A closer look at the national academies

Honorary membership organizations strive to recognize excellence in performance and achievement. Election of new members is driven primarily by a process involving current membership. Selecting individuals to nominate is difficult, complex, and relies heavily on personal knowledge and/or the reputation of accomplished individuals. Identifying and inducting new members from outside established circles remains a challenge and a major hurdle. Diversity, in a wider sense (beyond topical area, geographic distribution, or age), can be a helpful guide in the initial nomination process. Successful and highly cited women scientists and engineers comprise one category of new members or foreign affiliates being considered; this approach can serve as a model or prototype for recognizing achievements of underrepresented groups in general.

Election of women to the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS), National Academy of Engineering (NAE), and National Academy of Medicine offers a useful model. Currently, 15.4% of NAS active members and 11.9% of foreign associates are women and 6.9% of both NAE active members and foreign associates are women. The process of selection and election to the National Academies has been reviewed and results for specific fields published [1]. Analysis of the recognition of high achieving women working in the science and engineering of ceramics and glass has not been conducted and here we suggest it as a discipline for consideration as a model for study. Ceramics and glass, a sub-unit of materials science and engineering, encompasses (oxides, nitrides, borides, carbides, inorganic carbon) both traditional and new materials. A study of 100 women of achievement in this discipline has just been published [2] and this group offers a useful model for recognition of achievement for organizations in general.

Election to the National Academies “is considered one of the highest professional honors … new members are elected by current members based on outstanding achievement and commitment to service” [3]. Inherent to the process is nomination by an academy member, to be recognized for achievement and subsequent election by the membership. Election to foreign associate is also important, since foreign associates comprise approximately 10% of membership in the Academies and foreign women can be (and have been) elected as associates. Unlike a nomination for the Nobel Prize [4], nomination for membership in the US National Academies is made by US academy members.

Thirteen outstanding women having significant accomplishments in ceramics and glass science and engineering have been elected to membership in The Academies (Table 1). In a 2005 article, Alberts and Fulton state, “we describe recent efforts to make [NAS] more welcoming, especially to women and to younger scientists”. Nomination of younger candidates is encouraged, but it is not clear how election of a more diverse set of members will be achieved. For the women listed in Table 1, their age of election ranged from 43 to 60, with an average age1 of ∼51. In the 2005 Alberts and Fulton article describing the NAS process, it is stated that, “For the past 2 years, newly elected members have been 56 years old, on average.” However, in a 2012 article [5], it is noted that the class “average age has dropped by 3.5 years from last year, to 58”, indicating uncertainty about the age statistic. In any case, the age at the time of election of the 13 women NAE and NAS members (Table 1), was lower than average. However, statistics across the entire NAS/NAE membership, by gender, would be more informative. If the age of women at the time of their election is, on average lower, it may be a result of women working in disciplines where they are underrepresented, and therefore believed it necessary to accomplish significantly more and earlier in their careers. Perhaps such overachieving accounts for lower age at election for women. However, individuals in the past have been elected to NAS at a young age: Edward C. Pickering [6] at 26, Theodore W. Richards [7] at 31, Simon Newcomb [7] at 34, and Carl Barus [7], Deborah S. Jin, and Susan Solomon [8] at age 36.

In year 2012, the number of nominees to be elected annually to NAS was increased from 72 to 84. Opening the door to more members offered the potential to increase diversity. Unfortunately, the data do not support such a trend [9]. According to NAS by-laws, geographic distribution is considered when committees are appointed. Gender should also be considered, since diversity breeds excellence [10]. Obviously the number of citations of an individual's publications alone does not, and should not, secure nomination (or election). However, it can indicate contenders for nomination. Listed in Table 2 are women [3] whose publications have been frequently cited. A random selection and comparison of recently elected (2013–2015) NAS and NAE members accomplished in materials-chemistry-physics research indicate similar citation numbers, of which the women [1], indeed, rank highly. In a survey about women and Nobel Prizes in Physics [11], five women were cited as those who were very strong candidates. Other women of great promise were also highlighted. Nazar is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and Grey a Fellow of the Royal Society of the UK (particularly notable since a 2014 report showed that the UK Royal Society has selected fewer female members than the NAS) [12].

Why should having more women in the National Academies matter? Aside from the obvious prestige and recognition, inclusion in science and engineering societies and academies influences career paths and opportunities and provides talent and wise counsel for the country. Delay or omission to election not only impedes individual careers, but also scientific and technological progress and expertise serving the nation. Future nominations, with underrepresentation, that is with too few women in The Academies, perpetuates gender imbalance. Because women tend to have wider networks [13] and as members eligible to nominate deserving women, will be able to tap those networks.

Published research shows that diversity has positive impact. Diversity in team composition yields greater success in solving complex problems [14]. Publications of results achieved from diverse research teams have received 34% more citations than those produced by homogenous teams, with gender-diverse groups recognized as producing results of higher quality [15]. Conversely, an analysis of 2.5 million research papers showed homophily (connecting and co-authoring with surnames of the same ethnic group) resulted in publication in lower impact journals with those publications receiving fewer citations [16].

Science by its very nature should be meritocratic, with similar or equal achievements receiving similar reputation and recognition [13]. There are many examples of women overlooked or otherwise missed in being recognized with Nobel prizes, including Rosalind Franklin, Frieda Robscheit-Robbins, and Lise Meitner. Such denial and repression of the contributions of women is known as the Matilda effect [17]. Worldwide, 69 science academies have just 12% women in their membership [18]. Authors of a recent paper [19] noted, “While women's receipt of professional awards and prizes has increased in the past two decades, men continue to win a higher proportion of awards for scholarly research than expected, based on their representation in the nomination pool.” A corollary to the Matilda effect is the Matthew effect, whereby eminent male scientists receive credit sooner in their careers and in greater largesse. Also notable is that even small imbalances will accumulate, with resulting overall significant advantage for men and significant disadvantage for women [20]. Although professional scientists and engineers prefer to consider themselves unbiased and adhering to a meritocratic system, recent studies in the United States [21] and the Netherlands [22] have shown a bias of men being viewed as more competent and more suitable for hiring for science and engineering positions.

In conclusion, diversity is important and can improve results of both academy committees and research teams. The model discussed here, namely women in ceramics and glass, a subunit of materials science and engineering, who are representative of those eligible for election. Clearly, there are women in this field with accomplishments noteworthy for election, and likely there are similarly worthy women in all fields. No nation can afford to overlook excellence and talent in meeting the challenges of the twenty-first century.


Any opinion, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of NSF.


The work contributed by Lynnette D. Madsen was, in part, performed in an Independent Research/Development (IR/D) Program while serving at the National Science Foundation (NSF).


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DOI: 10.1016/j.mattod.2016.08.001