Sim­i­larly, S. Dil­lon Ri­p­ley, sec­re­tary from 1964 to 1984, was an or­nithol­o­gist. Dur­ing con­gres­sional hear­ings, he would stretch to his full 6-foot-plus height and re­coil in con­tor­tions to demon­strate the calls and pos­tures of ex­otic birds. In­flu­en­tial mem­bers of Congress, such as Rep. Sid­ney R. Yates (DIll.), who over­saw the Smith­so­nian’s ap­pro­pri­a­tions, were de­lighted.

The power held by a sec­re­tary who is a sci­en­tist, rather than a lawyer or busi­ness ex­ec­u­tive, should not be un­der­es­ti­mated. Mem­bers of Congress are, by na­ture, gen­er­al­ists. On each is­sue, they tend to learn enough to be con­ver­sant, make a de­ci­sion and move on. They rec­og­nize the dis­tinc­tion be­tween the en­light­ened lay wit­ness and the true ex­pert. When the ex­pert is also an ex­otic, as sci­en­tists can be, a par­tic­u­lar deference is ac­corded.

I sense that a mem­ber of Congress lis­ten­ing to lawyer Hey­man or busi­ness­man Small thinks to him­self or her­self, “This per­son has no more qual­i­fi­ca­tion to be sec­re­tary than I do,” and feels free to sec­ond-guess. But the sen­a­tor who talks to a Lan­g­ley or a Ri­p­ley prob­a­bly ac­knowl­edges, if only pri­vately, that the sec­re­tary does know a few things that he or she doesn’t.

Un­der Hey­man and Small, the busi­ness in­ter­ests of the Smith­so­nian took prece­dence Lawrence M. Small, above, was a busi­ness-ori­ented Smith­so­nian sec­re­tary. Samuel P. Lan­g­ley, left — in dark suit, with as­sis­tant Charles P. Man­ley in 1903 — was one of nine science-ori­ented sec­re­taries in the in­sti­tu­tion’s 161-year his­tory. over the aca­demic mis­sion, lead­ing to po­lit­i­cal mis­steps that sci­en­tist sec­re­taries might have avoided. Th­ese in­cluded the con­tro­ver­sial Enola Gay World War II ex­hibit, can­celed by Hey­man largely for fear that it would harm his plan to “en­large our con­nec­tions with the cor­po­rate world.” The Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum stopped an ex­hi­bi­tion on Viet­nam War air­power, and Hey­man can­celed a lec­ture se­ries com­mem­o­rat­ing the 50th an­niver­sary of Is­rael’s found­ing.

Un­der Small, the Na­tional Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory changed the cap­tions to a pho­tog­ra­phy ex­hibit on Alaska’s Arc­tic Na­tional Wildlife Refuge be­cause of lan­guage op­pos­ing oil drilling. The same mu­seum opened two cli­mate change ex­hibits with­out, as Post re­porter Joel Achenbach noted, “a sin­gle smithereen of con­tentious­ness.” And af­ter dis­clo­sure of a se­cret 30-year con­tract be­tween the Smith­so­nian and Show­time Net­works Inc., the So­ci­ety of Amer­i­can His­tori- ans sus­pended Smith­so­nian Books from mem­ber­ship to protest the in­sti­tu­tion’s “in­creas­ingly com­mer­cial approach to its mis­sion.”

The Smith­so­nian has made it­self a ca­su­alty of the cul­ture wars. With sec­re­taries who lack the sci­en­tific mys­tique to be given the ben­e­fit of the doubt, the in­sti­tu­tion has lost the trust and pro­tec­tion of both Congress and the aca­demic com­mu­nity. It is up to Con- gress to in­sist that the Smith­so­nian re­turn to its aca­demic roots.




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