Academy Reform: Members Have Their Say

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Science  23 Apr 1999:
Vol. 284, Issue 5414, pp. 581
DOI: 10.1126/science.284.5414.581

PARIS—In 1973, the Nobel Prize-winning French physicist Alfred Kastler published a scientific paper entitled “Evolution of the average age of members of the Academy of Sciences since the founding of the Academy.” The report, which appeared in the academy's Comptes Rendus (Proceedings), plotted the average age of election into the academy, as well as the average age of death, of all academicians since the organization's founding in 1666. Kastler, now deceased, found that beginning around 1840, the average age at election began to rise precipitously, while the average longevity rose much more slowly. If the trend continued at the same pace, the paper concluded, by the year 2100 the average academy member would be elected only after his or her death and the organization would eventually cease to have any living members.

Although Kastler's tongue was firmly in his cheek, serious concerns about the graying of the academy have led its president, chemist Guy Ourisson, and others to propose expanding the number of members. As a first step, the reformers have suggested eliminating the distinction between the 145 full-fledged members and the academy's 205 “correspondents,” a second tier of nonvoting members-in-waiting (see main text). To get an idea how controversial these proposals are likely to be, Science conducted a confidential survey—by e-mail, fax, and letter—of all 145 academicians, asking for their position on these issues.

Out of 43 members who responded to the survey, about half clearly favored ending the distinction between correspondents and members, although in optional supplementary remarks some thought it should be done gradually rather than all at once (see chart). A slightly higher proportion favored increasing the total number of members, although the respondents differed considerably on how large the organization should be: The ideal size ranged from a proposed 20% increase in the current 145 members to a total number as high as 1000. A few academicians objected to the survey itself, arguing that these issues had not yet been debated within the academy and that airing them publicly would be divisive.

Although the survey promised confidentiality, a small number of respondents exercised an option to make their opinions publicly known. Biologist Jean Rosa, who was favorable to both propositions, commented that “these modifications seem to me indispensable to include new knowledge in the academy, which is appearing at a rhythm that did not exist at the time of Pasteur or the Curies.” And Nobel-winning physicist Pierre-Gilles de Gennes said that the distinction between members and correspondents is “obsolete.” De Gennes also commented that some areas of science are underrepresented in the academy: “Researchers working on more novel areas have difficulty being accepted.”

None of the academicians who clearly opposed the reform measures agreed to be quoted. Nevertheless, it seems likely that Ourisson and other reformers within the academy will encounter some opposition as they push forward with their plans to rejuvenate the aging organization. “I am sure there will be resistance,” Ourisson says. “It will probably not be an abrupt change, but a gradual one.”

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