U.S. national academy picks record number of women, minorities as part of diversity push

The headquarters of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.

Maxwell MacKenzie/National Academy of Sciences

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) chooses its members in a process that has long discriminated against female and minority scientists, as well as those from less prestigious universities. But NAS officials have begun to tinker with that process with the goal of increasing gender, racial, and geographic diversity. And this year’s class, announced today, shows the impact of those changes.

One-half of the members of this year’s class—59 of 120—are women; 10 years ago it was roughly one-quarter. The new cohort also includes nine Black scientists; NAS officials say there were never more than three in previous classes, and often the number was zero.

“I’m amazed at how far we’ve come,” says plant geneticist Susan Wessler, NAS home secretary. “Of course, we can still do better. But the demographics are changing much more quickly than I ever imagined.”

A major lever for change has been the academy’s governing council. It divides the new members allocated each year among six classes, representing 31 disciplinary sections. “We assign slots based on the diversity of the lists of nominees that they have forwarded,” Wessler says. Classes presenting a more diverse list get extra slots.

The next year the council reviews how those slots have been filled—and adjusts the distribution based on performance. “If [the selectors] used them to pick a bunch of white guys from Harvard, they get penalized,” she says.

Wessler says that process has been “spectacularly” successful in recent years with regard to women. “I was one of nine women … in my class [of 60 in 1998]. Last year, we had 44 [out of 120], and this year it’s essentially even.”

The emerging gender balance among new members builds momentum for sustained change, she says. “Most scientists who are men tend to know more men, and women know more women,” she says, pointing to herself as an example: “The first two people I nominated were women.”

Spreading the recognition

NAS is also trying to improve its geographic diversity. NAS has been criticized for having a disproportionate number of members from a small number of elite institutions, often located on either the country’s east or west coast. U.S. policymakers have become increasing concerned about a similar geographic imbalance in the allocation of federal research dollars, and agencies are scrambling to address that problem with programs aimed at helping “have-not” states compete more successfully. “Remember, it’s the United States of America, not the United Coastal States of America,” quipped Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, speaking at a session of the academy’s annual meeting yesterday.

For NAS, Wessler says, the imbalance translates into 18 states that have two or fewer members in a total NAS membership of 2461. In contrast, she notes, elite schools such as Harvard University, Stanford University, Princeton University, and the University of California (UC), Berkeley, can boast of having more than 100 NAS members on their faculties.

Two years ago, the council took the radical step of prohibiting members from nominating someone from their own institution. It also banned members from advocating for a colleague during meetings at which nominations were being discussed. The goal is to level the playing field, Wessler says.

“We’re an advocacy organization, and it’s definitely an advantage to have an advocate who’s right down the hall,” she says. “They are also likely to know the person so much better.”

In the past, Wessler estimates that one-quarter of nominees were put forward by someone at the same school. Given that those nominators were likely to be older, white men, the cumulative effect of such an institutional imbalance is an academy that no longer reflects the changing demographics of the U.S. scientific workforce.

The recent rule doesn’t prevent anyone from being nominated, she points out. But it raises the threshold. “I’ve gotten a few phone calls from people at another institution asking if I’d be willing to nominate someone from [that institution],” she says. “I think you’re going to be much more critical [in assessing their qualifications] than if it’s someone you know well.”

The steps NAS is taking to improve diversity are consistent with national efforts to combat racial discrimination and societal inequities, but those larger efforts are not the driving force, Wessler says. “We feel that we’ve been missing excellent scientists,” she says. NAS leaders also hope the diversity push will strengthen the academy’s efforts to increase public understanding of science.

“I’ve been at second-tier public universities for my entire career,” says Wessler, now a chaired professor at UC Riverside. “When a friend at Berkeley was elected, nothing happened. But I was at the University of Georgia when I was chosen, and we had a party at the president’s house. Being a member of the academy gives you the chance to become a leading voice for research in your community.”

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