The National Academy of Sciences, established during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, has long been an exclusive circle of distinguished scientists. But membership in the institution, previously conferred for life, can now be rescinded.
Scientists who violate the organization’s Code of Conduct can be stripped of their membership, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) announced on 3 June. The change to the organization’s bylaws was approved after its thousands of members were polled, and the result was overwhelmingly in support of the amendment.
Membership as a “Major Award”
Scientists are elected to the National Academy of Sciences by invitation; fewer than 100 researchers are inducted annually. Members are quick to note the advantages of being part of the select group.
“It’s absolutely a benefit for people who get in,” said Donald Turcotte, a geophysicist at the University of California, Davis, who was elected as a member in 1986. “Short of [a Nobel Prize], it’s the major award that somebody can get.” In Turcotte’s case, he says the honor helped him secure a faculty position.
Recently, there’s been increased scrutiny over how scientific prizes and honors—like membership in the National Academy of Sciences—are awarded. That’s because of growing concerns over misconduct in the sciences.
Scientific prize–granting organizations are being faced with important questions: Should a scientist’s ethical conduct be considered in addition to his or her scientific prowess? Who decides the severity of the misconduct? Is there a statute of limitations?
The answers to these questions and others aren’t clear. What is clear is that the effects of misconduct, including various forms of harassment, can have far-reaching, long-lasting consequences: Scientists who have been harassed have switched research fields to avoid their harassers and even left academia altogether.
“In the Past, There Was No Way of Doing This”
Some scientific organizations have already taken a stance on this complicated issue.
In September 2017, AGU updated its ethics policy to take a much stronger position against harassment. The organization also requires that candidates for an AGU award, honor, or governance position complete a Professional Conduct Disclosure Form in which individuals must disclose if they have been the “subject of a filed allegation, complaint, investigation, sanction or other legal, civil or institutional proceeding.” Last year, AGU rescinded an award after receiving a formal ethics complaint about the prize winner, Nature reported.
The National Academy of Sciences, however, hasn’t had any policies in place to strip scientists of their membership. “In the past, there was no way of doing this,” said Turcotte.
But in late April, scientists attending the 156th Annual Meeting of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., began setting changes in motion.
At a business session on 30 April, NAS members voted to amend the organization’s bylaws. The vote allowed the 17-member NAS Council to revoke the membership privileges of scientists who violated the Code of Conduct.
Citing the “substantive” nature of this amendment, however, the National Academy of Sciences decided the vote would need to be ratified by its full membership. An email was sent to all of the organization’s roughly 2,300 members asking them to cast their ballot through the NAS website.
Cathy Whitlock, an Earth scientist at Montana State University in Bozeman, voted in favor of amending the bylaws. “I’m completely supportive of the effort,” said Whitlock, who was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2018 and is also a member of AGU. “It’s bringing the NAS up to the issues that are being faced today.”
The voting outcome, which closed on 31 May, was a resounding 84% in favor of the amendment.
“The amendment passed by a large margin,” Susan Wessler, home secretary of the National Academy of Sciences, announced to members on 3 June.
Adhering to the Highest Standards of Professional Conduct
This change will potentially affect only a “very, very small number” of NAS members, but it sends a strong message, said Turcotte.
Marcia McNutt, the president of the National Academy of Sciences, echoed this sentiment. “This vote is less about cleaning house and more about sending the message that the members of the National Academy of Sciences adhere to the highest standards of professional conduct and are serious about expecting that their colleagues abide by our code,” McNutt told Science. McNutt, a marine geophysicist, was president of AGU from 2000 to 2002.
The National Academy of Sciences’ decision is an important one, said Chris McEntee, AGU’s chief executive officer and executive director. “We are pleased to see organizations like the National Academy of Sciences…look at updating their own codes of ethics to address serious issues of harassment, bullying, and discrimination in science.”
—Katherine Kornei (@katherinekornei), Freelance Science Journalist