Nancy Rothwell

May 27, 2005

Our top scientific body is striving to end whispers of blackballing and bias while continuing to admit only the best scientists.

Attaining membership of the most exclusive clubs is often a curious business, shrouded in mystery. Whether a top golf or tennis club or one of those fancy London clubs, the processes of selection and the necessary credentials are rarely transparent. In the world of academia, few bodies are as exclusive as the Royal Society, the most respected scientific academy in the UK, possibly the world.

Established in 1660 by leading scientists of the day, including Robert Boyle, John Wilkins and Christopher Wren, "The Royal" resides in elegant premises overlooking the Mall, promotes cutting-edge science around the world and is "the club" to which every British scientist aspires.

Election to the Royal Society is coveted, not because it allows members to enjoy its facilities (which do not include the essential club feature of a bar) but because of the recognition it brings within scientific circles.

Many fellows will drop all other degrees, affiliations and honours after their name in favour of the "simple" epithet FRS - in effect a scientific knighthood.

Despite its great esteem, the Royal Society is no stranger to intrigue, mystery and criticism. Stories of "old-boy networks", blackballing and gender bias abound, and each year the "list" of new fellows is a closely guarded secret until released to the press.

The Royal Society was recently the subject of inquiry by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. Ian Gibson, its chairman (noted for his forthright approach to all manner of subjects), asked the president of the Royal Society how he would respond to the criticism that the society was elitist. Lord May's reply, in his usual style, was that he was delighted by the compliment, since the society strives to support and elect only the very best scientists.

Other criticisms, however, are more difficult to fend off. The figures speak for themselves; the society's fellowship is without question largely male, white and with a heavy focus on the Golden Triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London.

So it was with great fascination that this year I joined one of the ten committees that recommends candidates for election. The first reaction of new members on joining the committee and seeing the nominations is sheer disbelief. It seems impossible that you ever managed to get elected against such fierce competition; the quality of the nominees is truly outstanding, making the job of selection extremely difficult.

The process of election has changed quite radically over recent years, due in significant part to Lord May. Each candidate is nominated by two (rather than the previous six) fellows, which makes it easier for underrepresented groups. Committee membership is demanding. The paperwork is extensive and additional reading is essential. At the first meeting, all candidates are ranked, then a "long list" of candidates is agreed. Each proposal is subsequently sent out across the world for peer review by at least six leading scientists (and often many more), who must have attained a status equivalent to FRS.

At the second meeting, the shortlist is drawn up after lengthy discussion, followed by ranking by each committee member. It is difficult to blackball a candidate for several reasons: the scoring is seen by the whole committee; referees who are a little too vociferous in their criticisms are discussed in detail, and the membership of the committees turns over quite quickly.

Meetings are also attended by council members and senior officers, usually including the president. It can feel as though, as a member, you are under as close scrutiny as the nominees. The shortlist from each sectional committee is finally submitted to council, which agrees on the final list to be proposed to the fellows for election. In theory it is possible for a candidate to be voted against by the fellowship at that final stage, but this is rare. Any candidate who fails to get elected (there are hundreds) can be nominated again each year for a further six years, but then has to withdraw for three years.

It is hard to sustain the arguments of gender bias within the Royal Society when over the past few years the percentage of women elected has been as high, or higher, than the pitifully low percentage (well below 10 per cent) of women in the most senior positions in science and engineering. The society has also tried to address the uneven geographical distribution of fellows by seeking to identify scientists outside the Golden Triangle who may have been overlooked and securing their nomination. Of course the election process has the strengths and weaknesses of any peer-review system. But in its enthusiastic attempts to refine the process of election, the Royal Society should not shy away from transparent elitism.

Nancy Rothwell is MRC research professor in the faculty of life sciences at Manchester University.

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