Moments in Academy History

Bruce Michael Alberts

1993-2005 NAS President

Frank Press was followed in 1993 by a biochemist, Bruce M. Alberts (1938– ) who was born in Chicago, Illinois. The latter entered Harvard as an undergraduate in the field of biochemical sciences in 1956 just as molecular biology was beginning to blossom as a result of the unraveling of the genetic code and the application of the knowledge gained thereby. He continued on for graduate work at Harvard, obtaining a doctor's degree in biophysics in 1965. He was then granted a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellowship that permitted him to spend a year at the Institut de Biologie Moleculaire in Geneva, Switzerland. The fellowship was followed by a stepwise series of posts at Princeton University which led to the Damon Pfeiffer Professorship in life sciences. He held the latter between 1973 and 1976.

In 1976 he left Princeton for the University of California in San Francisco with an initial appointment as professor and vice chairman of the department of biochemistry and biophysics. In 1981 he was appointed to an American Cancer Society Research Professorship, which he held actively until 1993 when not serving as department chairman. The title was granted for life in 1980.

Well before leaving for Washington in 1993 Alberts was recognized universally as one of the very capable and imaginative leaders in the field of molecular biology. As a result he began to receive appointments to public and private boards and committees that are active in the advance of the profession. Such service, which grew almost without limit once he became president of the Academy, has occupied an important fraction of his career and is responsible for some of the distinguished awards he has received.

Alberts' twelve years in office are notable for the more or less final resolution of several major issues related to the operation of the Academy that had been dangling somewhat indecisively for several generations. Three of the most significant are as follows.

The first and in a sense the most radical is an enlarged emphasis on raising sufficient private endowment from whatever sources are available to permit the organization to provide advice on any topic that lies within its sphere of interest without the need to call upon federal funds. The completion of a five year joint campaign for the National Academies that raised more than 300 million dollars from private sources is, in effect, at least a partial declaration of independence from the federal government, with residual ties as expressed in its charter of 1863 to serve that government on request. Circumstances indicate that the Academy can indeed raise a substantial endowment. Guidance provided by wise leadership will be required to determine the manner in which the enhanced authority is employed. There is the hazard that the academy could eventually become looked upon as another one of the almost unlimited number of Washington think tanks having its own agenda.

Foreign Academies
It will be recalled that when Detlev Bronk appointed Harrison Brown foreign secretary of the Academy he gave the latter the authority to expand the functions of the office by forming associations with national or regional academies well outside Europe. Brown took full advantage of the enlarged responsibility by increasing the size of the staff and the number of experienced advisors. He also formed teams or “desks” which developed continuing links with groups of academies that were of special interest to his advisors. The main obstacles to this venturesome activity, apart from limitations of money, arose from the fact that the ongoing Cold War complicated communication in such a way that Brown and his staff did not always have complete freedom of action to the degree he would have preferred. Finally, ill health impeded his personal involvement.

Fortunately Brown's good work and persistence did make it possible to create, among others, two standing committees which have had an enduring influence and fit well into more recent developments, namely The Standing Committee on the People's Republic of China and The Standing Committee on Less Developed Countries.

The end of the Cold War, coupled with the widespread increase in understanding of the importance of science in the political, social, medical and economic aspects of life made it possible for Alberts and his colleagues to form the Interacademy Panel (IAP) of more than ninety science academies with its secretariat initially at the Royal Society in London, and since 2000 at the Third World Academy of Sciences (WAS) in Trieste, Italy. The IAP holds promise of developing a very practical operating network wherein the stronger institutions provide genuine help to the weaker while broadening their own horizons.

The IAP in turn formed the Interacademy Council (IAC) in 2000 with its secretariat at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in Amsterdam. The AIC is governed by the presidents of fifteen science academies. Alberts serves as one of its co-chairs for the period from 2000 to 2009. Modeled after the National Research Council, the IAC serves to mobilize the best science for world decision makers. Its first report entitled “Inventing a Better Future: A Strategy for Building World-Wide Capacities in Science and Technology” was released by Secretary General Kofi Annan at the United Nations in 2004.

Housing The National Research Council
Although the executive offices of the National Academy of Sciences occupy fine quarters in the main building on Constitution Avenue, housing for the activities of the National Research Council has offered a continuing challenge. Initially much of the work that could not be squeezed into the main building somehow was distributed throughout Washington in rented offices and the like as circumstances permitted. As mentioned earlier, some of the pressure was relieved, first by the construction of the East and West Wings of the main building and then by the leasing of a specially constructed building on Pennsylvania
Avenue from George Washington University in the 1960s. When the lease ran out during the terms of Frank Press, a building complex on Wisconsin Avenue bearing special financial benefits was found. It served adequately for a number of years, but then proved insufficient for the ever-growing needs during Alberts' period in office. On this occasion it proved possible to obtain a relatively elegant solution, namely to design and build the Keck building in downtown Washington through a combination of Academy resources, philanthropy and careful planning. With the capacity to house 1000 staff, one might hope that it will serve the needs for most of the present century.

An Emphasis on Education
The National Research Council successfully completed the four–year process of producing the first-ever National Education Standards for the United States in 1996. The massive effort ushered in a major expansion of activities in education, with a focus on using analysis and evidence to create a continuously improving education system from kindergarten through graduate school. A new Center for Education was established, with separate boards for science, mathematics, and testing and assessment. Although the focus was on improving education in science and mathematics, highly successful studies were also carried out on reading, on how people learn and strategies for effective research in education.

Bruce Alberts The Teacher
Bruce is at heart a great teacher of science with a very special approach to that art. He admits that his greatest regret on departing for Washington from San Francisco in 1993 was to leave behind the continuous association with students, both young and old, that one encounters in a lively university setting. In compensation he had the hope that his terms in Washington would make it possible to have a significant influence on the national standards of education, not least those for science. And he worked unceasingly toward that goal both openly and behind the scenes.

His personal approach to education in science is not to ply the student with a tidal wave of rote, but rather to challenge his or her mind with a paradox or puzzle drawn from the heart of good science that will offer a catalytic start in imaginative thinking of the kind that breeds new science.

After completing twelve years as president of the Academy, he has returned to the University of California in San Francisco as a professor in the department of biochemistry and biophysics. The students in San Francisco will be fortunate when he again picks up the traces there.

Continue reading next chapter: Ralph John Cicerone

Return to: A Selection of Highlights from the History of the National Academy of Sciences, 1863 - 2005

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