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Plunder at the top

Smithsonian was Larry Small’s piggy bank

Hedge fund mentality pervades the US – including science

larrysmall.jpgIt isn’t much of a surprise that Larry Small, who exited recently as head of the nation’s (and the world’s) greatest museum complex, has now been exposed to a public lashing by a report on his activities while in the job. Small seems to have spent a large amount of his time taking the day off, serving on other boards and raising money from corporations by turning over exhibitions to their public relations staff.

Smithsonian as shopping mall

The whole scandal was stage center in 2002 when top scholars and authors sent the literary equivalent of a bomb in the mail as a New Year’s present. The elite critics wrote a letter to Chief Justice Renquist, chancellor of the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents, accusing Small of selling out to sponsors. The very relevant website Commercial Alert carried this Washington Post account by Philip Kennicott: Open Letter Berates Smithsonian’s Small

The letter, signed by scholars from the nation’s top universities, authors and at least one former director of a major Smithsonian museum, faulted Small for allowing corporate and individual sponsors to have what the letter argued was too much say in the content of exhibitions they sponsor, and for allowing corporations to place their logos on Smithsonian buildings, exhibition halls and other spaces.

“If Mr. Small is permitted to continue his agenda, the Smithsonian will become much like a shopping mall, with virtually every inch devoted to the promotion of a corporation or its products,” the letter says.

pilemoneycash.jpegApparently Mr Small’s admiration for commerce included extending his own acquisitive instinct to the petty cash of the Smithsonian, which he raided for various expenses such as a plane to fly around in, whose financing was carefully concealed from prying eyes, as privately arranged with Mr Small when his arrival six years ago at the Smithsonian was negotiated.

The attraction of having this well connected professional boardroom director in the driving seat was his supposed success at raising funds from kissing up to his buddy corporate chieftains, it appears, but no one seems to have anticipated that Mr Small might naturally feel that he deserved some of the proceeds himself to oil his own royal style. Mr. Small resigned in March amid growing controversy over his lavish expense-account spending.

From 2000 to 2006, the report said, he also took nearly 70 weeks of vacation — about 10 weeks a year — and spent 64 business days serving on corporate boards that paid him a total of $5.7 million. Rather than rein him in, the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents stood passively by, the report said, allowing him to spend the institution’s money on copious personal expenses and to treat the board as irrelevant to decision making.

“It appears that the board reported to him rather than the secretary reporting to the board,” the report said. “The committee was told by a regent that Mr. Small ‘did not listen to the opinions of the Regents’ and ‘did not seek input from the Regents.’ ”

Having printed news of this report on Thursday (Smithsonian Ex-Chief Criticized in Report by Robin Pogrebin), the Times today (Sat June 23) runs a short editorial The Fall of Mr. Small’s Empire summing up the various “deeply troubling” outrages perpetrated by Larry behind his veil of secrecy, where the Board of Regents was basically told to mind its own business. But its only point is to suggest quietly that perhaps this time someone with the requisite skills could be found inside the institution, rather than going to the cosy club of business leaders, many of them busily despoiling corporations of excessive salaries and stock options as enthusiastically as Mr Small, as if this was the only source of management and fund raising skills.

it will be essential to turn away from the underlying falsehood of Mr. Small’s tenure — that his background as a corporate executive made him a better manager than the men and women who came up through the Smithsonian. The goal, of course, is to find leaders with strong management skills and a full respect and understanding of the institution and what it is owed. All Mr. Small seemed to care about was what he thought the Smithsonian owed him.

Money as the root of bad science

This is surely a story which deserves a more thoughtful response. Perhaps we are oversensitive to the idea that science is a place where such exploitation is likely to occur, given the fact that the story of the exploitation of the HIV∫AIDS paradigm is, in our view, the Worldcom of science. But it seems to us that science is full of people who pursue it as a vocation they love and who are slow to see that over the last couple of decades, people have come swarming in who are much more motivated by ambition and venality, not to mention all the other human frailties listed in the logo of this site. Of course the Smithsonian is more of a museum than a microbiology lab but the same principles surely apply.

Transforming the landscape: billions

pilethaimoney.jpgThe sums of money involved in modern science are now huge, with the budget of the NIH for example running at about $29 billion annually the last we looked. Seems to us that where you get a great influx of money into any sector of the economy, older values are going to be pushed aside if they are not defended strongly. As far as we are concerned, this is what has happened in HIV∫AIDS, where the paradigm has had all the earmarks of a dead horse ever since it left the starting gate, but which has been carried round the course on a flatbed truck with its enthusiastic promoters holding it up and moving its legs as they shout down the questioners in the crowd and the multimillions have poured in to fuel the ever expanding operation.

The money tide

pilemoney.jpegFollow the money trail as they say and you find exploitation almost anywhere you look in the US economy, so why should science be immune?

Take hedge funds, for example, where at least three of the managers that run these secretive investment vehicles for the wealthy are making more than $1 billion a year. As a few nosy economists from the academic world have shown in recent years, the outrageous charges and fees applied by these Wall Street confidence men can amount to 60% per cent of the gains achieved, wiping out the advantage to investors who might just as well have just put their money in an ordinary mutual fund tied to the Dow Jones, without the huge risk.

In fact the Dutch economist Harry Kat at the University of London Sir John Cass Business School has now worked out software which will do the job just as well as most hedge fund managers for a fee of around five per cent, and gives hedge fund managers the chance to simply buy and run it (it is named FundCreator) and do something else entirely with their work day at the pool or beach without any of their investors noticing, and to pocket the difference.

Perks for the managers

In other words, while a very few top performing hedge funds consistently make very good gains all of those are closed to new investors and the vast majority are just charging four to six times as much as the advantage they claim, protected by secrecy, the same principle followed by Mr Small, As the Times editorial states, his perks were much bigger than his predecessor but his fund raising was less successful. In fact, it was worse than Michael Heyman, who he replaced in 2000.

It’s hard to decide which is more troubling: the 950 days that he and his deputy took off in their 7 years, the $5.7 million he earned by serving on several corporate boards or the lavish expenses the institution coughed up on his behalf.

His salary skyrocketed. Mr. Small was not as successful a fund-raiser as his defenders claim, and they overstate the case. Furthermore, he was never as successful as his predecessor, Michael Heyman, though he was paid, in his last year, 2 1/2 times Mr. Heyman’s salary.

niaid.jpegCensorship is secrecy too

How different is this story from the HIV∫AIDS scandal? Secrecy is key, in the sense that the NIAID’s effective censorship of the mainstream science reporters led by Dr Anthony Fauci, its head, has imposed a silence on the topic of the paradigm review which has allowed the paradigm promoters to exploit it very effectively while holding off all review except, after more than twenty years, one resounding article of fifteen pages in Harpers, the earlier series by Neville Hodgkinson in the Sunday Times of London, and apart from a smattering of pieces over the years, virtually nothing else in the press and media apart from 25 books which almost nobody influential has bothered to read and digest.

Now there are a number of sites on the Web which provide all that doubters need to know, but how influential they are at the moment is a question. A critical mass of outrage and political influence has yet to form.

Behind the curtain, dissidents all

The fact that the main current protectors of the paradigm, such as Tony Fauci and John P. Moore, can be quoted from the scientific literature and the papers they have written themselves to reveal that they agree with their critics on the most important points is very little known outside this blog, just as the habit of Mr Small pocketing as much of the running expenses of the Smithsonian as he could manage in his six years was little known until insiders penetrated the curtain drawn around it.

When will the general public and influential leaders wake up to the fact that modern science and those that pay for it are in need of protection from leaders who will give in to the financial pressures and temptations which have grown so much larger decade by decade since the Second World War, when the notion of federal funding of research first found a footing? A prime example is the amount of money which now flows along the arteries of the part of the system pumped by the HIV∫AIDS paradigm, which is just enormous. With Bush promising $30 billion and corporate sources getting ever more involved led by the Gates Foundation, this is undoubtedly the most richly rewarding Virus ever.

One Response to “Plunder at the top”

  1. hhbauer Says:

    Indeed money is a major culprit; in particular, too many “scientists” chasing grants, patents, etc. It isn’t only HIV/AIDS. I was astonished to learn that the same circumstances can be found in theoretical physics, in string theory. Read Part IV of Lee Smolin’s “The Trouble with Physics”. The string theorists not only control grants, appointments, publication, they also–as in HIV/AIDS–denigrate, snicker at, those who are not on the bandwagon; and they blithely talk of all sorts of things as proven that are anything but proven. Before reading the book, I had thought there might be some vague similarities, but I was quite taken aback to find that one could substitute “HIV/AIDS” for “string” in Smolin’s discussion and find it frighteningly applicable.

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