Leader: Science's next battle should be for the public

March 2, 2001

When it was founded by Charles II, the Royal Society was Britain's only learned society. Over time, it has turned into one of many organisations representing science and scientists and has been joined by academies for engineering, the humanities and medicine.

But, despite the existence of other organisations with missions overlapping its own, the Royal Society is vital to the health of British science and its image in the United Kingdom and around the world. Being elected a fellow of the Royal Society is second only to a Nobel prize in the pecking order of scientific honours. Its new president, Sir Robert May, is taking steps  to make sure that fellows are gathered from the full range of scientific excellence in Britain and beyond. He cites the society's failure to elect Tim Berners-Lee as a serious omission (although Berners-Lee's invention, the worldwide web, is not a scientific discovery).

Beyond broadening the range of its fellows, the Royal Society might consider the use it makes of them. In financial terms, science has been one of the big winners of the 1997 election, with state funds on the increase and the equivalent of a lottery win with the growth of the Wellcome Trust. Senior government figures know the importance of science, something for which the Royal Society can take credit.

But its role in promoting science in the wider world has been less assured. Science's continuing lack of popularity with university applicants, the public's wariness of science and scientists and the frequent association between science and some form of perceived evildoing - from animal experimentation to depleted uranium weapons - are parts of an issue the Royal Society needs to tackle. Its immense authority has been built over centuries. There are signs that it will be used increasingly in the public arena. Perhaps the fellows brought in by Sir Robert's initiative should regard science's role in British life, and not just in the corridors of power, as the next big battleground.

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