The Smithsonian Institution and Science

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  • Article addresses the mission and role of the Smithsonian Institution in society, particularly the world of research. The author declares that if funds are available, there are no technical or legal limits to the types of research and artifact collections the Smithsonian can pursue to help fulfill its principal objectives of the undirected pursuit of knowledge and making the findings available to the world public at large. The writer notes the Smithsonian's long-recognized preeminence among science museums (with 16 museums and galleries, the National Zoo, 7 scientific research centers, over 30 libraries and archives, 98 affiliate museums, and countless programs and initiatives); he regards the Smithsonian's structure and its management of basic research projects as contributing factors to its success.
  • The author defines the Smithsonian as a non-governmental, unique trust instrumentality administered independently for the benefit of the public by a Board of Regents and funded by a mix of public and private monies. Since its founding there have been occasional misunderstandings regarding the role played by the federal government in the Smithsonian's affairs, but the author contends the Smithsonian has made and will continue to make its most significant research and educational contributions precisely because it is not an organizational part of the federal government.
  • The author believes that the Smithsonian is and should remain a center for the independent pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, i.e., basic research under a form of limited federal guardianship, for if the Smithsonian were part of the federal science bureaucracy, basic research would be lost in the federal funding process due to the pressing and immediate needs of directed or applied research.The author maintains that what happens behind the scenes tells the real story of the Smithsonian's scholarly pursuits and reveals its objective of basic research. As an example, he cites a letter written to the Smithsonian in 1916 by Robert Goddard to plea for funds so research into rocketry could be continued.
  • Secretary Charles Walcott was interested in flight (and was chairman of the National Advisory Committee of Aeronautics, the parent body of today's NASA) and asked Charles Abbot, a young staff scientist at the time who later became the fifth Smithsonian Secretary, to investigate the request. Abbot reviewed Goddard's letter, checked the experimental data, and recommended support, which continued over the course of 14 years. In 1926, Goddard succeeded in launching a 10-foot rocket, opening the first chapter in the history of American supremacy in space exploration. Another example of the Smithsonian funding basic research is its support in 1895 of Edward Morley's studies, which ultimately led to the discovery of isotopes. The author notes that first Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry assembled a group of scholars to conduct research in the original Smithsonian building known as "The Castle."
  • Henry called it a "College of Discoverers," and the author contends that for the Smithsonian to fulfill that role now, it will have to maintain the public-private duality through which it has enjoyed the flexibility of undirected research, along with performing important work in record-keeping and long-term observation of man and nature. In the article's last section, the author addresses the problem of finding ways to fund this scientific work. He believes that present-day Smithsonian scientists are at the forefront of scientific discoveries and to help support their efforts, private industry should join hands with the Smithsonian to promote research and education. For instance, industry could tell its story at the National Museum of American History, the foremost center for research and public education regarding America's industrial history and technological primacy.
  • However, in this or any other type of venture, the Smithsonian must always be careful to safeguard its objectivity and credibility. The author uses the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars as a successful example of the Smithsonian advancing research and education through private industry and foundation support, and sees it as the reincarnation of Joseph Henry's College of Discoverers. Established in 1968, the center brings together research fellows from all over the world to work on solving the great problems of our time. The author contends that the Smithsonian must advance research programs with cooperation from private industry and other non-public resources to continue its pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge.


  • Goddard, Robert Hutchings 1882-1945
  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878
  • Abbot, C. G (Charles Greeley) b. 1872
  • Smithson, James 1765-1829
  • Walcott, Charles D (Charles Doolittle) 1850-1927
  • Morley, Edward Williams 1838-1923
  • National Air and Space Museum
  • United States Congress
  • National Museum of Natural History (U.S.)
  • National Museum of American History (U.S.) (NMAH)
  • Board of Regents
  • Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography


Article is based in part on an undelivered speech written by the author for Chief Justice Warren Burger in 1971 for the 125th anniversary of the Smithsonian's founding.

Contained within

Cosmos 2002-2003: Journal of the Cosmos Club of Washington, DC Vol. 12 (Annual Journal)

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,




  • Smithson Bequest
  • Smithsonian influence
  • Secretaries
  • Smithsonian Institution
  • Science
  • Gifts
  • Federal Government
  • Federal Government, Relations with SI
  • Research

Physical description

pp. 59-62

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