Smithsonian Chief Buckles to Pressure

The secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, buckling under pressure from scientists and politicians, has backed off a proposal to close a Washington-area wildlife research facility.

The Conservation and Research Center (CRC), known for its work on saving endangered species, was slated to be shut down under a major institution-wide restructuring initiated by Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small. But when word of the closure leaked, the ensuing outcry from the scientific community forced Small to abandon the plan.

"It's clear from the messages we received from individuals and organizations around the country that the proposal was interpreted by many as indicating that the Smithsonian was backing away from its commitment to science, in general, and the biological sciences, in particular. Nothing could be further from the truth," Small told reporters Monday after a meeting of the Smithsonian's Board of Regents in which he formally withdrew his plan.

The retreat represents a victory for the scientists at the Smithsonian who are mistrustful of Small, a businessman by training. The concern is that Small's background and focus on fundraising would diminish their research.

"We don't know why [closing CRC] was picked out," said Scott Wing, a paleontologist at the Museum of Natural History. "If it's an arbitrary decision or if it's based purely on financial considerations, then the scientists feel that's a bad reason."

Small's plan was to close the CRC and move employees out into the field, for instance to the National Zoo. He argued that closing the center would save $2.8 million per year. But as word got out, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., whose district houses the CRC, complained.

"I am pleased that the proposal to close the CRC has been dropped. The work done there is world renown and closing the facility would have been a mistake," Wolf said in a press statement Monday.

Still, Small believes the Smithsonian needs to undergo significant modernization and said he is not giving up on making those changes.  He is altering his strategy, however.

"Our objective all along has been to build on the traditional strength of Smithsonian science in a way that emphasizes collaboration and cooperation among scientists inside and outside of the institution," Small said.

Small said he will set up a blue-ribbon commission to study further changes, but admits that changing such an old and established institution will be difficult, particularly since his bottom-line business background clashes with some of those in the Smithsonian's scientific community.

"Certainly it's been portrayed as having attributes of a culture clash, but remember, we have a broad range of people here," he said. "It is a large, complex, multi-divisional organization and, as far as that goes, that's what I've spent my life doing."

Wing said he hopes Small will measure success by the quality of the science and not just "by how many people walk through the doors of the museum."

-- Fox News' Sharon Kehnemui contributed to this report

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