Congratulations, first, to those who've just received medals. They exemplify excellence and originality—qualities that the Society has fostered throughout its history.
At the Society's early meetings, Boyle, Hooke and their colleagues peered through newly invented telescopes and microscopes; they heard travellers' tales, and dissected weird animals; they viewed experiments on explosives, blood transfusions and the like.
‘Health and safety’ regulations render our meetings blander than they were in the seventeenth century. But our 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. Just today we've launched a booklet and Web site entitled Science sees further (http://royalsociety.org/further/), which summarizes the Discussion Meetings held during 2010. Their topics offer exciting pointers to what we'll know, and how we'll live, when the Society celebrates its 400th anniversary. So, at the end of a year when we've celebrated our past, I want briefly to look forward.
The first Discussion Meeting of 2010 had a truly cosmic theme: the realization that billions of stars in our Galaxy are orbited by planetary systems. In the coming decades we'll learn how ‘typical’ our Solar System is. We'll discover planets like the Earth orbiting Sun-like stars. We'll be able to image many of them, inferring whether they have oceans and continents, and what their atmosphere is made of. We may learn whether biological evolution is unique to the Earth, or whether Darwin's writ runs through a wider universe that teems with life. Were our biosphere unique, it would disappoint some; but, in compensation, we need then be less ‘cosmically modest’. Our Earth, tiny though it is, could be uniquely important in the Galaxy.
Questions like this—and about our Universe's mysterious beginning—are surely among science's great ‘open frontiers’. The controversies of my youth have been mainly settled. Today we're tackling questions that couldn't have been posed, even conceived, back then. Likewise, we have no idea what the focus will be a half-century hence. Were I not constrained by the nature of this occasion and this audience I'd have gladly speculated further. Instead, a self-deprecatory comment is more appropriate. Our everyday world presents intellectual challenges just as daunting as those of the cosmos and the quantum. Even the smallest insect, with its layer upon layer of intricate structure, is more complex than an atom or a star.
So it's fitting that the other Discussion Meetings this year addressed phenomena nearer to home. That's where 99% of scientists focus their efforts and of course where the consequences for society are most direct: vaccines and stem cells; climate and biodiversity; ageing; the evolution of society; and the impact of the Web. And one meeting dealt with cognition and the brain—the most complicated thing in the known universe.
All these ‘big themes’ interest a wide public, and this year we've made special efforts to expand our reach. Science should be part of everyone's culture; moreover, all citizens need some feel for science if they are to have an effective voice in discussing how it's applied. Colleagues sometimes moan that the public is especially apathetic and ill-informed about science. It's indeed sad that many citizens can't distinguish a proton from a protein; but it's equally sad when they can't find Korea or Syria on a map—and many can't. I actually find it gratifying that there's such interest in topics remote from practical concerns, like dinosaurs, the Large Hadron Collider, or alien life.
But, as we know, much public interest in science is tinged with anxiety that its applications could ‘run away’ too fast. For instance, if brain-scanning techniques can reveal when we are sincere, and when we are bluffing, that's the ultimate invasion of our privacy and opens debates about personal responsibility and freedom. And another fast-advancing field, synthetic biology, offers huge potential for medicine and agriculture. But when expertise in such techniques becomes widespread, there's a manifest risk of ‘bio error’ or ‘bio terror’.
One can readily list other concerns. Who should access the ‘readout’ of our personal genetic code? How will lengthening life spans affect society? How will robotics impact on our lives? Should we expand nuclear power or wind farms if we want to keep the lights on? Should we use more insecticides, or plant GM crops? How much should we invest in precautions against climate change and environmental degradation?
Such questions didn't feature much in the 2010 general election campaign. That's partly because they transcend party politics. But it's more that they're long-term: they involve planning decades ahead. And as such they tend to be trumped by more urgent items.
It's surely the role of bodies such as the Royal Society to keep these matters firmly on the agenda, and ensure that they are addressed on the basis of the best available science. And it's our responsibility, as an independent body, to provide such input to governments (whether requested or not) and, via the media, to the public. Indeed, at a time when the government's Public Bodies Bill threatens the perceived independence of many advisory bodies (and even their continued existence) our role has never been more crucial. That's why it has been a priority for the Society to expand its Policy Centre, drawing on the scientific expertise of our Fellows and other external experts.
It's a welcome step, incidentally, that there are now well-qualified Chief Scientific Advisors within most government departments. Not yet, however, in the Treasury—though I can't help thinking this would be worthwhile, even at the sacrifice of one economist.
Crises emerge unexpectedly that require scientific advice. For instance, back in April, the eruption in Iceland raised urgent questions about vulcanology, about wind patterns, and about how dust affects jet engines. In that instance, the knowledge was basically there: what was lacking was coordination, and an agreement on the acceptable level of risk.
Incidentally, there's a mismatch between public perception of very different risks and their actual seriousness. We fret unduly about carcinogens in food and low-level radiation. But we are in denial about ‘low-probability, high-consequence’ events that should concern us more. The recent financial crash was one such; but others that haven't yet happened should loom higher on the agenda (lethal pandemics, for instance, on which we ran a ‘fast track’ Discussion Meeting earlier this year). Global society is precariously dependent on elaborate networks—electricity grids, air traffic control, international finance, just-in-time delivery and so forth. It's crucial to ensure maximal resilience of all such systems. Otherwise their manifest benefits could be outweighed by catastrophic (albeit rare) breakdowns cascading through the system.
Among the ‘big questions’ we're now studying, I'd like to highlight the distinguished panel chaired by Sir John Sulston, which is taking a fresh look at world population trends, and their links with consumption and the environment. In many parts of the world, including much of Europe, fertility is well below replacement level. But India's population is projected to overtake China's, and could reach 1.6 billion by 2050. And by then there could then be a billion more people in Africa than there are today. Most of those in the developing world who are alive today are less than 25 years old; that's why a continuing population rise to around 9 billion by mid-century seems almost inevitable. But the trends beyond 2050 will depend on what people now in their teens and twenties decide about the number and spacing of their children. In Africa there are around 200 million women who are denied such a choice. Enhancing the life-chances of Africa's poorest people by providing clean water, primary education and other basics should be a humanitarian imperative. But it would seem also a precondition for achieving throughout that continent the demographic transition that has occurred elsewhere.
Can we specify an ‘optimum population’? I don't think so. What matters is not just the number of people on the planet, but how they live. The world couldn't sustain anywhere near its present population if everyone lived like present-day Americans. But we can't predict 50 years ahead what people's lifestyle, diet, travel patterns and energy needs will be. Consider, for example, how unpredictably rapidly our lives have been transformed by the Web, mobile phones and suchlike. An iPhone would have seemed magical even just 20 years ago. And spin-offs from genetics could soon be as pervasive as those from the microchip have already been.
I'm glad the Society is highlighting global population. It's deemed by some a taboo subject—tainted by association with eugenics in the 1920s and 1930s, with Indian policies under Indira Gandhi, and more recently with China's effective but hard-line one-child policy.
Another firm prediction about the post-2050 world is that, as well as being more crowded, it will be warmer. By how much is still uncertain. We've had major meetings on climate science this year—exploring how to reduce current uncertainties by better data and better modelling. But here, as in other contexts where scientists offer advice, it's best to keep ‘clear water’ between the science on the one hand, and the policy response on the other. Risk assessment should be separate from risk management.
Despite the range of uncertainty in the models, our current understanding (summarized recently in an accessible Royal Society document1) firmly suggests that disruptive climate change is a serious enough threat to justify its priority on the agenda of this country and others. However, it's important to bear in mind that even if there were minimal uncertainty in how the world's weather might change, there would still be legitimately divergent views on the policy response—on the best balance between mitigating climate change and adapting to it; the appropriate discount rate; the subsidy level from the rich world, whose fossil fuel emissions have mostly caused the problem, to the developing nations; and on how much we should incentivize clean energy, or gamble on a technical fix.
The strongest motive for urgent action is that the worst-case climatic scenarios predict really serious stresses within 50 years. If effective mitigation is too long postponed, a recent special issue of Philosophical Transactions A entitled ‘Four degrees and beyond’,2 emphasizes what could be in store. ‘Emergency’ remedies may some day become imperative. That's why the Society is following up last year's influential report on geoengineering,3 another taboo subject, as well as urging expanded R&D on carbon-free power generation.
Energy security, food supplies and climate change are the prime long-term ‘threats without enemies’ that confront us, all aggravated by rising populations. But there are others: 2010 is the ‘year of biodiversity’. The Royal Society hosted a conference on this theme, which brought together over 60 academies from around the world. Biodiversity (manifested in forests, coral reefs, deep oceans and all Earth's other ecosystems) is threatened by collective human actions. We're clearly harmed if fish stocks dwindle to extinction; there are plants whose gene pool might be useful to us. And massive destruction of the rain forests could accelerate global warming.
Across all of science, there is now less demarcation between experts and laypersons. Blogs and wikis may sometimes confuse the debate, but they enrich it too. More people want to access data and weigh up evidence for themselves. Current practice in responding to such demands is not uniform across all fields, nor across all countries. What are the best protocols for storing and managing large databases? What are the appropriate guidelines for making information available? It's not obviously right that anyone, whether a UK taxpayer or not, whether they have good reason or not, can impose burdensome demands on researchers by repeated requests. On the other hand, we surely need to facilitate open debate, to ensure that scientific claims are robust and firmly grounded. This is another topic that the Society plans to report on.
Incidentally, enhanced communication and computer networks are doing more than transforming how information is spread and shared. Our recent Discussion Meeting on ‘Web Science’ highlighted how data mining, mashing, and so on, are opening up new styles of research. Large datasets in astronomy, genetics or particle physics can be accessed anywhere. And a wide public can join in. For example, in the Galaxy Zoo project 3 million galaxies are being viewed on the Web, and classified by keen amateur astronomers. And in biology, 40 000 Playstation 3 enthusiasts are exploring the combinatorial options for protein folding, via the Folding@home Web site (http://folding.stanford.edu/). More surprisingly, wiki-style activity may catch on in mathematics. On the Web site of my Cambridge colleague Tim Gowers, theorems have been proved via a genuine collective effort, like completing a jigsaw, or the development of open-source software.
The UK this year
The year 2010 has been a turbulent political year, and I turn briefly to some of the fall-out for science.
The lead-up to the Spending Review was an anxious time. Would the UK follow the USA, France, and Germany (and the emerging economies of the Far East) and prioritize scientific research as part of its economic recovery and growth strategy? Or would it align with Spain and the Czech Republic, where these areas were cut? The outcome was better than many had feared, and one for which David Willetts and Vince Cable deserve our thanks, as do Adrian Smith, John Beddington and other officials. But the scientific community cooperated on a persuasive campaign, and our ‘Scientific Century’ report4 helped to frame the debate.
The UK has a fighting chance of preserving its science base. But major concerns remain. First, ‘flat cash’ means a real-terms cut, over four years, of at least 8%. Second, capital expenditure is being cut. It's welcome that the Diamond Light Source synchrotron, and the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation at St Pancras (the UK's ‘Biopolis’), are protected. But there will be pressure on other facilities and on international subscriptions. And third, cuts to departmental research budgets, those of the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs especially, could be damaging.
Science is a UK success story: we are, by most measures, second only to the USA in the quality and impact of our research. And this success has been achieved despite a smaller investment—public and private—than our competitors. We're perhaps number one in ‘brain per buck’. Even after a period of sustained real-terms growth under the Labour government we are still investing only 1.79% of GDP on research and development. This is below Germany (2.54%) and the USA (2.68%), not to mention fast-developing countries such as South Korea (3%) and of course China.
There's global competition for the most talented individuals, the most innovative firms, and leadership in high-tech sectors. There are tectonic shifts in the international balance of science. Asia may, within the coming decades, end 400 years of Western hegemony. So, even to maintain the UK's relative standing, we should actually be raising our game. And it's crucial that our brightest young people, savvy about trends and anxiously choosing a career, should perceive the UK as a place where cutting-edge science can be done. They need a sustained positive signal that the UK is staying in the premier league.
In lively research groups it's exhilarating when coffee-time conversation tosses out new ideas, and debates the latest discoveries. But all too often my colleagues are preoccupied with grant cuts, proposal writing, job security, and suchlike. Prospects of breakthroughs will plummet if such concerns prey unduly on the minds of even the very best young researchers. Confidence and high morale drive creativity, innovation and risk-taking, whether in science, the arts, or entrepreneurial activity.
The difference in cost-effectiveness between the very best research and the merely good is, by any measure, thousands of percent. So what's most crucial in giving taxpayers enhanced value for money isn't the few percent savings that might be scooped up by improving efficiency in the ‘office management’ sense. It's maximizing the chance of the big breakthroughs by attracting and supporting the right people, and backing the judgement of those with the best credentials.
This year's winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics, Andre Geim and Konstatin Novoselov, are important exemplars. Their work on graphene didn't need major equipment. But they staked several years of their lives, and their reputation, on their choice of topic. And Manchester University (with Royal Society support) offered the supportive environment and intellectual freedom they needed. (Had the current immigration ‘cap’ applied 10 years ago, incidentally, these two Russian scientists might not have been let in to the UK. At a time when there are economic stresses that are harder to alleviate, these burdensome and ill-judged new regulations are a manifest ‘own goal’.)
Even in these straitened times, support should be available to really excellent researchers irrespective of their subject. It would be ironic if a government traditionally unwilling to ‘pick winners’ in industrial policy were to attempt such judgments ‘upstream’, at the less predictable research level. We need breadth, to provide ‘absorptive capacity’ so that the UK can seize on ideas from the rest of the world, and to sustain top-rate university education across the board. But when it comes to the development phase, prioritization is appropriate, and the government has a role in improving the weak link in our system—the translation from research to commercial exploitation. It's good that there may be action, albeit on a limited scale, after the recent reports by Hermann Hauser and James Dyson.5
The UK's research universities are major national assets, because of their attraction for global talent, the collective expertise of their faculty, and the consequent quality of the graduates they feed into all walks of life. High-tech industries cluster around them. Cambridge, for instance, is the base for billion-pound companies such as ARM, Autonomy and CSR, as well as hundreds of smaller start-ups.
But the most serious concerns in all universities today stem from the imminent drastic reform of student fees—a reform based on faith that market-driven student choice will lead to an optimum system (which, incidentally, puts social science and humanities under special pressure).
Some restructuring is needed; indeed, it's overdue. Total enrolment in full-time higher education has risen from less than 10% in the 1960s to around 40% today. But this welcome expansion hasn't yet led to sufficient diversity. We can learn here from the USA, which is home to several thousand institutions of higher education: junior and regional colleges, top-quality liberal arts colleges, huge ‘state universities’ (many world-class) and the Ivy League private universities. Our system needs to evolve in that way. Our traditional specialized three-year or four-year honours degree is not appropriate for all present-day students. It is therefore welcome that both David Willetts and Vince Cable have advocated a wider variety of courses, and indeed a blurring between ‘higher’ and ‘further’ education. Students who leave university after two years should be given ‘credit’, and the chance to return later, rather than being typecast as ‘wastage’. In a world where we are living longer in a faster-changing environment, the importance of mature students and distance learning will surely grow.
But concentration of research resources should go further—not just as an economy measure. A student aspiring to a PhD needs more than just a good supervisor. He or she needs to be in a graduate school where courses are offered over a wider range. Without this second component, a newly minted British PhD won't necessarily have the flexibility and range that are needed for their later career, whether or not that's in academia. In this context one should surely welcome the formation of groupings of departments (as Scottish physics departments have done, for instance) that collaborate on PhD-level education.
Collaboration is growing, anyway: bibliometric data show that more and more papers have authors from several institutions. Indeed, one-third of them involve international collaborations. And in the ‘big sciences’ we in the UK benefit from the unrivalled shared facilities of Europe-wide consortia such as CERN, the European Space Agency and the European Southern Observatory.
There are all too few areas where this country is as high as number two in the world; we surely shouldn't jeopardize any that remain. In the context of total cuts amounting to £83 billion per annum, and a bail-out of the banks that cost £117 billion, it wouldn't seem prudent or necessary to squeeze the £4.7 billion per annum science budget—which should be a springboard to the nation's long-term prosperity.
Retaining our scientific standing, with all the economic and social benefits that this brings, is crucial. We need a 10-year road map, offering hope that, after four years of declining real-terms funding, science can share the fruits of the recovery that it will help to generate.
The US National Academies recently published a report that emphasized the need to sustain R&D even in hard times, and offered a neat metaphor: ‘You can't make an overweight aircraft more flightworthy by removing an engine.’ This message is even more vital for the UK, which must rebalance its economy away from overdependence on the financial sector. The government must acknowledge science and innovation as essential ‘engines’ for long-term prosperity and confronting global challenges.
The Royal Society
Let me now focus on the Society. Perhaps the most important development was the opening of the Kavli Royal Society International Centre, a lasting legacy of this Anniversary Year.
The Foreign Office has Wilton Park; and there's Ditchley Park, specializing in international relations. But there hasn't hitherto been any such residential retreat with a focus on science. Several people, above all Stephen Cox and Ian Cooper, had the vision that the Society, and indeed UK science, would benefit from a residential centre. Their browsings through Country Life led them to Chicheley Hall, a Grade I listed property that ticked all the boxes, in terms of size, location and conversion potential. But there was of course a second prerequisite. Our Council wouldn't have been happy to go ahead without some major new donation specifically for the purpose. We approached the Kavli Foundation, and were overwhelmingly fortunate to receive a lead gift sufficient to cover most of the purchase price.
So the Royal Society has this year expanded its territory in a literal sense. But it has done this metaphorically as well: not only in scientific research itself, but through expanded science policy activity, the extension of our education work and increased international activity.
Our 350th Anniversary Appeal reached its target of £100 million almost one year ahead of schedule, with the support of many Fellows. The campaign was led by a board superbly chaired by Lord (David) Sainsbury. But we've identified three unmet needs: support for the Policy Centre, for the Enterprise Fund, and for endowing the Kavli Centre (which wasn't on the radar screen at all when the campaign aims were formulated). To this end, we have extended our fundraising target by £25 million. There is still much to do. Independent bodies have an ever-growing importance—none more than those concerned with science, technology and education.
We are a smaller organization, in staffing terms, than several specialized learned societies, but our remit is far broader, covering policy, publications, grants, public affairs, meetings, education, library and archives, and so forth. We are especially fortunate in the commitment and quality of our staff in all these areas and of course in the pro bono input from Fellows, University Research Fellows and others. I'd mention especially Peter Collins, a fount of knowledge about the Society; and Peter Cotgreave, James Wilsdon and Stuart Taylor—relative newcomers, who joined during my years as President. And Ian Cooper—sadly not well enough to be here today. But above all we owe a huge debt to Stephen Cox. He has overseen, with a sure touch, the developments over the last 13 years, not least, of course, the events of 2010.
Special thanks are due to Dominic Reid and his team for overseeing the 350th anniversary programme and to Melvyn Bragg for his guidance and energetic involvement. Through their efforts, we've undoubtedly raised our profile. When the Society is mentioned, fewer respond by asking ‘Royal Society of what?’ There has been a ‘step change’ in our activities that we must sustain. We don't overindulge in ceremonial, but a clone of Dominic will surely be needed in 50 years' time.
But one feature of the Royal Society has a timescale that's not 50 years but merely five—the rotation and renewal of its officers. This year it's my turn to leave the stage, after a stint that has been a privilege, as well as immensely stimulating. My main regret is of the opportunities missed, and things there wasn't time to do. But I want to acclaim the present honorary officers, whose activities I've seen at close range: they shoulder an immense load, and nonetheless maintain an atmosphere of convivial collegiality. But I also thank those who were there when I began but who have left the stage in successive years—Julia Higgins, David Wallace, David Read and Martin Taylor.
In a few minutes I'll formally hand over to Paul Nurse, who I'm delighted to have as my successor. He's a good friend, and someone I hugely admire. He ticks all boxes: he's a great scientist, he inspires others, he's a fine organizer and leader, and he's a progressive idealist. But before closing let me briefly return to the theme with which I began: prospects for the next 50 years.
Despite the potential ‘downsides’, I'm actually an optimist, at least a techno-optimist. There seems no scientific impediment to achieving a sustainable world beyond 2050, one in which the developing countries have narrowed the gap with the developed, and all benefit from further advances that could have as great and benign an impact as information technology has had in the past decade. It's the political constraints, and public attitudes, that pose the deepest concerns. People tend to downplay what's happening even now in impoverished far-away countries—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.
We need a change in priorities and perspective—and soon, if the world's people are to benefit from our present knowledge and the further breakthroughs that the coming decades will bring. It's urgent to stem the risk of environmental degradation, and to develop clean energy and sustainable agriculture.
The Royal Society should be at the forefront of this ‘consciousness raising’—our Fellowship spans the Commonwealth; our distinguished Foreign Members hail from all over the world. We must join forces with all the world's academies to raise the global scientific issues on the international agenda. Our Society's role has never been more important. Let us build on our achievements and be worthy of our past. But academies themselves are apolitical, and the campaigning must be leveraged by individuals acting as ‘scientific citizens’—engaging, from all ideological perspectives, with politicians, with the media and with a public attuned to the scope and limit of science.
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.’
↵1 Climate change: a summary of the science (The Royal Society, September 2010). See http://royalsociety.org/climate-change-summary-of-science/.
↵2 Mark G. New, Diana M. Liverman, Richard A. Betts, Kevin L. Anderson and Chris C. West (eds), ‘Four degrees and beyond: the potential for a global temperature increase of four degrees and its implications’, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 369, 1–241 (2011).
↵3 Geoengineering the climate: science, governance and uncertainty (The Royal Society, September 2009).
↵5 Hermann Hauser, The current and future role of technology and innovation centres in the UK (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, London, 2010) (see http://www.bis.gov.uk/assets/biscore/innovation/docs/10-843-role-of-technology-innovation-centres-hauser-review); James Dyson, Ingenious Britain: making the UK the leading high tech exporter in Europe (2010) (see http://www.dyson.co.uk/insidedyson/article.asp?aID=IngeniousBritain).
- This Journal is © 2011 The Royal Society