Stable Funds Fuel Smithsonian's Risky Research

WASHINGTON—David Challinor smiles as he explains how Smithsonian Institution scientists benefit from about a dozen National Science Foundation grants even though Congress has prohibited the organization from asking NSF for money. "It just takes some imagination. One way is to join a consortium. Another is to approach the NSF with a project it wants done. As any Washington bureaucrat knows, there's more than one way to skin a cat." In fact, the 66-year-old Challinor knows more than most bur

By | April 20, 1987

WASHINGTON—David Challinor smiles as he explains how Smithsonian Institution scientists benefit from about a dozen National Science Foundation grants even though Congress has prohibited the organization from asking NSF for money.

"It just takes some imagination. One way is to join a consortium. Another is to approach the NSF with a project it wants done. As any Washington bureaucrat knows, there's more than one way to skin a cat."

In fact, the 66-year-old Challinor knows more than most bureaucrats about which strings to pull to advance the cause of science. This summer he will retire after 16 years as head of scientific research at the Smithsonian, which in addition to its museums runs a $60 million-a-year research program with 400 scholars and scientists in the United States and Panama. Two years ago he became Assistant Secretary for Research, adding the arts and humanities to his previous duties overseeing science.

Although some of the proposals that Challinor approves relate to collections from the Institution's 12 museums—the Museum of Natural History's fish collection has enabled researchers to trace heavy metals in the environment over time—many have a more general focus. Smithsonian scientists are mapping the distribution of galaxies from Arizona, tagging tigers in Nepal, reintroducing captive-born tamarins to the wild in Brazil, and investigating why morning glories disappear when cultivated fields are abandoned in Maryland.

Scientists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, for example, are engaged in a pioneering census of all trees in a 50-hectare plot of forest. Their goal is not only to learn the basic ecology of the 340 indigenous species, but also to shed light on one of biology's central questions: What factors contribute to the great diversity of plants and animals in tropical forests?

Three years ago a sister project was started in Malaysia, where scientists unexpectedly have found an even higher number of species than in Panama. Institute Director Ira Rubinoff said similar projects are planned in Sri Lanka, India, Cameroon and the Philippines.

Taking Risks

The census, to be taken every five years, is possible because of the type of funding provided by the Smithsonian. More than onehalf—$37 mfflion—of its budget comes from federal funds, with the remaining portion from grants, contracts and the Smithsonian Trust Fund. While researchers are encouraged to seek funding from outside sources, they do not need to chase after money in the way of their colleagues in academia.

"Work in universities is typically tied to the relatively narrow tolerances and priorities of the peer review systems of the national foundations, institutes and endowments," noted Robert McC. Adams, Secretary of the Smithsonian and Challinor's boss. "Museums are particularly suitable as a base for long-term research projects."

Smithsonian scientists say the lessened pressure to publish and the luxury of relatively stable funding permits them to conduct high-risk studies.

Daryl Boness, research zoologist at the National Zoo, is working with Olav Oftedal on lactation in marine mammals. Two years ago, they ventured onto the pack ice off the coast of Labrador and Greenland in search of hooded seals.

"The breeding period lasts about 10 to 15 days," said Boness. "The precise location where these animals might pop up on the ice was not predictable. We could have gotten out there and not even seen the animals.

"There's no way non-tenured academics would undertake such a high-risk project," he added. "They couldn't count on producing papers in quantity on an annual basis."

But the focus on research can be a two-edged sword, say some academics. "I've watched some scientists' interests wander out of science and into extracurricular activities," said Peter Glynn, a marine ecologist who left the Smithsonian in 1983 for the University of Miami. The low-pressure environment, he added, makes possible "an intellectual death."

To avoid this problem, the Smithsonian has introduced more stringent performance evaluations. Scientists are reviewed regularly by a committee of peers, and such criteria as the number and importance of publications have become factors in their overall rating. Challinor also has increased the number of pre- and post-doctoral students at the Smithsonian. About 80 such students now work there, quadruple the number that participated 15 years ago.

'Free' Telescopes

Challinor has also sought to acquire such modern scientific equipment as scanning electron microscopes and the Multiple Mirror Telescope (MMT), the first in a new generation of telescopes built by the Smithsonian and the University of Arizona in 1979.

The telescope testifies to Challinor's freewheeling administrative style. In the late 1960s the U.S. Air Force ordered six telescope mirrors, and then was forbidden to use them by a 1970 law that prohibited the military from engaging in basic research.

"All of a sudden there were these six free mirrors," said Challinor. "But taking them on was a real gamble. We didn't know if we could align them accurately enough to get a single focal point. Thanks to the optical engineers at Arizona and the design team at the Smithsonian, we aligned them to within one-half an arc second. It was mind-blowing."

Challinor is now working on a proposal to upgrade the MMT facility by replacing the six mirrors with a single mirror 6.5 meters across. "We could mount it in the yoke and connect to the existing computers for $10 million—chicken feed for a telescope of that size."

He laughs as he mimics the pitch he might make. "You want to give us some money? We'll name it after you. Instant immortality! Of course, you'll have to put up more than half the cost."

Although lobbying Congress for research funds has gotten easier as the public has grown more sophisticated in its understanding of science, Challinor said, "a little theatrics frequently pays off." In 1974, for instance, he had the National Zoo's first female keeper carry an infant orangutan into the appropriations hearing.

"We had a hell of a time getting it by the guard," he said, "but we got all of our appropriations."

Carpenter is a science writer in Washington. D.C.


The Smithsonian Institution employs about 400 scholars and researchers at its museums and facilities in the United Stated and Latin America. In addition t 92 full-time positions in the arts and history the Institution supports scientists in the following locations Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C. (115 full-time positions)
  • Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Cambridge, Mass. (997)
  • National Air & Space Museum, Washington D.C. (29)
  • National Zoo, Washington, D.C. (26)
  • Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Panama (22)
  • Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Edgewater, Md. (8)


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