Who Are the Psychologists In the Academy of Sciences?

“It’s as close to the Nobel Prize as we’re ever likely to get. I walked on a cloud for three months, I was so astonished when I got elected to the National Academy of Sciences,” said APS Past-President James McGaugh of the University of California-Irvine, recalling his election to NAS in 1989.

“It’s a particular honor as a non-American,” said Brenda Milner of the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University. Milner, an APS Fellow whose research is mainly in areas of the brain and memory, said she has been a foreign associate of the NAS since 1976.

APS Fellow Frances Graham of the University of Delaware described her election to NAS in 1988 as one of the most exciting things that ever happened to her. Moreover, she said, it offers “exposure to first-rate scientists in all fields.”

“It’s obviously a career high point,” said APS Fellow John Liebeskind of the University of California-Los Angeles, one of three psychologists elected to the Academy last April. “I felt a kind of a glow when I woke up in the morning. I was so delighted I could hardly express it, but I try to be appropriately modest. I have a good sense of how many other people there are with credentials equal to and surpassing mine who are not members of the Academy but who should be.”

Boost to Psychology

It ‘ s a big boost to psychology itself every time another psychologist is elected, said another new NAS member, Richard M. Shiffrin of Indiana University, “primarily because psychology has been fighting an uphill battle for many years to be taken seriously as a science.” Shiffrin, an APS Charter Member, said that psychology is too commonly misidentified by outsiders as “some kind of peculiar non-scientific philosophy or some kind of [non-scientific] clinical practice.” And he views the NAS as a stronghold in the battle to overcome this inaccurate image and to “get psychology taken seriously as a basic science-a science that is as strong and important as other sciences.”

Shiffrin said that the added punch psychology receives from NAS recognition extends from the campus to the federal capital. “In our schools, in fighting for resources for psychology versus other sciences and other departments, it helps to have the recognition accorded by NAS membership. That helps the university administration take psychologists seriously as scientists and helps assure that our needs and requests are taken seriously. In Washington, too, it helps us get our fair share of resources,” Shiffrin said.

A third new member of the NAS, elected in 1995 along with Liebeskind and Shiffrin, is APS Fellow Austin Riesen of the University of California-Riverside, whose work is in visual development. He discovered that light and visual stimulation are required for vision to develop, and that animals who spend their infancy in darkness behave as though they are blind when eventually exposed to light. Riesen, Shiffrin, and Liebeskind were formally inducted into the Academy at its 133rd annual meeting in April 1995 (see July/August 1995 Observer).


Though a private organization of distinguished researchers and scholars in science and engineering, the Academy was established this month in 1863 by a congressional act of incorporation signed by Abraham Lincoln. It was dedicated to the furtherance of science as well as to the application of science to promote the general welfare. The Academy’s mission was to act as adviser to the government, upon request, in any matters of science and technology. Today that mission remains the core charge of the NAS and the sister institutions that have grown up around it: the Institute of Medicine (I0M) and National Academy of Engineering (NAE), and the National Research Council (NRC). The NRC is the research arm of these institutions, and it draws on the scientific talent in the individual academies to conduct the scientific studies and surveys for which the NAS is so well-known.

From its initial 50 members in Lincoln’s day, the NAS has grown today to 1,809 members and 299  foreign associates. (The foreign associates are not American citizens, although many of them work and reside in the United States.) Next month the Academy holds its 134th annual election of new members, during which some 60 new members will be elected to the Academy.

A survey conducted in 1993 revealed that a majority of the NAS members were unfamiliar with the various commissions, boards, divisions, and committees of the Academy complex. And, no wonder! There are now about 625 NRC committees, tapping the expertise of more than 6,000 NAS members. Some 80 percent of these committee participants are not members of either the NAS, NAE, or I0M.


As for psychologists, today they make up about 3.8 percent of the NAS membership. The Psychology Section of the NAS currently counts 78 members, 8 of whom are foreign associates. Psychology is one of NAS’s 25 sections and, in terms of membership, is of average size, comparable to the Microbiology and Immunology Section, which has 79 members, and the Medical Genetics, Hematology and Oncology Section, which has 78 members. The Chemistry Section, Biochemistry Section, and Physics Section each have, respectively, 207, 189, and 182 members.

Better Than Three out of Four

Three of every four psychologists in the NAS are members of the American Psychological Society. And, since the Observer began keeping track in 1990, about 3 psychologists have  joined the Academy’s roster each year.

“NAS tends to be hard science,” notes APS Fellow Eleanor Maccoby, a developmental psychologist of Stanford University best known for her research in gender differences in early childhood and work on divorcing families. “It’s something of an old boys’ network, most interested in biology, physics, and math. And even the psychologists elected to NAS tend to be people researching perception and the connections between psychology and neuroscience. I don’t deplore that in any sense. I think that’s probably what the NAS is most about.”

So, at first, Maccoby saw her own election to NAS in 1993 as a bit of “a mystery, a sort of exception.” Later, as she was called on to work on studies of family violence and reform issues that are at the top of the nation’s political agenda today, she began to perceive that there are not very many members of the Academy who have been involved in research on policies in areas such as welfare or food stamps.

“I seem to be the psychologist identified as relevant to these issues, and so I feel useful. I think we all need to have our fingers in the dike at this point,” Maccoby said. Maccoby was pleased her type of specialty included in NAS, “because I have all my life been devoted to the rational scientific processes, and I detect a general slipping away from that point of view. That worries me. I think we all need to do our utmost to keep society secular and consonant with science knowledge.” She believes the NAS is at the forefront of preserving this value, and so “was glad to join it and become part of it.”

Academy Continuation

One of the Academy members’ main functions is the decision-making that leads to continuation of the Academy. For this and many other functions, Gardner Lindzey of the Center for Advanced Study on the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University serves as the point of communication between individual members of the NAS Psychology Section and the NAS-NRC home office.

Lindzey, an APS Fellow best known for his work in personality and social psychology and behavioral genetics, was elected in 1989 and took office as chair of the Psychology Section of NAS last April, when James McGaugh completed his three-year term. McGaugh recalls that the position “involves an awful lot of work, believe me; it’s relentless throughout the year.” Lindzey says he shoulders those tasks willingly because he has “long been interested in the Academy, and, of course, I hope it plays an important role in all of the sciences and higher education, with psychology being the part that I’m most interested in.” The Academy complex plays important roles in supporting the science function and representing science to the general public and particularly to the decision-makers in government as well as to private funders, Lindzey points out.


As already noted, the Academy complex does, in fact, reach outside its own membership to recruit thousands of experts in various fields to serve on its commissions, standing committees, and groups appointed to conduct specific studies.

APS Fellow John Swets, who was elected to NAS in 1990, chairs the NRC Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (CBASSE), which is responsible for most of the behavioral, social and educational studies undertaken by the Academy. He has been a CBASSE member continuously for eight years and will complete his three-year term as chair in April. CBASSE functions as a board of 18 commissioners advising the NRC on its widespread behavioral, social, and educational research. The Commission’s projects are implemented and supervised by the permanent staff of CBASSE.

Swets devotes about 30 days a year to CBASSE and works full time as chief scientist with Bolt, Beranek and Newman, Inc., of Cambridge, Massachusetts, a major 2,500-employee firm in acoustics design and computer applications.

The main challenge for CBASSE, Swets says, is to make the science behind the nation’s behavioral, social, and educational policy issues clear and accessible to policymakers and the public.

“We do studies primarily as requested by government agencies, often mandated by Congress, and we usually get to refine the scope,” Swets said. “But to some extent we also initiate studies and perhaps try to get a government agency interested in them.”

APS President Richard Thompson, elected to NAS in 1977, is one of those 18 CBASSE commissioners, and, as such, helps oversee CBASSE’s nearly 60 panels, committees, subcommittees, and working groups. With a budget of about $10 million and staff of 60, CBASSE focuses on five broad areas: Its individual and group behavior programs are concerned with human performance, productivity, and innovation in wide-ranging fields, from air traffic control to natural disaster relief, nuclear power plants and industrial productivity. The CBASSE focus on children and families includes studies of bilingual education, spousal and child abuse, and the impact on children of major changes in social welfare programs. The population issues studied by CBASSE include both domestic and international priorities in family planning and reproductive health, aging, and the demographic and economic impacts of immigration. CBASSE’s fourth broad focus area is education reform, concerned with translating research on how children think and learn into classroom applications and with issues of testing and assessment. A fifth focus area is concerned with the improvement of statistical methods and information on which public policy decisions are based.

NAS and Human Rights

In her 20 years as a member of NAS, APS Fellow Dorothea Jameson of the University of Pennsylvania has chaired Section 52, the Academy’s psychology section, and been active on several other NAS and NRC committees. She now is a member of the Committee on Human Rights, a combined effort of the NAS, NAE, and I0M to work on behalf of victims of severe repression among scientists, engineers, and health professionals worldwide. It’s a broad effort to exert moral persuasion upon repressive governments, Jameson said.

“The people we are concerned with are essentially prisoners of conscience, expressing their ideas freely, but nonviolently, and being jailed for it. It’s a matter of freedom of speech and freedom of conscience,” Jameson said. “But now that the IOM has been introduced into this committee, it is also concerned with medical professionals who, in adhering to the Hippocratic oath, may treat people whom the government does not want treated. They may be tossed into jail for that.”

Asked which countries have been repressive, Jameson answered, “It’s easier to say which ones have not been so. There are a lot of totalitarian governments around the world. “More than 1,550 members of the Academy complex actively participate in this human rights work. The committee’s activities include private appeals to governments, communication with prisoners and their families, missions of inquiry, and human rights workshops, symposia, public statements, and reports. The committee also uses its contacts with the science academies of other countries to strengthen efforts on behalf of prisoners of conscience and also to compare attitudes towards civil rights, free speech and rights of conscience, Jameson noted.

Reaching Out

The NAS and NRC have started to sponsor colloquia on various topics, and Michael Posner of the University of Oregon has agreed to help organize a meeting on imaging and the human brain that will take place at the Beckman

Center at Irvine, California, early in 1996. The colloquium will focus on relating neuoranatomy and circuitry of higher brain functions, which Posner’s work has centered on for the last 10 years, though, when elected to the Academy in 1981, he was primarily doing cognitive psychology. Currently he is researching brain circuitry by looking at high density electrical recording of scalp electrodes in relation to activated areas identified through PET scans, trying to describe the time course of the activation during various components of a reading task and other attentional tasks.

Posner also served on the initial NRC investigation of methods for improving human performance (see November 1991 and September 1994 Observer) and has served on other NRC panels.

Robert Rescorla, elected to the NAS in 1985, splits his time between his active research laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania and the full-time job of being Dean of the university’s College of Arts and Sciences. His laboratory uses Pavlovian conditioning and instrumental training approaches to the study of elementary learning processing. Rescorla attends the annual NAS meetings whenever he can, “because they put you in touch with first-line scientists across the board; you meet old friends, and, if you like pomp and circumstance, there’s a certain amount of that, too.”

Scientific Contacts Enhanced

Contact with top-flight scientists from many disciplines is also what most interests David E. Rumelhart of Stanford University, who was elected to the NAS in 1991. He finds the contacts stimulating and sometimes useful in connection with his own research.

Rumelhart has a long-term interest in mind-brain relationships that he is now pursuing through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging. “In psychology we used to have the idea that our mental life was somehow distinguished from the brain, that those were two distinct things. But most people don ‘t believe that anymore, that what we need to understand is how the mind and the brain work and what the similarities are between them.”

Rumelhart notes that “we are now able to [measure] neural activity at the level of about a square millimeter with techniques that avoid the inherent difficulty to the subject of using [invasive] electrodes. We can measure what is going on in the brain while people are doing mental tasks.”

Yet it is “still not easy to measure or evaluate the connection between what happens in our brain and what happens in our mind,” Rumelhart said. For him, that remains one of the great challenges.

Although most of the work in Magnetic Resonance Imaging is currently being done by people in the medical professions who have access to the scanners, psychologists have a particular advantage in this area, Rumelhart said. It’s an advantage that comes from the fact that scientific psychologists are very good at experimental methodology and have been able to develop techniques that others have never thought about.

Membership Nominations

Mortimer Mishkin of the National Institute of Mental Health, elected to the NAS in 1990, says “it’s such a great honor and really a thrill to be elected that I guess it’s one of the high points of a scientist’s career, one that stays with you and never goes away.”

Mishkin was chair of the Psychology Section of NAS for three years in the late 1980s (following Dick Thompson) and he sees the main duties of an NAS member as being “to consider and nominate for membership other, younger scientists and to publish or sponsor papers for PNAS, [the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences].” Each member has four “slots” a year to publish their own papers or publish the papers of others who request their sponsorship.

“Psychologists tend to be a little underrepresented in PNAS, and that seems to me something that should be looked into,” he said. “You also have the opportunity to serve on committees to nominate and select awardees for large and prestigious prizes given under the aegis of NAS.” These include the Troland prize, the NAS awards in neuroscience, and, said Mishkin, “there are opportunities for participation in research initiatives and scientific reviewing.”

Mishkin’s own research is mainly on brain functions in monkeys and examines the brain’s circuitry that allows for perception in various modalities and for memory formation and skill learning. He says this field is making “fantastic advances and is one of the most exciting areas of research” at present.

Psychology and the NAS

Paul Meehl of the University of Minnesota, elected in 1987, said, “The main thing is that it is hard for psychologists and other social scientists to get into [the NAS], so it’s a nice thing for the individual and the department to have someone among that elite group. But I don ‘t know that [my membership] has had any great influence on me.”

Meehl has been concentrating on research and writing since his retirement from the University of Minnesota in 1990, working particularly on innovative mathematical methods for classifying mental disorders, methods that have been his main concern for many years.

He states that his methods have nothing to do with the committee meetings that dominate decisions about the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) and do not clump individuals into clusters, as do most of the methods currently used in psychopathology research, and that his methods do emphasize consistency tests.

“You will not get illusory taxons using my method,” Meehl said. “If there are such entities as depression and schizophrenia, then my method will find them. And since in my view most DSM categories are not real categories, my method should be able to show that they are not.”

Opportunity and Responsibility

McGaugh summed up the significance of NAS membership for psychology: “The primary benefit is that it is honorific to the individual and honorific to the field of psychology, because it recognizes psychology as belonging with astrophysics and all the rest of the sciences. So it’s an authentication or validation of our field. And, on top of that, it is an opportunity and responsibility accepted by some, but not all members, to help shape decisions on important government policy matters by working through the NRC.”

“I don’t know anyone who would reject membership,” McGaugh said. “It’s not the Nobel prize, but … it’s pretty heady.”

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