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Winter 2012 Vol. 12 Number 2

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Celebrating 150 Years of Service to the Nation

National Academy of Sciences building, photo by Maxwell MacKenzie

President Abraham Lincoln signed the congressional charter that established the National Academy of Sciences 150 years ago -- in the midst of the Civil War and on the same day he authorized the first wartime draft in U.S. history. Despite the contentious times, the president and Congress clearly saw the need for a scientific advisory body that would "investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science or art," as stated in the Academy's Act of Incorporation, whenever called upon to do so by any department of the government.

So began the Academy's long history of service to the nation. Some of our first studies, requested on behalf of the Navy Department, helped the war effort by improving the capabilities of the Union fleet. The Academy also studied the uniformity of weights, measures, and coins used for domestic and international commerce. In later decades, our advice led to the creation of a national forest service and the U.S. Geological Survey.

As science and technology began to play ever-increasing roles in national priorities and public life, the National Academy of Sciences eventually expanded in 1916, 1964, and 1970 to include the National Research Council, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. Then, as they do now, these nonprofit institutions drew on the knowledge of top scientists, engineers, and health professionals to provide the independent, expert advice that underpins many of the nation's most important milestones, from the national highway system to uniform nutritional guidelines to the United States' first earth-orbiting satellite.

One hundred years after the founding of the NAS, President John F. Kennedy noted in his address to the Academy's Centennial Convocation that NAS had helped bring about a "great change in the relationship between science and public policy." Science, which once had been merely a "peripheral concern" of the government, was now government's "active partner." Kennedy said that scientific advice had become an "indispensable function of government."

That sentiment is just as relevant today. Our recent reports on strengthening U.S. economic competitiveness, formulating a national response to climate change, improving the nation's health, and educating future innovators have helped shape sound policies and inform public opinion. In the years to come, we will remain committed to excellence in science, engineering, and medicine for the benefit of the nation and the world.

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Copyright 2012 by the National Academy of Sciences