The Royal Society is to consider whether to take disciplinary action against fellows who spoke out in last week's Times Higher against Baroness Greenfield's nomination for a fellowship, writes Anna Fazackerley.
In a move described by the society as "unprecedented", some fellows spoke publicly against Lady Greenfield's nomination, which is supposed to be confidential. Some have threatened to resign if she is made a fellow.
The society's council is due to meet next Thursday. A spokesperson confirmed that it would consider whether the unnamed fellows had damaged the reputation of the society.
The ultimate sanction for a fellow who is deemed to have breached the rules of the society is expulsion, although it is not yet clear whether any action will be taken against anyone.
A source close to the society said the row over Lady Greenfield's nomination had tapped into long-running controversy about whether "general" candidates should be invited to join Britain's most prestigious and exclusive scientific club.
This year, up to eight new fellows may be appointed for general contributions such as raising public understanding of science, rather than for undertaking mainstream or applied research.
Lady Greenfield's nomination is believed to fall into the general category.
One fellow, who has asked not to be named, said that the baroness had been put forward because she was Britain's best-known female scientist, and has set high standards for women in science and played a major role in revitalising the Royal Institution.
Richard Dawkins was elected a fellow in the general category in 2001. He said: "As someone who does popularise science I have had nothing but warm support from the scientific establishment generally and the Royal Society in particular. I would utterly repudiate any suggestion that the society has a bias against science commun-icators or a bias against women."
Lady Greenfield is up against 534 other candidates for election in 2004, only 44 of whom will be successful.
Fellows will vote on the final selection at a secret ballot in May. A candidate is elected if he or she secures two-thirds of the votes.
However, if Lady Greenfield is not successful this year she will remain on the nomination list for another six years.
A spokesperson for the society said: "We are very happy for our nomination and election process to be scrutinised because we have nothing to hide and it is a robust process."
How the RS chooses its fellows
- September 30: each candidate must be nominated by two fellows. A list of all candidates is sent to all fellows in confidence
- November: applications are passed to ten sectional committees, divided according to discipline. Candidates are classified as general, mainstream or applied. Committee members are replaced each year
- March: council produces a shortlist of 44 candidates. Academic references are sought for those shortlisted
- April: final list confirmed and circulated to fellows
- May: fellows vote by secret ballot at a business meeting. Successful candidates must have secured two-thirds of the vote
- July: new fellows are admitted. Membership is for life
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