A bunch of jolly good fellows or old cronies who don't deserve £25m a year?

April 5, 2002

Is the Royal Society elitist? Absolutely, but that is its purpose. On the eve of an inquiry into its merit, Geoff Watts looks at how it is trying to change with the times.

Is the Royal Society elitist? Do mice like cheese? Did Newton believe in gravity? Of course the Royal Society is elitist. That is what it is for. A bunch of people with a track record of achievement in a branch of learning unique for its insistence on criticising and revising its own understandings - anyone invited to join this commendably self-critical lot has to be part of an elite. And a good thing too.

Such a straightforwardly bullish attitude is not one with automatic appeal to the members of the Commons' select committee on science and technology. Indeed, so suspicious are the MPs that they have arranged a brief inquiry into what the fellows are up to and whether they and other learned societies merit their level of support from the public purse (the deadline for written evidence is April 9; oral evidence will be taken on May 8).

The committee chairman, Ian Gibson MP, makes no bones about his personal concerns. "Can crusty old men make decisions for young, vibrant biotechnologists who are inculcated with the entrepreneurial spirit? Can they really talk to them about the new world of science that is out there? I just wonder if people who are in an elite body can really determine the way forward."

And there it is: the "e" word that makes its appearance in any discussion of the Royal Society. In an earlier life, as a scientist himself, Gibson recalls how he and other young practitioners viewed the RS. "Like a secret society. You get asked at some point in your career if you're considered good enough."

To which Colin Blakemore, fellow of the RS and professor of physiology at Oxford, responds unapologetically. "The Royal Society, by its very nature, is an elitist organisation. What else can a national academy of sciences be? Its whole raison d'etre is to represent the best of science in this country."

Peter Cotgreave, director of the lobby group Save British Science, points out that the word elitist means different things to different people. Besides the sense in which Blakemore uses it, elitist has also become an all-purpose boo word for condemning any kind of exclusivity, justifiable or not.

Cotgreave says: "One doesn't want to be elitist in the sense of saying 'we're only going to have white men' or 'we're only going to have people who went to Oxford' or whatever it is. These different uses of the word elitist mean different things, and they're often confused."

And what of the way in which the society interprets the word? "I think they have a historic problem," says Cotgreave. "And I think they are left with some vestiges of that problem. I genuinely believe that Bob May (the society's president) would like to make big changes. I think he will make every effort to see that the number of women who get in goes up." But he adds that if there is a historic problem of under-representation, the proportion of women cannot reach 50 per cent overnight.

Women - or rather lack of them - are indeed a problem for the society. Joan Mason, chair of AWiSE, the Association for Women in Science and Engineering, became interested in the issue a decade ago when she noticed that the proportion of female fellows - a little more than 3 per cent - had remained unchanged for 30 years. "There was a wonderful case back in 1902 where a woman was put up (for fellowship) and then knocked down again. The only way they could suggest she was ineligible as a candidate was to say that as a woman she wasn't a person." The society does indeed have a pile of historic baggage.

"Bob May is doing all he can, but it's the system. Not just the Royal Society itself, which really is trying to drag itself into the present day, but the system of scientific employment which discriminates against women because they have babies in the period of life when men are laying the foundations of their careers. No proper allowance is made for this."

Blakemore agrees, describing the female membership issue as an embarrassment. "The proportion of women in the RS is pretty much identical to the proportion who hold professorships in science in this country. To my mind, this in itself is outrageous. But the Royal Society reflects the situation as it is in professional science. If it did anything else it would be manipulating the situation for political correctness."

Blakemore, in other words, believes that the RS cannot recruit female fellows faster than they come up through the universities. Gibson accepts that they will eventually rise through the ranks. "But I think that a body that speaks for British science ought to be addressing the problems directly. They also ought to be much more proactive in getting into the university system. What have they really done over the years to change the system in British universities?"

Another complaint is about the disproportionate number of fellows based in Oxford, Cambridge and London: the golden triangle, as critics describe it. "They would say that's where all the best people are," says Gibson. "I would doubt that these days. The picture is changing and they haven't adapted to that. In the selection procedures they should be thinking in a visionary sense about where British science goes.

"The chip on my shoulder is showing, of course. I come from Edinburgh University. But these people are in a club and they all know each other and they all mingle together in London. It still seems to be a London-centred clubby kind of atmosphere to people out there."

Blakemore concedes the weight of history: the golden triangle is where much of the best British research was concentrated for much of the past century. But he maintains that, with the help of vice-chancellors, efforts are being made to seek out neglected achievers.

Nobel prizewinner Sir James Black FRS sees room for improvement in the nominating system. "One of the problems is that to be elected you have to be nominated by existing fellows." That raises the spectre of cronyism. But the selection process, he adds, is taken seriously. "I've just spent quite a bit of time reviewing two people who'd been nominated. I didn't take my duty lightly, and I'm sure that would be true for most fellows." But he does believe that good people are still being missed. "I have absolutely no doubt that this is not just a possibility but a probability."

The society has already reduced the number of signatures required for nomination; so why not have nomination by anyone? Blakemore's objection to this is on practicalities, not on principle. "To examine nominations in detail is a fantastic amount of work. If one opened up the nomination process to anyone, the system would collapse."

The society receives a government grant of £25 million a year, some of which is used to support researchers. Sir James approves. "The research professorship scheme fulfils a tremendous role, allowing good people to be freed from administration, teaching and so on."

Denis Noble FRS, professor of cardiovascular physiology at Oxford, is not always a champion of the society, but he is enthusiastic about the research fellowship scheme. "It has given a number of scientists a welcome opportunity, at an early stage in their careers before they get considered for election as a fellow, to pursue their ideas without feeling that grant bodies are on their doorstep asking how they're doing all the time."

Blakemore see this scheme as a way of helping women in particular. "A lot of them tend to fade out five years after their doctorate because they have families and they can't go along with all the teaching burdens. Through the research fellowship scheme the society can exercise some positive discrimination. More than a third of the research fellows are women and they have ten years of freedom to get on with their work at a critical phase in their careers. This is one of the prime ways the society uses its money. It's promoting British science and it's encouraging young people."

Gibson's criticisms of the RS also include what he sees as its largely ineffectual attempts to whip up public interest in science - something that Blakemore hotly disputes - and even its name. "Why is it called the Royal Society and not the National Academy of British Sciences? People don't know what Royal Society means. Is it a royal society of biscuit makers or what? My republican sentiments are coming out. I'm sure Lord May's come out on occasion too."

But Noble argues that the society has now discarded its 19th-century veneer. Blakemore agrees: "The change in the Royal Society during the ten years I've been a fellow is really quite remarkable. There were a lot of things it could have been criticised for. Being fuddy-duddy, out of touch, unconcerned with issues such as opportunities for women, being not committed to the principle of communication. Now it really is a different place."

Over to you, Dr Gibson.

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