WASHINGTON—The recent controversy over the rejection of Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington for membership in the National Academy of Sciences, which spilled over into a rare public debate, has focused attention on the academy's election process.

It's an elaborate procedure, deliberately shrouded in secrecy, that repeatedly screens out candidates until a consensus emerges on those most worthy of NAS membership. it is built around a system that divides all of science into five classes, each of which receives a share (called a quota) of the 60 member slots that can be filled each year. (Non-U.S. citizens may be elected as foreign associates.)

The quotas are set by the Council, a 17-person policy-making body that meets six times a year. Although several present and former councilors admitted that the quota system is not entirely rational, many are reluctant to discuss a process that has set them above their colleagues. The academy's...

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