Club culture has gone too far

May 7, 2004

Geoffrey Alderman attacks the less-than-scientific approach used to select fellows of learned societies.

The saga of Baroness Greenfield's candidacy (if that is the right word) for a fellowship of the Royal Society reads like a melodrama straight out of Trollope.

Not being of the scientific persuasion myself, it would be impertinent of me to pass judgement on her abilities as a pharmacologist or to make any assessment of her contribution to the discipline she professes.

However, her genius shouts at you from every page of her CV. Among other things, she is - whether the Royal Society likes it or not - one of the country's most brilliant communicators in the scientific disciplines.

My approach to the issues raised by the society's rejection of Lady Greenfield is quite different. Here is a learned society - for better or worse the most prestigious learned society in the realm, which is more than 300 years old - going about its business of choosing members.

I would have expected such a body of internationally renowned scientists to approach this task in a scientific way - or at least in a way that reflects the ownership and application of a soundly based set of criteria allied to the purposes for which the society exists.

As its website announces, the Royal Society arrogates to itself three roles: as the UK academy of science; as a learned society; and as a funding agency. In this last capacity, it disburses taxpayers' money, which is made available through a Parliamentary Grant in Aid.

If the society were a truly private body - a private club or dining society - I would be happy for it to choose its members as it pleased. But it is not a private club - it is a public agency. And as such I am entitled to expect it to conduct its affairs in a transparent and accountable manner.

The central criterion for election as an FRS is "scientific excellence".

But nowhere is this clearly defined. Other criteria are so woolly as to be as good as meaningless.

The election process is not so much confidential as secret. I doubt that unsuccessful candidates are given any feedback. Indeed, I am told that to put oneself forward for election is to invite rejection. I cannot for the life of me understand why this should be the case.

However, I admit to having superficial knowledge of the inner workings of the Royal Society's humanities equivalent, the British Academy. And the reason is that more than a decade ago a friendly fellow of the academy asked me for an up-to-date CV that he might use to argue the case for my election as an FBA.

Well, to cut a long story short, my candidacy was turned down. But as a result of the feedback my friendly fellow gave me - for there was none to be had from the BA itself - I was able to gain some idea of the process, which is so utterly arcane and subjective that it could not be described as fair or dispassionate.

To become an FBA you must have "attained distinction in any of the branches of study which it is the object of the academy to promote".

Looking down the list of FBAs in my own field (history), however, I cannot help noticing some glaring disparities and omissions. For instance, I note the absence of Sir Martin Gilbert - my former teacher - whose name has, I gather, "come up" more than once but whose great biography of Churchill was apparently condemned in a most spiteful and unfair manner as "a cut-and-paste job".

We British love clubs - organisations of the self-chosen with the power to admit and to reject. But in the cases of the RS and the BA the notion of unaccountable and irresponsible donnish exclusivity has gone too far. It is time the influence of both was curtailed, not least in the interests of scholarship itself.

Geoffrey Alderman is senior vice-president of the American InterContinental University - London. He writes in a private capacity.

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