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 FEATURES

BY ROBIN TATU
Feature image of G. Wayne Clough

COVER STORY

RAISING THE ROOF

The ‘nation’s attic’ undergoes a high-tech renovation.


When in September, G. Wayne Clough oversaw the unveiling of a 3,000-pound Boller & Chivens telescope on the Mall in Washington, D.C., he conveyed a clear message: Science is back at the Smithsonian Institution, as worthy of attention as the gleaming Hope Diamond or another popular museum exhibit, Dorothy’s ruby slippers. As the top executive, Clough intends to use his background in engineering and academic leadership to usher the venerable public establishment into a new era of research, education, and contemporary relevance.

Public understanding of the Smithsonian is often overwhelmed by its role as “America’s attic,” safeguarding the nation’s key cultural artifacts. Most Americans are familiar with the Air and Space Museum, site of the new telescope. But far fewer know about the Smithsonian’s Tropical Research Institution in Panama, its Environmental Research Center in Maryland on the Chesapeake Bay, or its Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass., which employs one-sixth of all Smithsonian staff. In fact, the Smithsonian is a sprawling complex of 19 museums, 7 research centers, 137 million artifacts, and more than 6,000 employees in 100 countries – the world’s largest museum and research establishment.

When people come to Washington, says Clough, 67, they sometimes ask where the Smithsonian is, as though it were one building. “We have 770 buildings.” He notes it with a smile; yet the number hints at the wide-ranging systems challenge the institution presents, of which size is just a part. The job of its leader requires pulling together a host of diverse scientific, artistic, and historical missions, as well as balancing the demands of exhibits, on the one hand, and research, on the other.

Turmoil At The Top 3,000 Pound Boller and Chivens Telescope

Not the least of the Smithsonian’s complexities is its governance. Set up as a charitable trust by Congress in 1836, based on a bequest from English mineralogist John Smithson, it operates under the guardianship of the government, though it is not a federal agency. Two thirds of the operating budget comes from congressional appropriations and income from a public trust fund, the rest from private sponsorship. The powerful Board of Regents includes the vice president of the United States, the chief justice, six members of Congress, and nine private citizens approved by Congress and the president. Congress also exercises oversight.

The person most identified with the leadership of the Smithsonian, however, is the secretary, the board-appointed chief executive officer. That challenge proved too much for Clough’s predecessor, businessman Lawrence M. Small. Brought in to bolster the institution’s sagging finances in 2000, the former president of Fannie Mae had resigned by 2007, amid scandal over alleged mismanagement and his own financial irregularities – including a $14,000 trip by chartered jet and a negotiated $193,022 housing allowance for a home he already owned.

Even from the outset, Small proved a poor match for an organization that operates less along the lines of a corporation than of an enormous graduate-level public university. Curators chafed at the influence granted to major donors; historians protested the increased commercialization of the Smithsonian Press and contracts with the cable network Showtime. In 2002, when Small sought to eliminate the National Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center, the furious reaction from scientists, members of Congress, and the media forced an unhappy retreat.

Following an independent investigation in 2006, resignation of key executives, and structural reorganization of top management, the board-appointed search committee signaled a return to the Smithsonian’s roots in education: In 2008, it turned to Clough, then president of Georgia Institute of Technology. A specialist in geotechnical and earthquake engineering, he had proven himself over four decades as a teacher, university executive, and national-level adviser on science and technology.

Perhaps more important for an institution struggling to reconcile its scientific mission and custodianship of national treasures with ever tighter budget constraints, Clough is an innovator. During his 14-year tenure at Georgia Tech, research expenditures doubled, endowments and enrollment levels rose, women and minority faculty were hired, and the school became a leader in graduating Hispanic and African-American engineers – all while maintaining a top ranking on the U.S. News & World Report lists of public universities and engineering schools.

"A Very Broad Person" Clough digging for fossils in Wyoming

While spearheading building projects, including a $90 million nanotechnology center and renovation of the biomedical, computing, and athletic facilities, Clough helped move engineering education beyond traditional constrictions. Georgia Tech began to recruit tech students who demonstrated wide interests, offering them poetry and music, study abroad, research, and volunteer programs. “Everything we put on the table, they took,” says Clough with pleasure. “Retention went up, excitement went up; the students loved the programs.”

A member of both the National Science Board and National Academy of Engineering (NAE), Clough chairs the National Research Council Committee on New Orleans Regional Hurricane Protection Projects, which recently criticized the Army Corps of Engineers’ failure to develop long-term, comprehensive flood protection. Clough served on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology from 2001 to 2008; and, as a member of the U.S. Council on Competitiveness, he was 2004 university vice chair and cochair of the 2004 National Innovation Initiative. As chair of the NAE’s Engineer of 2020 Project, Clough, who has taught at Stanford, Duke, and Virginia Tech, urged engineering educators to work within a broader context. “Innovation requires that we not only discover new knowledge and technology,” he noted at the 2005 ASEE Engineering Deans Council public policy colloquium, “but also that we anticipate ways to put it to work within a complex legal, political, social, and economic landscape.”

“He’s just a very broad person,” comments Georgia Tech engineering dean and fellow NAE member Don Giddens. “I certainly would not view him as ‘just an engineer,’ although I’m biased. I think engineers are not ‘just engineers.’ We’re much broader than people give us credit for.”

Clough’s inclination toward civil engineering surfaced early, as did an enthusiasm for the kind of large-scale undertaking the Smithsonian represents. “Even when I was a kid, I made things,” says Clough. “And I like to make big things.” In his work constructing and managing institutions, he realized that “building institutions is a lot like building infrastructures for a great civilization.” He adds, “This is one of those institutions.”

For some scientists at the Smithsonian, this attitude marks a refreshing shift back to a more inclusive approach. Says entomologist Jonathan Coddington, “I’ve given a great number of VIP tours for different secretaries, and Wayne, by far, gets it. He really gets the long-term mission of the science.”

Collections and Science

If Clough can strike the right balance between the sometimes competing missions of scientific research and preserving and displaying collections, he may finally settle a debate that reaches back almost to the institution’s founding. When Smithson stipulated that his legacy promote “the increase and diffusion of knowledge,” it was a compelling but ill-defined charge. Even in the earliest decades, disagreement arose as to just what the Smithsonian’s role should be.

The first secretary, physicist John Henry, a founding member of the National Academy of Science, fostered scientific research and publication while resisting attempts to house a national museum or library at the Smithsonian. But the second secretary, naturalist Spencer Baird, was a consummate private collector, arriving in Washington with his own railroad boxcars filled with preserved specimens. Under Baird, the Smithsonian mounted displays on geology, zoology, medicine, anthropology, art, history, and technology.

Scientific activity continued apace under Secretary Samuel Langley, who oversaw the installation of a telescope observatory just behind the original Smithsonian building, known as the Castle. But the growing collections began to overshadow scientific pursuits on the Mall. In 1890, the telescope left, as did a small herd of buffalo housed behind the Castle. The bison moved several miles north to become part of the newly established National Zoo, which still remains one branch of the Smithsonian.

Gradually, research activity became less visible to the public. Today, viewing collections at the Museum of Natural History, few people realize that the 300,000 square feet reserved for exhibits is less than one fifth the building’s size. “Down in the basement, up in the top, behind those walls, are people doing fascinating work on fossils, on studies of DNA, on species,” says Clough. “And all these things are going on all the time.”

Clough views the collections and research as complementary, jointly offering something matched by no other American educational organization. He is determined to make better use of that strength. “The Smithsonian can tell stories that nobody else can tell,” he says. “I can line up a compass from the Lewis and Clark trip; I can line up Edison’s light bulb; I can line up Salk’s vaccine. We have the Curtis Jenny, the actual plane. If you want to talk about innovation, you can see it in its broadest sweep here, in terms of what Americans bring to the table.”

To harness that joint potential, Clough seeks to foster an interdisciplinary approach throughout the Smithsonian. As envisioned in his five-year strategic plan, it will be one that “combines our disparate strengths in ways that increase perspective and impact.” To succeed, Clough will have to negotiate various turf battles, persuading people to get on board and excited about this new unified vision. But this is familiar work to this longtime college president, and it clearly energizes him. Clough spent much of his first year learning about the institution’s operations, crisscrossing the myriad facilities to meet with researchers and curators, speak with education and Web specialists, and view preserved beetles, baseball jerseys, and John Bull, America’s oldest steam locomotive.

The secretary’s tours were well publicized, with an eye to increasing awareness of scientific activity at the Smithsonian. But researchers are also being encouraged to embrace issues of contemporary interest and relevance. The strategic plan identifies four priority areas: unlocking the mysteries of the universe; understanding and sustaining a biodiverse planet; valuing world cultures; and understanding the “American experience.” Within these broad focal areas, projects are being developed to foster interdisciplinary collaboration. “We’re not saying everyone has to do it,” Clough clarifies, though these areas will get priority in budget and staffing decisions.

One of the early collaborative projects to go public was the institution’s 2009 online conference on climate change. While not taking a policy stand toward this politically charged issue, the Smithsonian can serve as an “honest broker,” marshaling evidence and informing debate, Clough says. Participants were invited to log on during the conference to watch webcasts by Smithsonian experts, who displayed the wealth of diverse knowledge within the institution – directors of museums and research units, curators, education specialists, a geographer, a plant physiologist, a paleobiologist, and an archivist of American art. Visitors to the site – which remains available – can explore a virtual “exhibition hall” of related Smithsonian exhibits and research activity, explore lesson plans, and read blog discussions. As was the case with a smaller pilot project on Abraham Lincoln, the climate conference attracted more than 3,000 online participants from 80 different countries. This month, another gathering will examine the impact of the Apollo space program.

YouTube and TwitterVarious images of Clough in Wyoming and biodiversity in Kenya

Online conferences are just one part of a determined effort by the institution to employ the Internet, new media, and social networking tools to extend its reach. When Clough traveled to Chile, Kenya, and Wyoming over the summer, his field notes appeared online – and he’s on Twitter and Facebook, as well. After an appearance in San Francisco, he saw his talk posted on the Internet on FORA.tv, where it has been viewed more than 10,000 times, with sections posted on YouTube (800+ views) and Facebook. Indeed, Smithsonianvideos, a dedicated YouTube channel, features hundreds of education and lecture videos, viewed more than 15,000 times. The official Smithsonian Facebook site has more than 32,000 fans, while others have posted favorite shots on the multiplying number of Smithsonian Flickr pages. In other words, the institution has gone viral, which is exactly the kind public interaction Clough and others want to encourage.

The importance of these new tools cannot be underestimated, Clough believes. Only 15 percent of Americans ever visit Smithsonian exhibits in Washington, while already seven times that number have logged on as virtual visitors. Over the past year and a half, many more resources have been directed to expanding existing sites and creating new ones, making them more attractive and interactive, with downloadable educational materials.

In the future, a physical Latino Museum may join the list of Washington attractions; but for now, it exists as the Smithsonian’s first online museum, complete with an avatar-based 3-D environment, supported by Second Life technology. Two other ambitious Web-based initiatives include participation in the Encyclopedia of Life, a project devoted to documenting all 1.8 million species in existence; and a long-term goal to digitize all 137 million Smithsonian artifacts, each to be photographed and mounted on the Web.

Clough recognizes the challenges ahead as the institution struggles to generate the 35 percent of its budget reliant upon private funding in a depressed economy. The institution has cut several departmental budgets, imposed a temporary hiring freeze and a moratorium on top management pay increases, and offered a buyout option to all employees. Nonetheless, Clough remains optimistic, already announcing plans for an ambitious capital campaign. “If we’re agile in our thinking and willing to take some risks,” he says, “then all of a sudden, this institution has power.”

To achieve his ambitious goals for the Smithsonian, Clough needs not only to understand power but to be able to wield it. On that count, at least one regent has bestowed a vote of confidence. Asked at a public meeting of the board how the Smithsonian’s “traditionally noncollaborative units” would be persuaded to collaborate, GOP Sen. Sam Johnson of Texas responded – amid laughter – that the institution now had in Clough a leader “who is a pretty good guy with a stick.”

Clough’s actions so far have won cautious praise from one of the Smithsonian’s most prominent past critics. “There are indications that he’s making important changes,” Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, ranking member of the Finance Committee, tells Prism in an e-mail. “Dr. Clough doesn’t serve for a salary on any corporate boards. Dr. Clough’s salary is almost half of what Secretary Small’s salary was. . . . and Dr. Clough has put together a fundraising plan and said he wants the Smithsonian to be more self-reliant.”

For his own part, Clough believes the Smithsonian draws well upon his accumulated experience and interests. “This is an institution that has a lot about it that’s close to academics,” he says. “It is an organization that values discovery and research – and those are things that I [understand].” For Clough, being secretary means being able “to serve, to build, and then, the opportunity to really learn.”


Robin Tatu, senior editor of Prism, is an adjunct history professor at George Washington University.

 

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