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The Annual Meeting of the National Academy of Sciences

Having been in the organization about a year, I had begun to get some flavor of “the prestigious National Academy of Sciences,” as it is often referred to in newspaper stories. The National Academy of Sciences is an organization, set up by the US government under Lincoln, whose charter gives it the function of advising the federal government when called upon. Every few days some communication arrived from the NAS—a newsletter, a ballot, a journal, etc. In the midst of this pile of more or less junk mail, my eye caught the first part of a letter by Dick Lewontin which started: “Dear Mr. President: One of the few advantages of being a member of the National Academy of Sciences is that it provides one with a life pass to the Theater of the Absurd….”

I was really turned on, knowing now that I had a kindred spirit in the NAS. This helped me to decide to go to the annual meeting. In fact, I usually enjoy professional meetings, if only to meet old and new colleagues. It seemed like a good chance to see just what goes on at a meeting of the “leaders of American Science.” Besides, a trip to Washington would give me a chance to visit the Smithsonian mineral collection.

So I arranged for a friend to take over my Berkeley calculus class and before long found myself admiring the Smithsonian’s minerals.

That Sunday evening, April 25, 1971, was the first NAS event, a concert by the Amadeus String Quartet, just for us, at the elegant new auditorium in the Washington NAS building—all extremely impressive. This also was the first time I saw Philip Handler, the new NAS president.

I must make a little detour about Handler. Before he became president of the NAS, he had been head of the National Science Board, and in that position he had criticized me in the magazine Science. I felt he had slandered me, but that is a long story which I won’t dwell on here. I give this background to warn the reader of my bias on the subject of Mr. Handler. My feelings toward Handler weren’t helped any by reading an article by Paul Ehrlich who quoted Handler as saying:

How remarkable it is that we have a national determination to avoid damage from what emanates from the tailpipes of automobiles—unpleasant but rarely if ever serious in a medical sense [my emphasis]—while we remain apathetic to the fact that last year the front ends of those vehicles killed 56,000 Americans and maimed hundreds of thousands more.

and:

The predicted death or blinding by parathion of dozens of Americans last summer must rest on the consciences of every car owner whose bumper sticker urged a total ban on DDT.

(I later saw these quotes in an article by Handler in the January 15, 1971, issue of Science.)

One has to understand that Ehrlich is one of my heroes, while smog is the aspect of American policy which I hate most after the Vietnam war. I cut out this article to take it to the Washington meeting, hoping somehow to use it to embarrass Mr. Handler. I began to think of Handler as “Mr. Smog.”

To return to the events in Washington. On Monday I found Mr. Smog ever present, opening and chairing the meetings, introducing speakers, dedicating buildings, always very urbane, the epitome of charm. Also, I had my first contact with the business processes of the NAS that day. It was in the “math section.” The dozen members at that meeting averaged in age at least sixty-five, it seemed to me. The “math section” devoted its time to two themes that permeated the whole NAS meeting: selection of new members and commemorations of deceased members. It was really fantastic as these three days passed to see how this group of America’s most celebrated scientists meeting together could be so dominated by the question of just how to increase their membership and ways to remember their dead.

After this group of mathematicians had finished their main business, I brought up my own little crusade. I read the clipping about Mr. Smog and asked if we could perhaps try to curb some of our president’s extracurricular activities. What a put down I received!

But I must add that I found these mathematicians and the academy members that I met all very friendly. I was very sincerely welcomed into the NAS, freak and radical that I was in that milieu. I believe even that many members welcomed me especially because my presence did a little to mitigate the conservative, bureaucratic image of the NAS. My being there represented some diversity and tolerance in the organization and related to a widespread desire for reform in the NAS. The attitude shown toward me was even more evident with respect to Lewontin, and all the members I encountered really regretted his leaving—but I am getting ahead of myself.

On Monday I finally met Lewontin. But he was already so discouraged in his attempts to shake up the NAS that he was speaking of resigning.

The business meeting of the NAS proper started the next morning. After a little ceremony where everyone stood up in memory of those members who died last year, we new members were introduced. The introduction consisted of walking up to the podium one at a time, shaking hands with the “home secretary,” signing a book, then shaking hands with Mr. Smog himself, and returning to sit down.

As I watched this ritual repeated, awaiting my turn, I wondered if I should be bold enough to do something to break the routine; perhaps I should deliberately avoid shaking hands with Mr. Smog! However, the awe got to me, too, and my eventual protest was reduced to a three second pause before signing the book, and I don’t think anybody noticed that.

Subsequently, an event happened which really made me mad at the Academy and even more so at its president, although in retrospect I am more amused than angry. The selection of new members by a most amazing sequence of committee decisions and complicated balloting had led to an ordered list of seventy-five or so candidates of whom fifty were to be elected as the annual quota of new members.

Now the NAS council has a traditional option of choosing four after the first forty-six. What they did was to choose numbers forty-eight, forty-nine, fifty, and fifty-one. Presently someone noticed that number forty-seven, Mr. L. Cole of Cornell, had been skipped over. What was going on? Subsequent discussion revealed that number forty-seven, in addition to his scientific work, had been an activist opposed to smog (small s).

In fact, number forty-seven had upset some council members by expressing in a popular article something to the effect that he was worried about the oxygen being used up in the air we breathe. Mr. Smog pointed out, in defending the council’s decision, that we scientists have to be very careful about what we say in public. I was tempted, but of too faint heart, to read to the meeting my favorite clipping which I was still carrying. Recall how the NAS president had publicly stated that car owners with Ban DDT bumper stickers were responsible for predicted deaths by parathion. Number forty-seven was defended by scientists in his field, while it seemed that no council member really knew his scientific work. However, in the end, the block of fifty as a whole, without number forty-seven, was approved by the membership, with perhaps as many as five dissents in the two to three hundred present.

The rest of the meeting seemed an anticlimax. A certain amount of action was taken to enlarge the academy to include MDs and social scientists.

The scene livened up a bit when the agenda reached a subject originally brought to the academy’s attention by Mr. Shockley. A Shockley hypothesis was that IQ is lower statistically in proportion to the percentage of Negro blood. This was much too extreme for the membership in general. A response was the motion for an NAS committee concerning behavioral genetic investigation of intelligence. Somehow I just couldn’t relate to the idea of this group of white intellectuals (in fact, in the entire NAS membership of about 850, there is only one black) making decisions about these questions. On the other hand, watching the discussion was amusement enough. For example, after one vote of about 42 to 36, our chairman asked for a new, more decisive vote because he didn’t want to have to tell newsmen waiting outside how split the academy was.

At the end Lewontin proposed his motion to eliminate secret work (mainly for the military) of the academy. Even knowledge of the subject of such work is excluded from those NAS members without security clearance. In the discussion of the motion someone suggested that NAS members who had no security clearance should resign from the academy. Finally, in the middle of the discussion, a motion to adjourn was made and passed. Lewontin resigned.

The next day’s newspaper heading read “Controversy Rocks Sciences Academy.” The NAS had suffered its first political resignation in 100 years.

Letters

Plan of Action October 7, 1971

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