It's blue skies ahead for adaptable Irish academy

October 26, 2001

The Royal Irish Academy is undergoing its first root-and-branch review. Olga Wojtas reports

The Royal Irish Academy was founded in 1785 with a charter from George III as a society for "promoting the study of science, polite literature and antiquities". It is an all-Ireland learned society: throughout the Troubles the academy has had the capacity to bring together scholars throughout the island.

Its 299 elected members include Anne Buttimer, president of the International Geographic Union, Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, United Nations high commissioner for human rights Mary Robinson and engineer Sir Bernard Crossland.

The academy is undergoing its first root-and-branch strategic review to guide its development through its third century. When it was founded, there was only one university in Ireland. It is now surrounded by a plethora of higher education institutions, policy organisations and advisory bodies that could be seen as having subsumed its role. But treasurer Michael Ryan, who convenes the strategic plan committee, is in no doubt that there is an important task for the academy that combines for Ireland the roles of the Royal Society and British Association in England.

Its president, David Spearman, insists that its role in stimulating scholarship is as relevant as ever. Speaking this week at its conference "The Academy in the 21st Century", Professor Spearman highlighted the objectivity it could exercise as an independent, autonomous body.

He predicted that the academy would "significantly develop" its role in providing expert advice on matters of public interest and contributing to debate on scientific policy. It has a wide range of national committees, ranging from astronomy and space research to nutritional sciences, and it is establishing a national bioethics committee at the request of the Irish government.

The academy is not a major funder of research but, in the current year, it will administer research grants of about E500,000 (£310,000) covering small projects, fieldwork and travel grants. Ryan believes this is of value in an age when there is a squeeze on blue-skies and maverick research. "An awful lot of research is personal and sometimes extremely selfish, but can be very, very productive," he says.

The largest research project led by the academy is the Dictionary of Irish Biography. The six volume dictionary, to be published by Cambridge University Press in 2004, will have more than 9,000 entries from the 5th century to the end of the 20th. Managing editor James McGuire believes it will support the growing number of Irish studies courses throughout the world.

Another key project is a record of major Irish foreign-policy documents of the 20th century. Its first volume, covering 1919-25, has already sold more than half of its 1,500 print run.

This is the first detailed examination of papers from Ireland's department of foreign affairs that were released in 1990, says executive editor Michael Kennedy. The papers offer an insight into the world of Irish diplomacy. Irish diplomats in the 1920s and 1930s played a significant role in the League of Nations and effectively proposed a British commonwealth rather than the British Empire, a shift the British government did not countenance until after the second world war.

The archives contain literal as well as metaphorical bombshells. Kennedy has already opened one bulky envelope to find a piece of German shrapnel from the 1940s.

Royal Irish Academy: www.ria.ie

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