Current members elect new members of the NAS, like those of the NAE and the Institute of Medicine. Membership in the NAS is regarded as one of the highest tributes conferred in American science. More than 200 members have won the Nobel Prize. Annually, up to 72 members and 18 foreign associates may be elected to membership. With the election in 2007, the number of active members, each of whom is associated with one of 31 disciplines, stood at 2,025. The NAS also has approximately 350 foreign associates. In 2007, the NAS garnered attention for electing the lowest number of women elected to membership since 2001. Only nine women were inducted as new members, raising the total number of members who are women to approximately 10 percent.

The NAS espouses an ongoing commitment to the inclusion of women in leadership and decision-making and in access to grant-funding opportunities and fellowships. In 1994, NAS and the Royal Society of London issued a joint resolution in support of this commitment. According to the leadership of the NAS, the pace at which women are joining the institute may be attributed to the time needed for scientists to build credentials noteworthy enough for consideration for membership. In an effort to inspire an interest in science in middle-school-aged girls, the NAS actively supports the publication of Women's Adventures in Science, a biography series about contemporary women working in diverse scientific fields, and the series' companion website.

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