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New NAS Members Reflect Scope of Science Today

The newly elected members and foreign associates of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) represent 64 scientific fields manifesting the ever-shifting boundaries of science. Stephen Berry, home secretary of the NAS, says the new class reflects the expansion of science into several new directions; computer and information sciences, biophysics, and human environmental sciences were added a year ago. "All the new and expanded areas correspond to new areas or lie within the bounds of traditional fi

By | June 10, 2002

The newly elected members and foreign associates of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) represent 64 scientific fields manifesting the ever-shifting boundaries of science. Stephen Berry, home secretary of the NAS, says the new class reflects the expansion of science into several new directions; computer and information sciences, biophysics, and human environmental sciences were added a year ago. "All the new and expanded areas correspond to new areas or lie within the bounds of traditional fields. So there's always some kind of balance," says Berry.

Formed in 1863, the NAS is dedicated to advising the US government on any matter of science and technology. The organization elected 72 new members and 15 foreign associates April 30, bringing the total active membership to 2,237. The newly elected members, though unsure of their new responsibilities, are eager to begin lending their services to the academy.

Donna Coveney/MIT

Vernon Martin Ingram

Already a member of the British equivalent to NAS, the Royal Society of London, Vernon Martin Ingram, professor of biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is also not completely aware of the academy's role in shaping science policy, but he hopes to assist in the ongoing formulation. "This is a very good collection of scientists. ... I hope the government listens to the opinions of my colleagues," he says.

"I (also) haven't paid that much attention to what they do, [as] I've usually been pretty focused on my research," says Vicki Chandler, professor of plant sciences at the University of Arizona in Tuscon, "but I imagine that I will now." Chandler has testified before Congress on funding and technical issues and emphasizes the importance of scientists communicating issues based on science and not on paranoia.

Courtesy of W. Ford Doolittle

W. Ford Doolittle

Some of the scientists hope to address other conundrums facing the science community. W. Ford Doolittle, professor of biochemistry at Dalhousie University in Halifax, NS, opines, "I think that science is becoming more and more important while [fewer] people want to learn about it. Of the many problems that face us, science often holds the only possible solutions."

Historically, a voice of discontent believes that NAS overlooks qualified candidates at middle-tier, low-visibility institutions such as Doolittle's. Berry says the academy has formed a committee to examine how to better find underrepresented ethical, regional, and institutional groups. "Essentially everyone in the academy feels that there are many more qualified people in the world of science than we have places for in any given year," says Berry.

He also suggests taking into account that nomination does not always accurately reflect the primary location of a scientist's achievements. "Nomination tends to occur late in one's career," Berry says. "Sometimes you'll find [scientists] who did most of their notable work some place previously, but arrived at a more notable institution by the time they get elected."

Some credit the academy with simply going after the best researchers. "Harvard [University], for example, has only senior researchers," says John Doebely, professor of genetics at University of Wisconsin in Madison. "When there is a vacant position, they look around the world for the best person to fill it."

While such prestige is de rigueur at top-flight institutions, Chandler says that top-notch research conducted at less notable locations may be subject to greater appreciation: "I suspect that people here get more excited than at some of the more renowned institutions where this is expected. And once you receive recognition, it becomes easier to get."

Courtesy of Sergio Henrique Ferreira

Sergio Henrique Ferreira

Many elite research institutions are well-represented by new members this year. Harvard and Stanford University garnered eight and six of the new members respectively, and both California Institute of Technology and University of California, Berkeley, had four apiece. In all, new members represent 39 universities, shining some of the spotlight on smaller schools.

Doolittle, despite being an American citizen conducting his research at a more peripheral university in Canada, was nominated for his work on the pressures and forces involved in genomic evolution. "Science is more global than it has ever been, so where you are is much less important than it used to be," says Doolittle.

Of this year's elected foreign associates, 12 countries are represented. "Being recognized by the United States indicates that our work and priority has been understood," says Sergio Henrique Ferreira, professor of pharmacology at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil. He says that many countries in Europe, Latin America, and South America, despite lacking the resources of the United States, are still able to maintain a level of competence in several areas of research. "We [Brazil] are recognized in biology, pharmacology, agriculture, and genetics," says Ferreira, "We just don't have the means to elaborate on as many areas of expertise."

Courtesy of J. Craig Venter

J. Craig Venter

Upon receiving arguably the highest accolade for a scientist, members of the new class won't see this as a deterrent to their research, but instead an opportunity to pursue other avenues. "I can see this may change some things," says Doebley. "Almost immediately after receiving my nomination phone call, I was invited for a university planning meeting with the Chancellor, ... so I may have some more influence locally."

Although all 72 members are notables in the science community, among the more notable freshmen is J. Craig Venter, chairman of the Institute for Genomic Research and key player in Celera Genomics Group's mapping of the human genome. His election came with the omission of some notorious rivals in the human genome project. Berry says the academy was compelled to elect Venter due to "some very persuasive arguments concerning his contributions to science," but he declined to specify any details.

Hal Cohen can be contacted at hcohen@the-scientist.com.

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