Who are they and what they do?

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) was the first of the National Academies to be established.  The 1863 session of Congress directed that “the Academy shall, whenever called upon by any department of the Government, investigate, examine, experiment, and report on any subject of science or art…”  The first request to come before the newly formed NAS was from Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, who asked for a study on the “uniformity of weights, measures, and coins, considered in relation to domestic and international commerce.”  An important recommendation among the findings of the committee was the consensus that the United States should adopt the metric system of weights and measures.

Two of the next three requests dealt with the capabilities of the Union Naval Fleet.  The Academy was called to study; (1) ways to protect the bottoms of its “new” iron-hulled ships from corrosion and other salt water damage and (2) ways to compensate for the magnetic compass deviation caused by the “new” iron ships.  While the state of technology did not allow a conclusive solution to salt water corrosion, sixteen months after the request, the Committee oversaw the compensation of compasses on twenty-seven Union ships.

In the last half of the 20th century, the National Academy of Sciences was a key player in the U.S. space race, eventually resulting in the first American satellite, Explorer I, on January 13, 1958.  This was only thirty months after the Eisenhower Administration announced the U.S. goal of placing a satellite into Earth orbit during the proclaimed International Geophysical Year (IGY), a period from July 1957 through December 1958.  One member of the NAS Technical Panel on the Earth Satellite Program was James Van Allen of the University of Iowa.  Data from this satellite led to the most important IGY discovery — the belts of radiation that encircle the Earth, subsequently named the Van Allen Belts.  Over the years, the NAS has undertaken numerous tasks and projects, but since 1916, the activities of the NAS have been directed by its operating arm, the National Research Council.

The National Research Council (NRC) carries out most of the studies done by the NAS as well as the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and the Institute of Medicine (IOM).  The NRC “guides the acceptance of subjects for study by the institution, their examination by a committee of volunteers, and institutional review and approval of the committee’s report.”  The basic mission of the NRC is to provide most of the service undertaken by the NAS and NAE.  Issues relating to public health are addressed by the Institute of Medicine.  The NRC subjects all work, from project proposals to finished products, “to critical review by a body of peers highly knowledgeable in the subject matter.”  This prevents the committee from taking a narrow view of a problem or failing to fully consider or properly document data pertinent to the issue.  The NRC directs most of its programs through the following Divisions:

  • Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (DBASSE)
  • Earth and Life Studies (DELS)
  • Engineering and Physical Sciences (DEPS)
  • Policy and Global Affairs (PGA)
  • Institute of Medicine (IOM)
  • Transportation Research Board (TRB)

Water and wastewater professionals will find recently completed and in-process projects by the Division of Earth and Life Studies (DELS) particularly interesting.  Among the many recent studies coming from this board is the published report WATERSHED MANAGEMENT FOR POTABLE WATER SUPPLY, ASSESSING THE NEW YORK CITY STRATEGY.  Comprehensive information from the National Academies, including the National Academy of Science, the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council, can be accessed here www.nationalacademies.org.

The National Academies

The first of the National Academies formed (the National Academy of Sciences) was established by Congress in 1863 at the height of the Civil War.  Private citizens wanted to contribute to the war effort by submitting inventions and proposals to the government.  An initial advisory group was formed by the Navy Department to test new weapons.  This was the forerunner of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

As the First World War raged in Europe, members of the NAS were concerned about whether or not the United States was prepared to be involved.  At the NAS annual meeting in 1916, a resolution was introduced calling for organization of the nation’s scientific resources.  This committee soon became the National Research Council (NRC).  During peacetime, two other organizations were added to complete the scope of the National Academies.  The National Academy of Engineering was added in 1964 and the Institute of Medicine became functional in 1970.  All four agencies are collectively called The National Academies, who serve as “Advisors to the Nation” on scientific issues.