Getting in: A Look at the Election Process Of the National Academy of Sciences

In the March Observer (page 1), we featured a number of psychologists who are members of the National Academy of Sciences. In this feature article, we examine the process by which scientists are elected to the Academy. See also in this issue the story on page 6, which features some of the psychologist members of the NAS sister organization, the Institute of Medicine. –Editor

Ask APS President Richard Thompson, of the University of Southern California, how one is elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), and he will bluntly answer: “With great difficulty.”

On April 30, NAS elected 60 new members. Until notified of their election to the elite corps of scientists, those new members were oblivious not only to the fact that they were nominees but also of the exhaustive balloting process they made it through to join the ranks of NAS members.

“The election process is not random, believe me,” said NAS member and APS Past President James McGaugh, of the University of California-Irvine. “It is not just taking a name out of the air. It is an intense filtering process that goes through many ballots.”

Just how many ballots? Well, while individual NAS disciplinary sections may have their own non-binding ballots and polls, in the official process, there are no fewer than four elections: two within individual sections and two within the entire membership. In psychology’s Section 52, a non-binding straw ballot is the first step in whittling down a list of proposed members into the two or three psychologists that ultimately get elected each year.

“The election process is an ongoing, year-round process,” said McGaugh, who has served as chair of the psychology section. “We start the straw ballot [for next year] about the time that the final ballot is taken for the current year.”A  private organization, the Academy was established by a congressional act signed by Abraham Lincoln, in 1863. It was dedicated to the furtherance of science as well as to the application of science to promote the general welfare. It’s original mission is still the Academy’s priority today: Act as advisor to the government, upon request, in any matters of science and technology.

The Academy includes 25 sections representing the different disciplines across science. With nearly 1,800 members and about 300 foreign associates, NAS’s membership is very limited. With the April 30th election, the psychology section has only 78 members and foreign associates. (However, psychologists can be elected to other sections. For example, APS Fellow Donald T. Campbell, not listed in the March Observer among the psychologists of Section 52, is in Section 53, Social and Political Sciences.)

“It is a high honor,” said current Section 52 Chair Gardner Lindzey, of Stanford University. “It is an indication that your colleagues, both within your field and across a broad range of academic disciplines, think well of your work,” Lindzey added that there are many people who are not elected to the Academy but who are arguably just as talented and distinguished as actual members. McGaugh agreed, saying, “There are an awful lot of very, very good scientists who are not honored by election to the academy just because the quota is so stringent and the balloting process is so exhaustive.”

Candidacy and Nominations

Any member of the Academy can nominate someone as a candidate for membership. Additionally a section, if it so chooses, can appoint a nominating committee to coordinate nominations. “During the time that I was chair, we had a nominating committee consisting of three people who were in the psychology section, and what they did was simply to encourage members of the section to nominate people,” said Thompson, who has also served as section chair Proposals for membership include a short statement highlighting the primary scientific achievements of that individual and potential members can be nominated in several different ways: within a section; jointly by two sections; by a voluntary nominating group (a group of 20 to 30 Academy members); or by a temporary nominating group. Additionally, a non-US resident can be nominated as a Foreign Associate.

As noted earlier, the psychology sections holds a preliminary and non-binding straw ballot first. “We try to hold that in the spring,” said Thompson. “The Section chair organizes a list of everyone who has been suggested as a possible candidate and then just asks people to indicate their preference. It is literally a straw ballot in that it has no force.”

Balloting

The first official ballot, as outlines in the Academy’s constitution and bylaws, is the Informal Ballot. To pass from the Informal Ballot on to the next step, the Formal Ballot, someone must get at least 40 percent of the section members’ votes. This ballot occurs in the fall. “We start with about 50 names on the straw ballot, and then on the Informal Ballot—the first time people are actually nominated—we end up with somewhere between 12 and 15,” said Thompson.

In November, the next ballot, the Formal Ballot, is formulated using the results of the Informal Ballot. Potential Members are ranked according to the voting in the Informal Ballot and are voted on by the section members. The ballot is returned to the chair in December. To pass successfully through this stage, potential members must receive the votes of at least two-thirds of the section members. Upon successfully passing through this stage, candidates are formally known as Nominees. In the psychology section there are usually three nominees who go from the Formal Ballot on to the next step. It is at this next step that the election process breaks out of the section’s realm.

Within the organization of the Academy, each section is part of a class. Psychology-in addition to economics, anthropology, and social and political sciences-is part of Class Five. Once the results are garnered from the Formal Ballot, a group called the Class Membership Committee reviews and ranks the resulting nominees within the class.

“Here is where the real complication comes in,” said Thompson. The complication he refers to is the combining of the Nominees from each section into one ranked list.

“Typically three representatives from each section make up the Class Membership Committee. Usually the typical number of nominees from each of the four sections in Class Five is around three, so, for example, in our class we have 12 names at this point: Three apples, three oranges, three lemons, and three grapes. How do we rank them in one list?”

Despite the fact that this group of Nominees comes from completely different disciplines, it must be ranked on a single list, called the Preference Ballot. Within each Class Membership Committee, this negotiation varies, but in Class Five’s Class Membership Committee, Thompson said members try to be as honorable, fair, and diplomatic as possible in voting for Nominees to be ranked on the Preference Ballot. According to McGaugh, empirical data tend to be a strong indicator of the Preference Ballot ranking.

“You can take a look at the percent of the members of the section that actually voted for each of the candidates and those comparisons can be made quantitatively,” he said. “For example, if 100 percent of the psychology section voted for a candidate, that person would have a high probability of making it on to the ballot in comparison to somebody who got 68 percent of the vote in another section. There are quantitative data as well as discussions of qualities of people.”

Once the Class Membership Committee agrees on the ranking, the Preference Ballot, reflecting that ranking, is distributed to the entire membership of the Academy, accompanied by a statement outlining the accomplishments of the nominee, and a record of the section voting. Members are at this point instructed to place a mark on the ballot next to the names of the nominees they judge worthy of election. In order to ensure that everyone places votes within each class, there is a requirement, for instance in Class Five, that members vote for at least four people and no more than six people. If that requirement is not met, the ballot is discounted.

The Academy may elect only 60 people per year, and 91 make it to the Preference Ballot. After voting is done, the 91 people are ranked by the number of votes they received and the first 60 are placed on one list while the remaining nominees are placed on the second list. This first list essentially becomes the Final Ballot, the aptly-named end to the election process.

At the annual meeting in the spring, the Academy membership votes to accept the first 60 people unless someone objects to a particular name. “That happens-not very often-but it happens,” said Thompson. “If that happens, that name is removed from the list and the list is voted on and then the name is taken up and considered individually. Of the total number of candidates, the first 60 typically get elected.”

Membership

”There are two questions here,” said McGaugh. “What process does the Academy use, and how does someone get elected? One of them is straight forward. There are a series of ballots and people have to get more than a certain percentage of the ballots in order to move on to the next ballot. How do people get nominated, and what are the criteria for voting? Only individuals know that. I presume people are looking for the quality and impact of the achievements of the scientists, by whatever judgments they use to arrive at these decisions.”

While each member may be looking for something in particular in a potential member, McGaugh notes that most members have had evaluating experience before. “Most members are pretty mature by the time they are elected,” he said. “So they generally know a great number of people and they have also, in most cases, sat in on many, many evaluations of faculty for merits and promotion decisions, and they have often been editors of journals. It is not as though this is the first time in their lives they have had to judge other people’s achievements.”

And what happens when one is elected? In McGaugh’s case, he got a phone call at 6:20 in the morning. (He lives on the West Coast and the Academy meets on the East Coast.) “I just couldn’t believe it,” he said of his reaction when he heard he had been elected. “I would guess it is the reaction of people who win the lottery: Why me? And, good gracious! I walked around in a fog for about six months. I mean, it is such an honor.’”

Thompson said how much he enjoyed sharing the news with someone when they were elected. “) had the opportunity to tell Eleanor Maccoby when she was elected and she is an old friend from Stanford,” he said. “She was absolutely flabbergasted. There is nothing like it.”

Observer Vol.9, No.3 May/June, 1996

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