Growing together

Nancy Rothwell, Raymond Dwek, Alan Malcolm and Richard Dyer on the future of UK biology's learned societies

July 10, 2008

Academics, like most people, enjoy being members of organisations of like-minded individuals: not just the usual golf clubs, amateur gardening societies and stamp collectors' groups, but "academic clubs", too.

Most of these are based on our disciplines, and usually our allegiance is determined by what degree we took at university. So we become members of learned societies, where we can meet with others from our discipline, study the state of knowledge, attend conferences and even have wider influences on government policy on the education of the next generation of academics and professionals in our subject.

But this is changing. The edges of disciplines are blurring such that many academics would have to fork out hundreds of pounds in annual membership fees to cover all their interests. Younger academics are even less wedded to formal disciplines. With a growing recognition that academics need to "get out more", why should learned societies be the sole domain of professionals? We recognise the importance of talking to schoolteachers and students and to wider society, but we might gain as much from listening to them, and even welcoming them into our learned societies.

These issues are brought into sharp focus by discussions between the Biosciences Federation and the Institute of Biology ("Biologists rail against merger of expert bodies", Times Higher Education, 12 June) but apply to many other areas of academic life. The IoB, which holds a royal charter, is the professional body for UK biologists. It represents the interests of members working in all areas of biology, from the most eminent academics to the interested amateur, offering a range of membership grades and professional experience. The BSF is an umbrella organisation that includes the major learned societies in biology. It embraces the UK's biological expertise, informing public policy and promoting the advancement of the biosciences. As biology becomes more prominent than ever, both organisations have their work cut out. From quality-of-life issues in human and veterinary medicine to sustainable exploitation of natural resources, biology is at the heart of complex issues challenging our society.

The IoB and the BSF are now in discussion about integrating. Their activities are largely complementary and many in government and other seats of power are telling us that biology, like chemistry and physics, should have a single voice. There is much to be gained in efficiency and effectiveness from the IoB and the BSF working closely together, but that does not mean that the process is yet agreed or will be easy. Club members, whether of a golf club or a learned society, are keen to protect their interests. There are difficult questions to settle on legal ownership of existing assets, and responsibility for financial liabilities and on structure and priorities.

Of course, some fear that core academic disciplines will become further eroded if many societies eventually integrate fully into something called "biology". It is important to consider not what an integrated organisation would be in the short term, but what it could be in five or ten years. Equally, we must consider the consequences of failing to bring biology into a single organisation.

It is easy to address concerns over how academic, non-professional, corporate and individual members can contribute to such an organisation, and there is no obvious conflict between the activities of local branches and work with schoolteachers, all of which will be key parts of any new organisation. But talk of mergers inevitably leads to the question: "What will we have to give up?" No one should lose out, but the key issue is what UK biology will gain. A single, strong voice for British biology could support children and teachers in learning about science, would be listened to by Government, and would increase the impact of the country's outstanding life-sciences researchers.

As with all clubs, major decisions are made by members. The decision about a single body for biology will quite rightly be made by biologists - especially the members of the IoB and the BSF.

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