The Civil War caused a need for a national academy. The Act of Incorporation, signed by President Abraham Lincoln on March 3, 1863, created the National Academy of Sciences and named 50 charter members. Many of the original NAS came from the so-called American Scientific Lazzaroni, an informal network of mostly physical scientists working in the vicinity of Cambridge, Massachusetts (circa 1850s).
In 1863 enlisting the support of Alexander Dallas Bache and Charles Henry Davis, a professional astronomer recently recalled from the Navy to Washington to head the Bureau of Navigation, Louis Agassiz and Benjamin Peirce planned the steps whereby the National Academy of Sciences was to be established. Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts was to name Agassiz to the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian.
On the pretext of desiring to discuss his new duties, Agassiz was to come to Washington at government expense to plan the organization with the others. So it was done, bypassing Joseph Henry, who had already made known his reluctance to have a bill for such an academy presented to Congress in the belief that such a resolution would be “opposed as something at variance with our democratic institutions;” (Henry nevertheless soon became the second NAS President). Agassiz, Davis, Peirce, Benjamin Gould, and Senator Wilson met at Bache's house and "hurriedly wrote the bill incorporating the Academy, including in it the name of fifty incorporators."
During the last hours of the session, when the Senate was immersed in the rush of last minute business before its adjournment, Senator Wilson introduced the bill. Without examining it or debating its provisions, both the Senate and House approved it, and President Lincoln signed it.
Although hailed as a great step forward in government recognition of the role of science in American civilization, the National Academy of Sciences at the time created enormous ill-feelings among scientists, whether or not they were named as incorporators. Later, Agassiz admitted that they had “started on the wrong track.”
The Act states: The National Academy did not solve the problems facing a nation in Civil War as the Lazzaroni had hoped, nor did it centralize American scientific efforts.
As of spring 2003, the National Academy of Sciences included about 1,922 members, 93 members emeritus, 341 foreign associates, and employed about 1,100 staff. The current members annually elect new members for life. Election to membership is one of the highest honors that can be accorded to a scientist and recognizes scientists who have made distinguished and continuing achievements in original research. More than 170 members have won a Nobel Prize.
The National Academy of Sciences is an institutional member of the International Council for Science (ICSU). The ICSU Advisory Committee, which is in the Research Council's Office of International Affairs, facilitates participation of members in international scientific unions and is a liaison for U.S. national committees for the individual scientific unions. Although there is no formal relationship with state and local academies of science, there often is informal dialogue.
The National Academy of Sciences meets annually in Washington, D.C., documented in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the scholarly journal of the National Academy of Sciences. The National Academies Press is the publisher for the National Academies, and makes 3600+ publications available for free reading on its website.
The National Academy of Sciences is part of the National Academies, which also includes: