The Study Process

The reports of the National Academies are viewed as being valuable and credible because of the institution's reputation for providing independent, objective, and non-partisan advice with high standards of scientific and technical quality. Checks and balances are applied at every step in the study process to protect the integrity of the reports and to maintain public confidence in them.

This web page will help you navigate our study process. You can Watch The National Academies Committee Process Video (you will be redirected to another website).

Study Process Overview

Ensuring Independent, Objective Advice. For more than 140 years, the National Academies have been advising the nation on issues of science, technology, and medicine. The 1863 Congressional charter signed by President Lincoln authorized this non-governmental institution to honor top scientists with membership and to serve the nation whenever called upon. Today the National Academies—National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council—continue that dual mission.

Like no other organization, the National Academies can enlist the nation's foremost scientists, engineers, health professionals, and other experts to address the scientific and technical aspects of society’s most pressing problems. Each year, more than 6,000 of these experts are selected to serve on hundreds of study committees that are convened to answer specific sets of questions. All serve without pay.

Federal agencies are the primary financial sponsors of the Academies' work. Additional studies are funded by state agencies, foundations, other private sponsors, and the National Academies endowment. The Academies provide independent advice; the external sponsors have no control over the conduct of a study once the statement of task and budget are finalized. Study committees gather information from many sources in public meetings but they carry out their deliberations in private in order to avoid political, special interest, and sponsor influence.

Through this careful study process, the National Academies produce 200–300 authoritative reports each year. Recent reports cover such topics as the obesity epidemic, the use of forensics in the courtroom, invasive plants, underage drinking, the Hubble Telescope, vaccine safety, the hydrogen economy, transportation safety, climate change, and homeland security. Many reports influence policy decisions; some are instrumental in enabling new research programs; others provide program reviews.

Stage 1: Defining the Study

Before the committee selection process begins, National Academies' staff and members of their boards work with sponsors to determine the specific set of questions to be addressed by the study in a formal "statement of task," as well as the duration and cost of the study. The statement of task defines and bounds the scope of the study, and it serves as the basis for determining the expertise and the balance of perspectives needed on the committee.

The statement of task, work plan, and budget must be approved by the Executive Committee of the National Research Council Governing Board. This review often results in changes to the proposed task and work plan. On occasion, it results in turning down studies that the institution believes are inappropriately framed or not within its purview.

Stage 2: Committee Selection & Approval

Selection of appropriate committee members, individually and collectively, is essential for the success of a study. All committee members serve as individual experts, not as representatives of organizations or interest groups. Each member is expected to contribute to the project on the basis of his or her own expertise and good judgment. A committee is not finally approved until a thorough balance and conflict of interest discussion is held at the first meeting, and any issues raised in that discussion or by the public are investigated and addressed.

Careful steps are taken to convene committees that meet the following criteria:

  • An appropriate range of expertise for the task. The committee must include experts with the specific expertise and experience needed to address the study’s statement of task. One of the strengths of the National Academies is the tradition of bringing together recognized experts from diverse disciplines and backgrounds who might not otherwise collaborate. These diverse groups are encouraged to conceive new ways of thinking about a problem.
  • A balance of perspectives. Having the right expertise is not sufficient for success. It is also essential to evaluate the overall composition of the committee in terms of different experiences and perspectives. The goal is to ensure that the relevant points of view are, in the National Academies' judgment, reasonably balanced so that the committee can carry out its charge objectively and credibly.
  • Screened for conflicts of interest. All provisional committee members are screened in writing and in a confidential group discussion about possible conflicts of interest. For this purpose, a "conflict of interest" means any financial or other interest which conflicts with the service of the individual because it could significantly impair the individual's objectivity or could create an unfair competitive advantage for any person or organization. The term "conflict of interest" means something more than individual bias. There must be an interest, ordinarily financial, that could be directly affected by the work of the committee. Except for those rare situations in which the National Academies determine that a conflict of interest is unavoidable and promptly and publicly disclose the conflict of interest, no individual can be appointed to serve (or continue to serve) on a committee of the institution used in the development of reports if the individual has a conflict of interest that is relevant to the functions to be performed.
    Point of View is Different from Conflict of Interest
    A point of view or bias is not necessarily a conflict of interest. Committee members are expected to have points of view, and the National Academies attempt to balance these points of view in a way deemed appropriate for the task. Committee members are asked to consider respectfully the viewpoints of other members, to reflect their own views rather than be a representative of any organization, and to base their scientific findings and conclusions on the evidence. Each committee member has the right to issue a dissenting opinion to the report if he or she disagrees with the consensus of the other members.
  • Other considerations. Membership in the three Academies (NAS, NAE, IOM) and previous involvement in National Academies studies are taken into account in committee selection. The inclusion of women, minorities, and young professionals are additional considerations.

Specific steps in the committee selection and approval process are as follows:

  • Staff solicit an extensive number of suggestions for potential committee members from a wide range of sources, then recommend a slate of nominees.
  • Nominees are reviewed and approved at several levels within the National Academies; a provisional slate is then approved by the President of the National Academy of Sciences, who is also the Chair of the National Research Council.
  • The provisional committee list is posted for public comment in the Current Projects System on the Web.
  • The provisional committee members complete background information and conflict of interest disclosure forms.
  • The committee balance and conflict of interest discussion is held at the first committee meeting.
  • Any conflicts of interest or issues of committee balance and expertise are investigated; changes to the committee are proposed and finalized.
  • Committee is formally approved.
  • Committee members continue to be screened for conflict of interest throughout the life of the committee.


Stage 3: Committee Meetings, Information Gathering, Deliberations, and Drafting the Report

Study committees typically gather information through: 1) meetings that are open to the public and that are announced in advance through the National Academies Web site; 2) the submission of information by outside parties; 3) reviews of the scientific literature, and 4) the investigations of the committee members and staff. In all cases, efforts are made to solicit input from individuals who have been directly involved in, or who have special knowledge of, the problem under consideration.

In accordance with federal law and with few exceptions, information-gathering meetings of the committee are open to the public, and any written materials provided to the committee by individuals who are not officials, agents, or employees of the National Academies are maintained in a public access file that is available for examination.

The committee deliberates in meetings closed to the public in order to develop draft findings and recommendations free from outside influences. The public is provided with brief summaries of these meetings that include the list of committee members present. All analyses and drafts of the report remain confidential.


Stage 4: Report Review

As a final check on the quality and objectivity of the study, all National Academies reports—whether products of studies, summaries of workshop proceedings, or other documents—must undergo a rigorous, independent external review by experts whose comments are provided anonymously to the committee members. The National Academies recruit independent experts with a range of views and perspectives to review and comment on the draft report prepared by the committee.

The review process is structured to ensure that each report addresses its approved study charge and does not go beyond it, that the findings are supported by the scientific evidence and arguments presented, that the exposition and organization are effective, and that the report is impartial and objective.

Each committee must respond to, but need not agree with, reviewer comments in a detailed "response to review" that is examined by one or two independent report review "monitors" responsible for ensuring that the report review criteria have been satisfied. After all committee members and appropriate National Academies officials have signed off on the final report, it is transmitted to the sponsor of the study and is released to the public. Sponsors are not given an opportunity to suggest changes in reports. The names and affiliations of the report reviewers are made public when the report is released.