National Academies

The nonprofit National Academies — the National Academy of Sciences, the National Research Council, the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Engineering — generate and disseminate expert research and judgments on matters of science, including the social sciences. They bill themselves as “advisers to the nation on science, engineering, and medicine.”

The Academies convene panels of experts to address matters of scientific policy. Only top scientists can become members, and that honor includes a duty to serve (for free) on study committees, which discuss “national or international issues involving science, technology, human health, or environmental quality.” Hundreds of these committees meet each year. Study topics are usually requested by the federal government, though state governments and private concerns can also request and fund projects. Committee reports are published by the National Academies Press and can be searched and read for free online.

The main Academies website features capsule reviews of new and notable reports. In addition to the 200 to 300 reports published each year, the Academies also produce an annual Report to Congress, synthesizing the past year’s research.

While the Academies do not receive direct federal appropriations, about 85 percent of their funding comes from the federal government. The rest comes from state agencies, private sponsors, foundations and the National Academies endowment. A breakdown of funding sources is included in the annual Report to Congress. The Academies aim to keep partisan and personal interests out of their decisions. Sponsors have no control over how studies are conducted or their outcomes, and the committees deliberate in private to minimize outside influence.

Comments: Academies reports can be dense and difficult for laypeople to read, although full-text searching makes it easier to find relevant pages. The website contains a searchable archive of press releases about the reports that are usually easier to analyze and digest. Academy recommendations are often cautious, even equivocal. Particularly strong statements or strenuous recommendations represent a
significant scientific consensus.

Political Leanings: None