Convocation of the Fellowship of the Royal Society at the Royal Festival Hall, 23 June 2010


To mark the 350th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Society, a Convocation of the Fellowship was held at the Royal Festival Hall on 23 June 2010. The Convocation was honoured by the presence of Her Majesty The Queen and Their Royal Highnesses The Duke of Edinburgh, Prince William of Wales, The Princess Royal and The Duke of Kent. About 2500 Fellows and guests participated, including representatives of numerous academies.

The stage setting included portraits of five key figures in the Society's history—King Charles II, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, Joseph Banks and Charles Darwin—and Robert Hooke's table. On the table were placed the Mace given to the Society by King Charles II in 1663, the Charter Book, the George III inkstand and the silver bell donated by Her Majesty The Queen on the occasion of the Tercentenary in 1960.

The Convocation began with an introduction by Lord Bragg of Wigton FRS, Chairman of the 2010 Anniversary Programme Board, who welcomed the Fellowship and described the symbolism of the treasures on stage. This was followed by a short film on the work of the Society and some of the anniversary events earlier in the year.

Members of Council, past Presidents and the Royal party (figure 1) then took their places on the stage. They were accompanied by the fanfare Transferable Resistance, commissioned for the occasion from Julian Anderson and played by four brass quartets from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Neville Creed.

Figure 1.

The Royal party, members of Council and past Presidents before the start of the Convocation. Seated, from left to right: John Pethica, the Duke of Kent, Jean Thomas, the Princess Royal, Martin Rees, Her Majesty The Queen, Prince Philip, Peter Williams, Prince William, Lorna Casselton and Stephen Cox. Second row, standing, from left to right, Alastair Fitter, Richard Friend, Matthew Freeman, Nancy Rothwell, Bob May, Aaron Klug, Michael Atiyah, Christopher Llewellyn Smith, Ann Dowling, David Barford and Michael Berry. Third row, standing, from left to right: Richard Catlow, Brian Greenwood, Andrew Hopper, Louise Johnson, John Pyle, Philip Ruffles, Bernard Silverman and Semir Zeki. (Online version in colour.)

The President then formally admitted Prince William to the Society as a Royal Fellow; Prince William signed the Charter Book and made a speech of acceptance (figure 2). This was followed by the President's formal address to the Convocation (figure 3) and a reply by Professor C. N. R. Rao FRS (figure 4). After concluding remarks by the President, the London Philharmonic Choir led the Convocation in the singing of two verses of the National Anthem, and the Royal party left the stage.

Figure 2.

Prince William giving his speech of acceptance after signing the Charter Book, which lies on Robert Hooke's table to his right. (Online version in colour.)

Figure 3.

Lord Rees addressing the Convocation. (Online version in colour.)

Figure 4.

Professor C. N. R. Rao responding on behalf of the Fellowship. (Online version in colour.)

The Society's Summer Science Exhibition was then opened for the Royal party and participants in the Convocation, and a reception was held while the Fellows and their guests enjoyed the 28 selected exhibits (figure 5).

Figure 5.

Prince Philip, the President and Her Majesty The Queen enjoying some of the Society's treasures; these are, clockwise from the front, the manuscript of Newton's Principia (1685), a reflecting telescope made by Newton (1671), William Stukeley's manuscript memoir of Newton's life (1752), a Georg Ehret watercolour of aloes in Chelsea Physic Garden (1737), and a watercolour of Dorothy Hodgkin by Graham Sutherland (1980). (Online version in colour.)

The proceedings were filmed for archival purposes.

Speech of acceptance by HRH Prince William of Wales, KG

Your Majesty, Fellows of the Royal Society:

To be standing here as the Royal Society's most junior Fellow, on the 350th Anniversary of the founding of this, the world's most illustrious scientific body, is, quite simply, the most extraordinary honour for me. I have to say that, if I look at the names of some of the great Fellows—Boyle, Newton, Banks, Darwin and our current President, Lord Rees—I realize the incredible history of this Society.

It's not just a great honour. It's also very exciting, as I am acutely aware of how vital science is to the life of this nation, and to the world. My generation will have to engage with science more fully, perhaps, than any that has preceded it. It will be through science, after all, that the world will meet and overcome the challenges of climate change, food security, water scarcity and pandemic disease.

Science on its own, though, is not the whole answer. Its practice must be in partnership with this total engagement of my own and future generations. It is through the genius and example of the great scientists gathered here today, and those, like the University Research Fellows, who will join our Fellowship over the coming decades, that ultimate success will, I'm sure, be achieved.

It means a great deal to me to be following in the footsteps of not only the Patron, my grandmother, but also my grandfather and father who, incidentally, were both 29 years old when they were admitted to the Society. I am 28—which just shows what a geography degree can do!

I am so proud of my family's long and close association with the Society, and I am equally proud to have been given the opportunity to carry on that great tradition.

Thank you, Fellows, for this great privilege.

Address by the President, Lord Rees of Ludlow, OM Kt

Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Fellows, Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen:

On behalf of us all let me thank your Majesty for being here today and, even more, for your supportive patronage of the Society throughout your reign. And let me also thank Prince William for his eloquent and thought-provoking speech.

It is 59 years since our senior Fellow His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh was elected. His keen involvement ever since in science, engineering and technology has been an immense encouragement and stimulus, not just in this country but throughout the Commonwealth.

Prince William's Royal Fellowship forges a link with a new generation. We wish him an equally close involvement—and an equally long-sustained one. His words today have given us great encouragement.

As we've been reminded already, the Royal Society does not over-indulge in ceremonial celebrations. It is only every 50 years that we have a Convocation like this—gathering under one roof so many of our Fellows and others who share the Society's mission. We specially welcome those who have come great distances to be here. We're touched by the many goodwill messages that we've received from around the world, extolling the Society's work.

There are some differences between today's programme and the 1960 event. Then, the President, Cyril Hinshelwood, spoke for a whole hour. In this soundbite era, I promise to be much more succinct, albeit also less eloquent, than he was.

At the Society's earliest meetings Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, Samuel Pepys and other ‘ingenious and curious gentlemen’ (as they described themselves) viewed all kinds of experiments, sometimes rather gruesome ones—blood transfusions and the like. They peered through newly invented telescopes and microscopes; they heard travellers' tales, and dissected weird animals. They were, in Francis Bacon's phrase, ‘merchants of light’—seeking knowledge for its own sake. Their curiosity seemed boundless. But, for Bacon, discovery had a second motive: ‘the relief of man's estate’. And our founders were indeed immersed in the practical agenda of their era—improving navigation and the navy, exploring the New World, and rebuilding London after the Great Fire.

Three hundred and fifty years later, human horizons have hugely expanded; no new continents remain to be discovered. Our Earth no longer offers an open frontier, but seems constricted and crowded—a ‘pale blue dot’ in the immense cosmos.

And the Royal Society is a vastly different institution. But its essence actually hasn't changed. Today's Fellows—and all the young scientists we support—have the same motivations as their forebears. They probe nature and nature's laws for their intrinsic value. And their engagement with society and with public affairs is still strong—though today's focus is not just on London, nor even on our one nation, but often on issues that affect the entire world.

For most of the Society's history, its Fellows were gentleman amateurs. Indeed, there were few professional researchers anywhere before the twentieth century: the word ‘scientist’ was not coined until 1840. An archetype was Joseph Banks—the formidable figure in the biggest picture on this stage. As a young man, he voyaged with Captain Cook to the South Pacific. He later became the Society's President, and remained in office for 42 years.

Modern Presidents do not have Banks's staying power. They serve five-year terms, and I'm delighted that three of my predecessors (Michael Atiyah, Aaron Klug and Bob May) are here today—along with my nominated successor, Paul Nurse. Nor do they have the financial resources of Joseph Banks, who subsidized the Society from his own pocket. And we've moved even further from the situation in the 1690s, when Charles Montague (later the Earl of Halifax) was President—and was Chancellor of the Exchequer at the same time. The Society depends today on a combination of private and public funding—and it's good to welcome here today many of those who have supported us.

An even greater ‘gentleman scientist’ than Joseph Banks was Charles Darwin. His anniversary was widely celebrated last year. His impact on Victorian thought was profound—and resonates even more today. His insights are pivotal to our understanding of all life on Earth, and the vulnerability of our environment to human actions.

Twentieth-century scientists, our Fellows prominent among them, have probed the physical world, from atoms to stars, and the complexities of living things. Collectively, they have deepened our perspective on the world and our place in it.

It is a cultural deprivation not to appreciate the panorama offered by modern cosmology and Darwinian evolution—the chain of emergent complexity leading from some still-mysterious beginning to atoms, stars and planets. And how, on our planet, life emerged, and evolved into a biosphere containing creatures with brains able to ponder the wonder of it all. This common understanding should transcend all national differences—and all faiths too.

Science is indeed a global culture. But it is more than that. A former President, George Porter, averred that ‘there are two kinds of science: applied and not yet applied’. He was echoing Francis Bacon's sentiment in different words. And of course the applications stemming from the insights of Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, Rutherford and others on the distinguished roll-call of our Fellowship have transformed lives worldwide to an extent that our seventeenth-century founders couldn't have conceived.

Indeed, innovations happen with staggering speed. Many things we take for granted would have seemed magic even 50 years ago. The World Wide Web is only 20 years old—and we're proud to have its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, as a Fellow. Computers double their power every two years. Spin-offs from genetics could soon be as pervasive as those from the microchip have already been.

The Royal Society embraces science in the broadest sense—to include technology and engineering. Its proud annals show the crucial importance of backing exceptional individuals. We must surely continue that tradition. In the words of another former President, Aaron Klug: The major insights in science come from people who have the patience to develop an intimate understanding of a problem, who have the space and the freedom to take professional risks and who know how to make creative use of the surprises that they encounter when they do so. These are the people who make the enduring difference. These are the people whom we must nurture wherever we find them. We don't know what will be the twenty-first-century counterparts of the electron, quantum theory, the double helix and the computer, nor where the great innovators of the future will get their formative training and inspiration. But one thing seems clear: this country's standing depends on sustaining our edge as discoverers and innovators, on ensuring that some of the key creative ideas of the coming decades germinate, and—even more—are exploited, here in the UK.

Scientific knowledge is public. And it is international—indeed, the contribution of Asia is rising spectacularly, and may in the next 50 years surpass that of the USA and Europe. But its benefits can only be ‘captured’ by those who are educated and discerning enough. That's why it is in our national interest to maintain strong and broad expertise. Our science is, overall, at least as strong as that of any country apart from the USA. It would be tragic to jeopardize this strength: once the tap has been turned off, it can't readily be turned on again.

As well as supporting individual excellence, the Royal Society advances research by its publications, printed and electronic, and by its high-quality discussion meetings on topical scientific themes. But its reach extends beyond the professional community—into science education and public engagement.

More and more issues of public policy have a scientific dimension. That's why the Society has recently expanded its Policy Centre, so as to enhance its ability to offer authoritative advice. We cherish our independence: advice is offered whether asked for or not.

Public debate and political decisions should be based on the best assessment of the science. And it's the Society's responsibility, as an independent body, to provide such input to governments and, via the media, to the public. We must confront widely held anxieties that the uses of genetics, brain science and artificial intelligence may ‘run away’ too fast, and address questions like: Who should access the ‘readout’ of our personal genetic code? How will our lengthening life-spans affect society? Should we build nuclear power stations—or wind farms—if we want to keep the lights on? Should we use more insecticides or plant genetically modified crops? How much should computers take over our lives?

Science has never respected national boundaries. Back in the 1660s, the Royal Society proclaimed its intention to promote commerce ‘in all parts of the world with the most curious and philosophical persons to be found’. Indeed, science has often crossed national boundaries in times of tension or even conflict. Benjamin Franklin urged the American rebels to give free passage to Captain Cook's ship. Humphry Davy travelled freely in France during the Napoleonic wars. Western scientists retained contact with their Soviet counterparts throughout the Cold War. Collaborations straddle today's deepest political divides.

Any leading laboratory, whether it's run by a university or by a multinational company, contains a similarly broad mix of nationalities wherever it is located.

More and more of the challenges confronting us need to be tackled at an international level. To stem the risk of environmental degradation, to adopt clean energy and sustainable agriculture and to prevent pandemics, it is essential to develop appropriate technology, and to apply it optimally in all parts of the world. The Royal Society should be at the forefront of these campaigns. Our Fellowship spans the Commonwealth; our distinguished Foreign Members hail from all over the world. We join forces with all the world's academies, through the InterAcademy Panel and other collaborations, to promote these goals. The new Kavli International Centre at Chicheley Hall will allow a timely step change in our activities in these increasingly important areas.

Incidentally, we specially appreciate our cordial and effective links with the US National Academy of Sciences—though I like to point out that had events panned out differently in 1776, all North America might still be in the Commonwealth, and its members would instead all be Fellows of the Royal Society!

In the 50 years since the last Convocation, not only has science advanced amazingly, but all parts of our ever more crowded world have become more closely interlinked and interdependent. The Earth has existed for 45 million centuries, but we've entered the first century in which one species—ours—is sufficiently numerous and empowered to determine the future of the entire biosphere.

All too often, even the gravest global challenges are trumped on the political agenda by the urgent or the parochial. People tend to downplay what's happening even now in impoverished far-away countries to the lives and life-chances of the world's ‘bottom billion’. And they give too little thought to what kind of world we'll leave for future generations. It is fitting that the speaker who will follow me, C. N. R. Rao, is not only himself a great scientist but also an inspirational figure who has dedicated his life to India and the developing world.

Finally, let me quote Bill Bryson, another good friend of the Society: ‘If we have an Earth worth living on a hundred years from now, the Royal Society will be one of the organizations that our grandchildren will wish to thank.’

The Society matters, not just to those gathered here today, but also to the wider world and its future. Let us build on our achievements and be worthy of our past.

Response by Professor C. N. R. Rao FRS

Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Fellows, Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I consider it a great honour to have this opportunity to say a few words on this historic occasion, in response to the wise and optimistic words of our dear President, who follows a line of illustrious scientists who have guided the Society. It is also a most wonderful experience for me, and for all of us here, that our Patron and Royal Fellows are with us. Their presence this afternoon clearly demonstrates their support and affection for the Society. We are delighted that Prince William has become a Royal Fellow and we look forward to his association with the Society.

The Royal Society has played a major role in the progress and development of science, and in the lives of many scientists. I am one of those who is proud to be a Fellow of this great academy. I was born in the princely state of Mysore when the British ruled India. I now belong to a large country in the Commonwealth. The first major international recognition that I received was my election to the Fellowship of the Royal Society nearly three decades ago. This made a big difference in my academic life. Of the several science academies that I belong to, I have the greatest loyalty to the Royal Society.

The Royal Society has played a key role in the scientific world in many important ways. It has been the voice of science, and a voice of sanity, and has promoted science internationally. The Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, with which I have been associated for more than half a century, was started 100 years ago on the recommendation of a committee of the Royal Society. It was the first academic institution devoted to scientific research established in British India. Today, the Indian Institute of Science is probably the best postgraduate research institute in India, with 1400 PhD students working on various aspects of science and engineering.

Besides electing Fellows, conferring research professorships on outstanding scientists, and selectively providing grants for academic projects, the Royal Society has been responsible for communicating with the scientific community and with society at large. It can proudly claim Faraday and Attenborough as its own. It has given birth to, or provided the base for, many leaders in science. It is not surprising that most leaders of science have had close connection with the Royal Society.

In the past few decades, there have been major changes in the world of science. Not only has science itself changed, but also the way in which we do science. There is greater science-based human migration. There is increasing impact of science on technology and vice versa. Investment in science has undergone an increase in many countries. Collaborative and group efforts are getting to be common and even necessary.

In the years to come, scientific collaboration will become essential to tackle global problems associated with climate, energy, food security, water and such areas. I have no doubt that the Royal Society will continue to take serious interest in global problems through interaction with other countries, specially those that may not be equipped to participate fully. It will be beneficial if the Royal Society establishes even greater contact with scientists and individuals of eminence in various countries.

There is increasing recognition that expertise in science alone is not sufficient for global leadership. The term ‘technology’ gets automatically attached to science, and people talk of science and technology as if they were inseparable. Innovation has become the key word in today's jargon. Competition for global leadership in science, technology and innovation has increased in the last 20 years or so and this has had some effect on scientific pursuit, in the sense that we scientists can no longer be just free thinkers doing science for pleasure. In this situation, the Royal Society has been a champion of science and has helped to protect science while simultaneously moving with the times. We all need the Royal Society to ensure that unfettered research does not become the less important component of national and international scientific efforts. We cannot possibly have a situation where science is not at the core of our plans for development and progress.

Newer countries have been emerging as leaders in science and technology in the past few years. Today, Europe, America and Asia contribute nearly equally to scientific research. In such a competitive world, the Royal Society has not only to assist Britain in its endeavours, but also to become the guiding light to the scientific community as a whole. I see no reason for alarm because of the competition as long as one is dealing only with scientific pursuits.

What I find alarming is elsewhere. There is a dark cloud looming large over all the civilized people of the world. A large percentage of humankind has not had the benefits that accrue from scientific exploration. There is widespread ignorance and obscurantism in large parts of the world, and this ignorance has resulted in irrational behaviour on a large scale. There is urgent need to inculcate scientific temper among common citizens in many parts of the world. This may be more important, in fact more essential, than any other international programme that we may be pursuing. It is my feeling that knowledge in general, and science in particular, could usher an era of equality among the peoples of the world. Although there may never be economic equality, equality in terms of knowledge—scientific knowledge—could instil the necessary self-respect and optimism among people to such a measure that we may indeed hope for a peaceful and purposeful world in the future. The Royal Society can play a major role in this social transformation. I have no doubt that the Society will deliberate on issues of this kind in order to use science as an agent of social transformation.

We must also recognize that a large number of the least developed countries (LDCs) want to become adept in science and find a place in the sun. Most of the LDCs do not have the necessary institutional structure in science and higher education. Although the situation may change for the better in the years to come, it is utterly hopeless today. I have seen universities in the LDCs without elementary laboratory facilities. The Royal Society can help in providing the necessary ingredients that make developing countries, specially the LDCs, scientifically capable. It was said many years ago that the British governed India so efficiently not because of military power but because of the graduates trained by them in Britain and in India. Through promotion of science in the developing world, the Royal Society and Britain will have connection with the future leaders in science belonging to a large section of humanity. Science education for the future generations should indeed be a matter of serious concern to all of us.

Let me say a few words about Britain and the Royal Society, although I am neither empowered nor have the qualifications to make these comments. I cannot help but take pride in many of the fine accomplishments of Britain in science over the years. It was often said that England had the largest idea density in the world. There is no doubt that this small country produced more ideas in science than any other equivalent area in the world. I would like the Royal Society to continue to promote and protect science in Britain in such a way that Britain will be the fountainhead of knowledge in the years to come.

In closing, let me express how wonderful it has been to witness the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society. I must thank President Rees and all those who have organized this great event, and Her Majesty and Their Royal Highnesses for their kind presence. I will certainly not be there for the 400th or the 500th anniversary, but I can foresee how the Royal Society may look like at that time. There is little doubt that the traditions of the Royal Society will guide it to continue to have a leadership role in the world of science. We have had wonderful Presidents and Officers through the decades. I feel certain that there will be successive scientists of eminence, with human concerns at heart, to lead us. It is indeed possible that the Royal Society will get to be known as a great science academy that has helped the world to prosper peacefully. I see a great future for this great academy. Thank you.

Concluding remarks by the President

Let me first thank Professor Rao for his inspiring address.

We are all grateful to Your Majesty, to our Royal Fellows (and especially the newest one, Prince William) and to everyone who has come, many from far away, to attend this Convocation.

It is customary, in closing a meeting, to say that we look forward to getting together again at the next one. But unless the science of life-extension makes amazing breakthroughs soon, this is a context where that is not realistic. But the other side of that coin is that this Convocation will, for most of us, offer a unique memory—a once in a lifetime opportunity to celebrate the Royal Society's legacy, and to look towards its future.

Our founders pioneered a new mode of thought—an enlightenment—where evidence would trump traditional authority. It is a mindset that has changed the world. As Professor Rao so eloquently explained, it is a liberating force throughout the developing world. Today's scientist crosses all national boundaries. Barriers of time are not so permeable but, looking back over the centuries, we must all feel some affinity for the enthusiasms and attitudes of our founder Fellows.

We cannot be polymaths as they were. As knowledge expands, we need to specialize. We are mindful of how much we owe to our predecessors—but also of how much there is to learn. Our successors in 2060 may be no wiser than us, but they will certainly be more knowledgeable. They will be tackling questions that we cannot even pose today.

When these formal proceedings have drawn to a close, I hope you will enjoy our Summer Science Exhibition downstairs and the reception that will take place throughout the building (figure 6). You will see a fascinating range of cutting-edge projects, presented by the young scientists who have done them. I hope also that you will be tempted to come back over the next week or so, to see some of the events and entertainment that we have in store, as we embark with the Southbank Centre on our Festival of Science and Arts.

Figure 6.

Convocation guests visiting the Summer Science Exhibition. (Online version in colour.)

I would now ask everyone to stand, and join in the singing of the National Anthem.