The Royal Academy of Engineering: a role model for social science

December 24, 1999

When John Prescott needed an expert to review train protection systems after the Paddington rail crash, he turned to the president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, Sir David Davies.

The academy's success in taking just over 20 years to be accepted as an adviser on high-profile issues of this sort is one reason social scientists looked to it as a model for their own body. Set up in 1976 as the Fellowship of Engineering, with 126 fellows, it acquired its new name in 1992.

The "royal" in the title is much more than window-dressing. The Duke of Edinburgh hosted the first meeting at Buckingham Palace, was elected senior fellow and continues to take an active interest in academy activities. "We see him at least three to four times a year," says secretary-general John Appleton.

Today it has more than 1,100 fellows (FEng) and an annual income of about Pounds 13 million, of which a quarter is government grant-in-aid. Its activities include extensive advice to government, providing the secretariat for the Parliamentary Engineering Group, the BEST scheme for developing engineering talent and numerous award programmes, including funding 13 research chairs.

Appleton says there were lessons to be learnt from its success. "You need an active patron to give you a good profile. The Duke of Edinburgh has been very important to us. You need to get quickly to a critical mass of membership, for financial reasons as much as anything. Fellows pay Pounds 160 per year. You need a corporate plan providing a clear set of aims and objectives."

Up to 60 new fellows a year may be elected via a peer process. The average in recent years has been about 50.

Surveying the future: the Commission on Social Sciences The commission will not start formal work until the summer. Its chair, David Rhind, vice-chancellor of City University, says: "One reason for this is personal - my term as a member of the Economic and Social Research Council does not finish until then."

The other reason is that Rhind - who was chosen for the role because of his mix of academic and outside world experience, as a former professor of geography at the University of London and director-general of the Ordnance Survey - intends to consult extensively with interested parties before setting up the commission.

"We need to ensure that we ask all the important questions without setting ourselves a remit that is so broad that we are unable to come up with anything more than motherhood and apple-pie statements," says Rhind. "I have no doubt that the way to do this is to consult rather than simply announce you are starting."

He expects the remit to include "the current nature, focus, strength and overall contribution to society of social science, including some sense of how good we are in international terms".

About ten commissioners are likely to be appointed, plus a number of task groups, which will handle research into major issues. Rhind expects the commission to conduct some public evidence-taking sessions, and that the whole process will take 12-18 months. "The findings have to be sensible and capable of making a difference, or there is no point in it," he says.

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