Research intelligence - The Young ones look for British home

Scientists at the peak of their creativity are trying to find a voice in Britain. Elizabeth Gibney reports

September 13, 2012

Credit: Science Photo Library
Flowering of youth: advocates of the Global Young Academy argue that giving young academics a voice and forum of their own could benefit society in unexpected ways

The Global Young Academy (GYA) is a fledgling organisation intended to provide a voice for young scientists around the world. Founded in 2010, it has already helped to establish national young academies in nine countries, and its advocates hope that the UK could be next.

Martin Dominik, a GYA member and research Fellow at the University of St Andrews, is part of a group in discussion with existing senior academies in the UK on how to come together to help form an independent, junior academy.

"It's a great opportunity for Britain. What we'd like to see is a teaming up of all the four (main) academies: The Royal Society, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering and The Academy of Medical Sciences.

"We would create a platform with a unique remit in the UK. We wouldn't copy the existing structure of academies and [would] not depend on one parent [organisation], so there would be a high degree of independence," Dr Dominik said.

Although the Royal Society has said officially that it has no plans to create a young academy, four of its university research fellows, including Dr Dominik, are already members of the GYA and are in talks with the society over the plans.

But Dr Dominik said: "The Royal Society is doing a great job in supporting its university research fellows and getting them involved in the work the society is doing, but there's a big difference between that and a younger academy."

Within the UK, Scotland is the only nation to have a young academy - the Royal Society of Edinburgh established the Young Academy of Scotland in September last year.

According its co-chair Chris O'Sullivan, a senior project manager at the Mental Health Foundation, the Scottish model draws talented members from all areas of life, not just academia, and aims to bring a fresh perspective to issues that span society.

"Constitutional reform, currently under discussion in Scotland, was something that was immediately flagged as a topic where the academy's input could be valuable," he said.

According to Dr Dominik, young academies give the potential for people at the "peak of creativity" to have a greater voice and challenge the status quo, as well as tackle issues specific to their generation more effectively.

"I'm working in the field of extrasolar planets, and I've thought a lot about life beyond Earth and intelligent life, and something we have to realise is that intelligent life doesn't start at professorial level," Dr Dominik said.

"[Young academics] have interesting views, and some of them are radical, but that's really good. The young academy provides a great opportunity to review some of the traditional procedures."

Within the GYA, Dr Dominik is part of a working group tasked with reviewing the definitions of excellence and impact used in research. Starting with a pilot project in Thailand, the group aims to compare perceptions of excellence across the world.

"Something that unites the membership of the GYA is that we think that science is more than just [publishing] a certain number of research papers in high-impact journals," he said. "We have to think about the benefits for society, and the wider picture."

Collective experiences

Finding issues that affect young scientists across the world and bringing together collective experiences are among the academy's main goals.

Although the organisation was founded with the support of the InterAcademy Panel (IAP) - the global network of national science academies - the GYA is itself a member organisation, rather than a network, and its working groups span multiple nationalities and disciplines.

Born out of discussions between top young scientists convened by the IAP for the World Economic Forum's Summer Davos meetings in 2008 and 2009, the academy now has 172 members in 54 countries. It is run from a permanent base hosted by the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, and receives seed funding from the Volkswagen Foundation.

"The GYA provides a voice regarding the state of young scientists [and] also on science issues as they relate to societies," said Heidi Wedel, the organisation's managing director. "Because they are in their creative prime, they have lots of things to say, but as individuals they are not always heard."

A limited number of members from each country are either nominated by national academies, if they exist, or are elected based on competitive criteria for four-year terms. The average age of members is 35 and when their term is up, they must make way for new members and become part of an alumni network.

Like many existing science academies, the GYA does not fund research itself, but instead plans to use its members' expertise to investigate relevant issues, produce position statements and speak out from a global platform. Working groups already range from education and sustainability to funding mechanisms and open access.

Sabina Leonelli, a member of the GYA and senior lecturer in sociology and philosophy at the University of Exeter, said that younger scientists' familiarity with new communication technologies and ease with using English as a universal language can make international collaboration easier than for their older colleagues.

"It's a great arena, for example, to gather different views on how open access is likely to affect science and the way it operates, especially in the developing world," she said.

According to Dr Wedel, being representative is especially important for the GYA, and its members are as likely to come from Senegal, Nigeria, Iran or Guatemala as they are Germany or the UK.

The organisation hopes to fill gaps in representation, notably in Russia and Brazil, as it reaches its target of 200 members. "We are not an academy of the developing world but we see ourselves as a bridge between the developed and developing world," Dr Wedel said.

Through its blueprint for founding national young academies, the GYA is actively encouraging young scientists in every country to form their own membership bodies. Since 2010, the GYA has helped to establish young academies in Egypt, South Africa, Japan, Thailand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Israel and Malaysia, bringing the total up to 18 worldwide.

Whether the UK joins this growing club remains to be seen. According to Dr Dominik, despite support for the idea, creating a young academy will depend on that age-old obstacle: cash.

"If, tomorrow, a funder comes round the corner and says 'I'll give you half a million pounds to kick off a national academy in the form you wish', it would be easy to go to the senior academies and coordinate to get this off the ground.

"Unfortunately, at the moment we don't have that donor at hand."

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