Known as the highest honor to be awarded to a scientist or engineer, election to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) brings together national and international experts from 31 scientific disciplines each year in recognition of their professional achievements. Last April, a trio of psychological scientists – APS Fellows Susan Carey, Charles “Randy” Gallistel and Richard Nisbett – was elected to the Academy as part of a group of 72 new members.
When they are formally installed next April at the NAS annual meeting, the three will join 57 other psychological scientists who are members. There are approximately 1900 members of NAS, the majority of who are from such areas as biochemistry, chemistry, mathematics and physics.
Carey, a cognitive psychology professor at Harvard University, said the news of her election to the honorary society was unexpected considering the small number of psychologists at NAS.
“It’s a tremendous honor,” said Carey. “It’s different from others in that the National Academy members are actually involved in issues of national importance. This one comes with some responsibility.”
Carey and Nisbett are both recipients of the APS William James Fellow Award. Carey received the 2002 honor for a lifetime of significant contributions to psychological science. Nisbett was awarded in 2001.
Nisbett, a psychology professor at University of Michigan and co-director of its Culture and Cognition Program, believes the recent election represents a resurgence of interest by NAS to bring more social and developmental psychologists on board. In the past, he said, there were plenty of social psychologists at NAS but the number dropped in the last two decades for an unknown reason.
However, this year’s election offers proof that the trend is shifting. In the past, only 1.5 psychologists were elected each year, said Gallistel, a psychology professor at Rutgers University in Piscataway, N.J., co-director of the Rutgers Center for Cognitive Science, and APS member-at-large.
For the next few months, Gallistel intends to learn about the workings of NAS and look into opportunities to work on policy-making committees. With the critical need for scientific expertise at a time when the federal government is seeking answers to many scientific, medical and technological issues, the interdisciplinary makeup of the Academy’s committees could lead to better, more sound policy decisions.
Why They Were Elected
Carey, Gallistel and Nisbett are each bringing enormously distinguished research contributions to NAS.
Carey’s research focuses on the nature and development of human knowledge, and charts the systems of concepts that organize children’s and adults’ understanding of number, biology, and the material world. Her innovative experiments have shed light on the spontaneous development of thought and language and inform attempts to enhance the teaching of science and mathematics.
Currently, Carey is working on two NAS committees in which she participated before being elected. She is helping to write a plain-language book for science teachers about insights on science education and is working on a report that makes an argument for major federal initiatives to look into the state of national science education in schools.
Carey said she is interested in working on any issues that have to do with the interaction of conceptual development and issues of national importance, and for now she is keeping an open mind about which other efforts she would like to be involved. “My imagination is less than the sum of the imagination of the whole,” she said.
For Gallistel, election to the NAS may bring more attention to his research about the nature of memory.
After almost 40 years of conducting experiments on rats, during the last four years he began using mice in his study to determine the molecular basis of memory. Considered an international leader in the study of animal cognition, Gallistel is using a psychophysical approach in his recently established Behavioral Genetics of Memory Laboratory with a focus on genetics.
The Rutgers professor does not subscribe to the popular theory that memory is based upon association. He believes that the brain stores information and when needed, it retrieves it.
Gallistel’s research involves the development of a behavioral screen to pick out mice with genetic abnormalities affecting quantitative properties of the basic mechanisms of memory. If the animals are shown to have a mutation that causes them to have a bad memory, he said there is a chance that researchers might be able to identify the gene responsible for the mutation. Using a coding mechanism, Gallistel said scientists might someday be able to “manipulate the molecular machinery of memory and rewiring the itself to work more effectively.”
The Geography of Thought
Nisbett’s recent research has also brought a fresh perspective to another long-held theory about human thought.
During the last 6 years, the University of Michigan social psychologist has focused his research on the ways cultural differences between European Americans and East Asians affect their reasoning patterns. The theory challenges the widely held theory that ways in which people make sense of the world around them are universal, as has been documented by Western researchers.
One of Nisbett’s East Asian students originally got him interested in the issue and led him to look into the ways culture molds human thought. He talked with fellow scholars in both cultures about the issue and they agreed that was a wide difference in perception.
Since then, he and his fellow researchers have proved that theory to be true during a series of controlled experiments in the U.S., Japan, China and Korea. In a typical experiment, Nisbett and his fellow researchers showed vignettes of underwater video to their subjects and recorded their observations. “The Americans tell you about salient objects while the Easterners start by describing the background and see more relationships involving inert objects,” he noted.
Nisbett’s research has shown a familiar pattern in what anthropologists have already found. Eastern people generally take a more “holistic” approach, paying greater attention to the relationship between events, while Westerners are more “analytical” in their thought process, finding out the important attributes to characterize an object.
The subject is the focus of a Nisbett’s forthcoming book, “The Geography of Thought,” which is scheduled to be published in March 2003.
Since its inception, the National Academy of Sciences has evolved over time to become an influential player in federal policy-making decisions.
Dating back to the Civil War era, the National Academy of Sciences was formed by Congress in 1863 to advise the government on science and technology matters. Since then, the Academy expanded to include the National Research Council in 1916, the National Academy of Engineering in 1964, and the Institute of Medicine in 1970, which are collectively called the National Academies.
Over the years, the Academy’s work was considered to be so vital that it led Congress and the White House to pass laws and executive orders to reaffirm its role. Operated as a private, non-profit organization, the NAS is overseen by the National Research Council made up of 12 members and five officers, who are elected from among the Academy’s members. NAS’s committees, which include NAS members and non-members, volunteer their time to study specific issues concerning health, education and the welfare of the nation.
For more information about NAS, visit the Academy’s website at www.nas.edu.