Society ousts its old fellow customs

March 2, 2001

The Royal Society is changing long-established rules that govern one of science's highest honours -the election of fellows -to ensure deserving candidates are not overlooked.

The changes are being championed by Sir Robert May, the society's president, who described the omission of Tim Berners-Lee, the British inventor of the worldwide web, as embarrassing.

Sir Robert has this week written to university vice-chancellors and institute directors across the United Kingdom to ask for candidates. Previously, suggestions have been made only by fellows.

While Sir Robert stressed the society's electoral practice was the best he had encountered in the scientific world - superior, in his opinion, to that of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States - he felt the new procedures would make a significant impact at the margins of recruitment.

"It will give us a wider canvas of deserving people," he said. "We wish to be absolutely sure the Royal Society represents the full diversity and range of scientific talents in the UK and beyond."

Despite the impact of Professor Berners-Lee's invention of hypertext in 1989 while he was at the European particle physics laboratory Cern, he was not invited to become a fellow. Sir Robert said: "Perhaps if we'd made these changes at the time, people would have thought to nominate him."

The society recently attempted to make amends by awarding Professor Berners-Lee, holder of the 3Com Founders chair at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a Royal Medal in recognition of his distinguished contribution to the applied sciences.

The new procedures should give a better chance of election to researchers in emerging fields and at the convergence of disparate disciplines, whose work might be outside the experience of existing fellows. Sir Robert hopes they will also bring in more women and will represent a wider geographical spread.

Up to 42 fellows are elected annually from scientists in the British Commonwealth and the Irish Republic. Each candidate must be nominated by six fellows and is considered by one of ten sectional committees that represent scientific fields. A final decision is made by the society's council.

From next year, the backing of only two fellows will be required. Nominations will be sought from the wider scientific community.

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