While most Americans likely cannot tell you many specifics about the National Academies of Sciences (NAS), in the world high-impact scientific research the NAS is a very big deal.
Created by a congressional charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, the NAS was eventually expanded by the creation of the National Research Council in 1916, the National Academy of Engineering in 1964, and the Institute of Medicine in 1970 — now known collectively as The National Academies.
According to The Academies’ own PR materials, these “private, nonprofit organizations share in the responsibility for advising the federal government, upon request and without fee, on questions of science, technology, and health policy.”
The wise man who was President Lincoln becomes even more remarkable when you consider that even as the Civil War was raging all around him, Lincoln knew that this country would need independent, credible voices in the sciences — ostensibly bound only by the scientific method — to advise politicians and bureaucrats who are often guided by far less lofty considerations.
Admission into the NAS is done only when you are nominated by an existing member, whereupon the other members of your scientific specialty review your research and publications and decide on a case-by case basis if your work makes you worthy of admission. Nearly 200 NAS members have won a Nobel Prize.
Your rich parents cannot get you admitted. Your congressperson cannot demand that you be admitted. Your abilities as a scientist are what counts.
At a time when independent scientific research is under attack by America’s right-wing to the point where academic pursuit itself is being used a derisive political punch line by the intellectual know-nothings in the GOP, the NAS has stood since Lincoln’s time for the simple belief that solid fact-based research should underlie public policy questions involving science, not mobs of Christian fundamentalists who think TheFlintstones could have been a reality series.
Which brings us to Ben Barres, M.D., chair of the Department of Neurobiology at the Stanford School of Medicine, who was granted membership this year into the NAS.
Barres, who still has an active lab at Stanford, explained via e-mail to me on May 24 that his research “has long focused on understanding the mysterious roles of glial cells in the brain to both normal function of brain and how things go awry in neurological diseases like Alzheimer's,” adding that “these findings have important implications not only for how the brain normally develops, learns and remembers, but for developing better treatments for neurological diseases.”
Did I mention that Barres is transgender?
To his knowledge — and to the best knowledge of everyone else I asked — Barres is the first transgender scientist to ever be admitted to the NAS.
This is important new ground being broken because Barres is out there every day proving that being transgender itself has little bearing on intellectual or scientific competency. Barres said to me that in retrospect he sees his journey, as a scientist who is also to female-to-male transgender, to have been remarkably free of academic drama related to that.
“Since the time I changed sex about 15 years ago, the entire academic and scientific community has been incredibly and overwhelmingly supportive,” he recalled. “I worried at the time I changed sex that my career was likely over. But in reality I am unaware of any single incident of discrimination against me because of being transgender. I continued to be invited to speak at meetings and universities, to be asked to participate on scientific advisory boards, to get fantastic applications to be in my lab from prospective Ph.D. students and postdoctoral fellows, and to get grant funding. “
Added Barres: “I am aware of many closeted gay students and faculty, even in the Bay Area. But while understandable, I think that their fears, as was true of mine 15 years ago, are far greater than reality. I think that the academic community is overwhelmingly accepting of human differences. Besides becoming a scientist and mentor of young scientists, changing sex was one of the best decisions I have ever made. This huge weight came off my back, the relief from the constant emotional agony from gender dysphoria and relief from constant suicidal ideation was immediate, and I started to enjoy life much more than I ever had before.”
"It is really very sad that so many young LGBT scientists still fear for their careers if they are open about who they are,” he said. “It really does get better!”
Barres does often speak — disclosure: our faculty/staff committee at Harvard invited him once to campus — about one interesting addendum to his own journey: having lived both as a woman, and now a man, he can speak in ways the most of us cannot about sexism. To that end, he feels his academic journey might have unfurled differently if he had gone from being a man to a woman.
“It is a far harder road for MTFs than FTMs,” he said. “Society really frowns on feminine men. And a counselor who works with MTFs once told me that her hardest job was helping MTFs to understand that their career difficulties after changing sex are not because they are transgender but because they are now women.”
Has Barres encountered overt sexism in his job?
“All the time! It happens absolutely continuously,” he added. “For instance, on job search committees the things I hear people say about women candidates (like they will probably not be as ambitious, etc). I speak up all the time. I wish more people would do this. “
In this month of LGBT pride celebrations around the world, I wanted all of you to know that my pride hero is not a Hollywood celebrity or athlete. It’s a scientist at Stanford making the rest of us proud by being smart and competent and kind.