THE Scholarly Web - 6 June 2013

Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

June 6, 2013

In early May, the Royal Society elected the Duke of York as a Royal Fellow.

The decision was derided by many in the scholarly community, given the modest academic credentials of the duke, who opted to attend naval college rather than university in his youth. Other critics raised questions about his character - and also wondered whether it is still acceptable to make members of the royal family fellows simply because of their ancestry.

An article on the Royal Society website did point out that “His Royal Highness has long been interested in science and its applications” and that he is “especially interested in how science is funded, how scientific discoveries are translated into commercial use, and career options for young scientists”.

However, that did not stop academics from taking to the internet to question the way the Royal Society went about canvassing opinion from members about making Prince Andrew a fellow.

One of the most vocal critics of the election was David Colquhoun, emeritus professor of pharmacology at University College London and a Royal Society fellow himself, who used his DC’s Improbable Science blog to call it “a right Royal cock-up”.

“The Royal Society has, on the whole, some pretty bright Fellows. It’s been around for 360 years and that, no doubt, is why it also has some quaintly archaic customs. One of them is the election of ‘Royal Fellows’,” he writes.

“The Royal Society was founded to advocate the idea that observation was what mattered, not deference to authority. The exception to that seems to be deference to ‘royal blood’.”

The ballot paper used by the Royal Society was a source of further concern. It featured a single statement - “I support the election of HRH the Duke of York KG GCVO as a Royal Fellow of the Royal Society” - accompanied by a single tick box.

To vote “no”, fellows had to make it clear they disagreed with the statement or spoil their ballot. Of the 1,300 ballots sent out, Colquhoun writes, 147 were returned with a “yes” vote; 24 indicated “no”; one was blank; and 1,128 were not returned.

“That’s the sort of ballot form used for senior posts in the Royal Society,” Dr Colquhoun writes. “It would be popular in Kazakhstan or Saudi Arabia.”

Other academics turned to Twitter to voice their opinions on the appointment.

Phil Collins (@PhilCollins_UK), deputy head of civil engineering and senior lecturer in geology and geotechnical engineering at Brunel University, asked ironically if the prince had been selected “for the impact of his research”.

Meanwhile, in reference to the Duke of Edinburgh, another royal to hold a Royal Society fellowship, Chris Chambers (@chrisdc77), researcher in the School of Psychology at Cardiff University, said: “As an Australian, I find it perplexing that the RS offers such fellowships to aristocrats.” Mike Taylor (@MikeTaylor), research associate in earth sciences at the University of Bristol, replied: “As a Brit, so do I.”

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