The Academy was founded in 1954 by Australian Fellows of the Royal Society of London with the distinguished physicist Sir Mark Oliphant as founding President. It was granted a Royal Charter establishing the Academy as an independent body but with government endorsement. The Academy's Constitution was modeled on that of the Royal Society of London. It receives government grants towards its activities, but has no statutory obligation to government.
The objectives of the Academy are to promote science through a range of activities in four major program areas: a) recognition of outstanding contributions to science; b) education and public awareness; c) science policy; and d) international relations.
The Fellowship of the Academy is made up of over 400 of Australia's top scientists, distinguished in the physical and biological sciences and their applications. Each year sixteen scientists, judged by their peers to have made an exceptional contribution to knowledge in their field, are elected to Fellowship of the Academy. Election is subject to a searching appraisal of the candidate's published works, including reference to leading scientific researchers around the world. Fellows are employed by universities, CSIRO, government and private research organizations. They contribute to the Academy in an honorary capacity by serving on the Council, National and Standing committees, and as advisers. No more than two Fellows may be elected every three years on the basis of distinguished contributions to science by means other than personal research. A small number of distinguished foreign scientists with substantial connections to Australian science are elected as Corresponding Members.
The Fellows of the Academy elect a Council of 17 members which manages the business of the Academy. The decisions of the Council are carried out by a secretariat of about 40 in Canberra, supervised by the Executive Committee of the institution.
The Academy has published many reports on public issues such as national research policy setting, stem cell research, human cloning, pesticides, ecological reserves, food quality, genetic engineering, space science and climate change. It would also make submissions to government ministers and parliamentary inquiries. The President of the Academy is, by virtue of that position, a member of the Prime Minister's Science, Engineering and Innovation Council. The Council advises the Prime Minister on important scientific issues.
An important part of the work of the Academy is carried out by its National Committees. The role of the 21 National Committees of the Academy is to foster a designated branch of natural science in Australia, to serve as an effective link between Australian scientists and overseas scientists in the same field, and to advise Council on relevant matters. National Committees are frequently called on to advice on science policy matters, on proposals for Academy sponsorship of scientific conferences and on proposals for grants from special purpose funds. They are also encouraged to prepare occasional reports and other documents on the state and outlook of their respective disciplines. National Committees maintain active links with relevant scientific societies and international organizations.
The Academy produces an on-line educational website (Nova: Science in the news) for schools, reference books, works on the history of science in Australia and a variety of reports and conference proceedings. It also produces a Newsletter three times a year and an Annual Report. The Academy also shares editorial responsibility with CSIRO for the publication of twelve specialized Australian Journals of Research. The Academy’s journal, Historical Records of Australian Science, is published twice each year. Its focus is the history of science and its contents include high-quality articles and reviews, biographical memoirs of deceased Fellows of the Australian Academy of Science commissioned by the Council of the Academy, and an annual bibliography of the history of Australian science.
The Academy advises governments on science education and supports professional development for science teachers.
The encouragement and reward of excellence in science is at the heart of the ethos of the Academy. Each year the Academy awards a series of medals, lectures or prizes to early-career and career scientists in all fields of science They include the Pawsey Medal awarded to a young physicist, the Gottschalk Medal to a young medical researcher, and the Fenner Medal to a young biologist.
In alternate years the Academy awards the Matthew Flinders Medal and Lecture and the Macfarlane Burnet Medal and Lecture to distinguished physical and biological career scientists. The Ian William Wark Medal and Lecture and the Lloyd Rees Lecture were established to encourage those whose research bridges science and industry. The Frederick White Prize is awarded to scientists who have significantly contributed to our understanding and progress in a range of physical sciences.
There are other medals, lectures or prizes in chemistry (David Craig Medal, Le Fèvre Memorial Prize), in mathematics or physics (Thomas Ranken Lyle Medal), in the Earth sciences (Mawson Medal and Lecture, Jaeger Medal, Haddon Forrester King Medal, Anton Hales Medal, Dorothy Hill Award), in human genetics (Ruth Stephens Gani Medal), and in the mathematical or statistical sciences (Moran Medal, Hannan Medal).
Support for research is provided for research conferences that focus on rapidly developing fields of study (Boden Research Conferences, Fenner Conferences on the Environment, and the Elizabeth and Frederick White Research Conferences), and travelling fellowships are awarded for the exchange of scientific ideas (Rudi Lemberg Travelling Fellowship, Selby Fellowship, and the Graeme Caughley Travelling Fellowship). Other grants to support research are the Conservation of endangered Australian species Awards, the J G Russell Awards, and the Douglas and Lola Douglas Scholarships in Medical Research.
The Academy operates an international scientific collaborations program to improve Australian access to global science and technology in North America, Europe and North East Asia. The program gives Australian researchers the opportunity to collaborate with foreign colleagues, widen research perspectives and experience, to exchange ideas, to be recognized in the international arena, to gain information and knowledge of techniques that will stimulate and advance Australian research, and to be involved in large international projects. The project is supported by the Australian Government Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research's International Science Linkages – Science Academies Program.
The Academy is Australia's representative on the International Council for Science (ICSU) and many of its constituent organizations. The Academy has taken a leading role in Australia in some international programs, for example the International Geosphere Biosphere Program. It also supports delegates to business meetings and provides information about ICSU within Australia. At any time about 300 Australians hold honorary offices in ICSU organizations.