U.S. National Academy Gives Itself a Facelift

Trendsetter. Xiaowei Zhuang is part of the NAS class of 2012.

Fred Field

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is regarded as the most prestigious honorary scientific society in the country. But it also has a reputation for being old, white, and male. Today its members took a big step toward changing their image by inviting a younger and more diverse group of scientists to join them.

This year's class of 84 new members includes 26 women. That number far exceeds the previous record of 19, set in 2005. In addition, the class's average age has dropped by 3.5 years from last year, to 58.

"We are trying to become more diverse by age, gender, geographic location, and ethnicity," says Susan Wessler, a plant geneticist at the University of California, Riverside, and NAS home secretary. "But we haven't changed the criterion—it's still outstanding science."

The new class is also the largest in the academy's history, with an increase of 12 over previous years. That jump made it much easier to broaden the pool, Wessler admits.

"The idea was that the additional slots would encourage the election of people who would diversify the membership," Wessler explains. "And I think it was extremely successful."

The biggest reason for boosting the size of the entering class—it had been at 72 since 2001—was the fact that the age of new members had been rising for several years. Wessler said members were worried about the academy's continued ability to perform its functions of advising Congress and the executive branch and disseminating new knowledge across scientific fields and throughout society.

"Election may be honorific, but NAS is a working society," she says. "So it's vitally important that our members are actively involved in science. We felt that we might be missing the truly outstanding young scientists because of the intense competition for a limited number of slots each year."

New inductee Xiaowei Zhuang could be a poster child for the initiative. At age 40, she's a full professor at Harvard University and a Howard Hughes Medical Institution investigator with a sheaf of scientific awards. "In my unqualified opinion," she e-mails ScienceInsider, "I think electing young scientists with remarkable accomplishments [I don't mean to include myself] will help make the academy stronger."

The share of women in the new class—31%—also breaks the previous record of 26% set in 2005, the high-water mark in a 3-year stretch when women comprised roughly one-quarter of each new class. Last year's class contained only nine women, some 13% of the total, and in 2001 they represented only 8% of the new inductees.

"I am very pleased," says Alice Agogino, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, and a member of the National Academies' Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine. "It was not clear that increasing the number of slots would increase women, but that was the hope."

Asked how the academy planned to continue its drive to get younger and more diverse, Wessler says that "we'll have to keep encouraging people" to take those factors into consideration. She hopes that younger scientists like Zhuang will become active in academy affairs, nominate their peers for membership, and spread the word that the academy is eager to represent the best of U.S. science.