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