The Society, the Fellowship and governance
My Anniversary Address this year is inward looking, covering what the Royal Society is for, the Fellowship, especially with respect to elections, and governance of the Society.
What is the Royal Society for? A primary purpose is to recognize outstanding research scientists primarily from the UK but also from the Commonwealth and other countries, by electing them as Fellows or Foreign Members.
The research scope represented by the Fellowship is wide, covering all areas of science, engineering, medicine and mathematics. Election is a mark of distinction acknowledged the world over, and it is the excellence of the Fellowship that gives credibility to all the activities that the Society undertakes.
In addition to this important role recognizing scientific excellence, other fundamental purposes of the Society are to promote and support science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity. These objectives reflect the sentiments expressed in the Society's founding charters of the 1660s, which were remarkably prescient for their time. The quality of the Fellowship means that good judgements can be made about supporting the work of scientists at various stages of their careers and about how to encourage profitable collaborations between scientists. Promoting the use of science to benefit humanity requires the application of science to improve the health and well-being of humanity and to drive economic and social progress. This was considered of great importance to the founders of the Royal Society and continues to be of great importance today.
Science is central to modern culture, and the Royal Society needs to promote science through improvements in both the education system and public engagement more generally. This is crucial, because unless society is enthusiastic and informed about science, the scientific research endeavour risks coming under threat, jeopardizing the benefits that science can bring to humanity. The Royal Society has an important role here because it connects science outreach to the highest quality of science, a critical factor for the best science education and public engagement.
Science is an inherently international activity, and the Royal Society has always been international in its outlook. Because of the Society's influence around the world, it has a particular responsibility to foster scientific collaborations across national boundaries and to build scientific capacity in those countries that are underdeveloped scientifically. The Society also has a role in diplomacy, because most scientists speak a common language and share a common culture, and the relative political neutrality of science means that the Society can play a useful role in helping to reduce barriers between nations.
A major role for the Society is providing scientific advice for public policy. The independence of the Society from Government, its adherence to the highest scientific standards, and its separation of scientific advice from political influence, have meant that the Society's science policy reports are held in high regard not only in the UK but also around the world. This is an important activity because there is an increasing need for high-quality scientific advice to help shape good public policy and to maintain a healthy democracy. Equally, it is important to give good advice on policies relevant to science, so that the scientific research endeavour can be pursued most effectively. However, we need to be aware that giving scientific advice for public policy can be contentious and attract criticism, especially from those driven more by politics and ideology, who become frustrated when faced with the strength of scientific evidence and reasoned scientific argument.
When we are elected to the Fellowship, we should not only accept the honour and the recognition that election gives us but should also accept the responsibility to help the Society to pursue its other roles, to promote science and to ensure it is used to benefit humanity. If the Royal Society is to continue to be respected and relevant, these are responsibilities that we have to undertake, and to undertake them well.
I now want to turn to the Fellowship. Fellows and Foreign Members are elected in several different categories. The largest category consists of scientists who are elected because they are outstanding researchers, as judged by critical and rigorous scientific peer review. A very high quality standard is applied, which requires the highest-quality relevant reviewers. Usually members of distinguished national scientific academies are used as reviewers, although when necessary non-academicians can be used. In my opinion the emphasis should be on asking those who can give the best advice, regardless of academy membership. However, beneath this apparent simplicity of a focus on quality lie several rather complex issues.
The first issue is the number of Fellows that should be elected each year. If the numbers are allowed to rise too high, the quality standard will fall too low. But if the numbers elected are too low, the election process becomes too random and prone to unfairness, and the average age of election is likely to rise beyond the present 57 years, which is already too high. If election to the Fellowship becomes unrealistic for excellent researchers, the Society will simply lose relevance. Academies with a small number of places available for election run the risk of becoming irrelevant and ossified. Our present numbers of 36 Mainstream candidates split equally between physical and biological scientists seems about right, although there is a concern that this number has not kept pace with the expansion in the numbers of active research scientists. It may well be more difficult to be elected now than it was, say, in the 1980s, when I was elected. This situation should be carefully monitored and corrected when necessary. Until recently the numbers elected in the applied sciences and multi-interdisciplinary areas have been low. This is now being corrected and it is important to make sure that we identify the best scientists working in these areas. In some cases the Sectional Committees may not always be best constituted for the evaluation of such scientists.
A second issue is whether the scientific areas represented by the Sectional Committees are the most appropriate. These areas can considerably influence the balance of scientific disciplines represented by the scientists subsequently elected. Although the membership of the Sectional Committees is regularly refreshed, the subject areas they represent do not change quickly, and may not always appropriately reflect the numbers of scientists working in a particular area, or the quality of the science being carried out in that area. The subject groupings reflected in the Sectional Committees may be slow to properly accommodate emerging areas, and may also give too much emphasis on areas that are past their prime. My view is that the Society needs to grasp this nettle more effectively by regularly reviewing the appropriateness of the research areas represented by the Committees, perhaps by greater reference to the numbers of scientists working in different areas. However, I fully acknowledge that this is not an easy task!
A third issue, always difficult in self-elected bodies, is whether our nomination procedures properly deal with issues of diversity, such as research area, geography and gender. Specific nomination committees can help in these circumstances, and in response to this issue nomination groups have recently been set up to try and improve the breadth of election to the Fellowship.
Historically, the Royal Society was the Science Academy of the Empire and then subsequently of the Commonwealth, and scientists from these countries are elected as Fellows. There are also some slightly odd situations. For example, we elect Fellows from the Republic of Ireland even though it is not a Commonwealth country, and yet do not elect Fellows who are British with dual nationality who reside outside the UK. The numbers elected as Fellows from the Commonwealth are very variable between Commonwealth countries and are proportionally lower than those from the UK, and there are some areas of the world—Asia, Africa and Latin America, for example—where we barely have any Fellows or Foreign Members. These international connections give a global reach to the Society's activities that is important for science policy matters on the world stage and for promoting capacity building in less scientifically developed countries. My concern is whether we are being entirely consistent in our present approach to Fellows elected from the UK and other Commonwealth countries. In practice, if we elected proportionally similar numbers from Commonwealth countries as we do from the UK, this would be problematic for the Society operating as the UK Science Academy. My suggestion would be to consider Fellows from Commonwealth countries as more akin to Foreign Members elected from non-Commonwealth countries. The same criteria would be used for both, but a scientist deriving from a Commonwealth country would be elected as a Fellow, and if from another country, as a Foreign Member. It also does not seem right to consider those UK citizens with dual nationality differently from those with solely UK nationality. This is an issue that rankles greatly with many Fellows.
So what criteria should be applied to the election of Foreign Members and of Fellows from Commonwealth countries? Two principles are important: they should be truly outstanding research scientists of the very highest quality on the world stage; and they should be judged as either having already demonstrated a significant level of commitment to the Royal Society and what it does, or having the strong wish to do so. The first criterion should be assessed by appropriate peer view, and the second requires rigorous processes to ensure that commitments are already strong or will be in the future. Guidelines are in place for this but it would be useful to look at them again, particularly to ensure that the issue is explicitly dealt with at nomination for election. Finally, consideration should be given to a category more similar to General or Honorary candidates; that is, individuals who may not necessarily be at the very apex as research scientists but who are of great importance scientifically on the world stage.
Let me now turn to General, Honorary and Royal candidates. To consider these, I refer to two objectives of the Royal Society: encouraging the benefits that science can bring and the provision of informed and objective scientific advice through influencing policy, education and public engagement. Achieving these objectives requires not only the highest-quality research scientists but also other individuals with differing talents and experience. For example, these could be leaders of scientific organizations, politicians or communicators. If candidates in this category are scientists, they would be considered as General Candidates; as is the case now, their scientific contributions would need to be assessed to ensure that they are or have been sound research scientists. In recent years the numbers elected in the General or Honorary category have been low, partly because the numbers reserved for General candidates can be diverted into Mainstream candidates and usually are, which substantially reduces the numbers elected, partly because with only one honorary slot usually being available each year, often ‘no one is judged as being good enough’, and partly because it is not clear to everyone quite what General and Honorary Fellows are for. Recent changes have tried to tackle these issues by clarifying their roles, by grouping General and Honorary candidates together, and by not allowing diversion of candidate slots into the Mainstream, thus protecting the General and Honorary number. This grouping is now considered by a subcommittee of Council, getting advice from the Sectional Committees on scientific capability as appropriate.
Which brings me to the category of Royal Fellows, who have been elected to the Fellowship since the founding of the Royal Society. My view of this category is that individuals should not be elected simply for being Royal, but like Honorary candidates should be elected for contributing to science and the Royal Society, and should be evaluated with this in mind. This means that Royal Fellows are like Honorary Fellows who happen to be Royal. A final point concerns whether individuals in the Honorary category should have the suffix Hon FRS instead of FRS. There is a logic to this, but since we have never done this in the past, I am not sure it is necessary to change it now, especially retrospectively.
My final comment with respect to elections is the usefulness or otherwise of ‘suspension’ after seven years for a three-year period. This practice does lead to a useful focus on a candidate in their seventh year, and the suspension of individuals for a three-year period is meant to give time for a candidate to strengthen their case for election. However, I am not sure that this is the best way to proceed, and personally would give consideration to eliminating the suspension period altogether and just ask every five or seven years whether the proposers wish to continue with the nomination.
Let me now turn to governance of the Society. The Royal Society is a self-governing independent fellowship. This is particularly important when the Society is giving scientific advice for policy. In some ways the Royal Society acts as the major ‘unofficial’ advisor to Government concerning science, and the strength of its influence is to large extent based on its independence. That freedom is also important on the world stage because scientific policy advice is likely to be taken more seriously when given by an academy that is not too close to Government. Advice from the Society is usually taken seriously by the Government, which recognizes that we always have the option to go more public should we need to do so. However, this good relationship cannot be taken for granted. We have to work at making sure that we deserve our scientific reputation and that we are relevant to society as a whole. If we are not seen as being relevant, our influence will wane.
Within the Royal Society itself, the elected members of Council act as trustees and have overall responsibility for governance. There was a problem with operating under the old Charter because the Officers (President and Vice-Presidents) were elected for five years and Councillors only for one or two years. Given the time it takes to learn how the Society operates, a one-year or even a two-year period is generally too short for an elected individual to have much impact, running the risk of giving too much influence to the Officers and our staff. The new Charter gives greater flexibility over this, and the present three-year terms should improve overall governance. Mechanisms are in place to try and ensure that the composition of Council is balanced, for example with respect to broad subject areas, gender, and geographical distribution. Election is no longer tightly connected to the Sectional Committees, reducing the possible risk of individuals thinking that they act as representatives of a particular specialist discipline. Council members should be representing science as a whole, although it is important to ensure that there is sufficient scientific breadth present on Council for effective governance.
The Board of Council, made up of the Officers and sitting between Council meetings, has been reconstituted as the Executive Committee of Council, implementing Council decisions, preparing materials for Council, and when appropriate making some decisions on behalf of Council. There are also several other Society committees—in fact quite a lot of them—and it is important to link them adequately with the whole governance structure. Work is ongoing to ensure that all committees are properly connected, either by reporting to Council or Board, or on occasion by reporting to other committees. One problem has been how to strengthen links of Council with the major committees, such as those covering policy, education and audit. This is most effective when the Chairs of these committees are also elected as Council members, but when this is not possible these Chairs should probably be co-opted to Council, certainly when business relevant to the Committee is being discussed.
One of the strengths of the Royal Society is that, by definition, its trustees are drawn from very accomplished research scientists. However, this means that sometimes not all the skill sets necessary to pursue the objectives of the Society are represented at Council. Examples are expertise in business, communication, politics and philanthropy. This is why a more generally scoped Advisory Board has been set up that has members with skills in these other areas. This Advisory Board has an informal position in the governance structure, providing a forum for more wide-ranging debate about issues and initiatives that the Society is considering. These discussions have been very useful, and to make sure that the Advisory Board is properly connected, the Chair is invited to be an Observer at Council.
A really critical contribution to the running of the Society is provided by our staff. The Fellowship, including the Officers, contribute to the Society on a part-time basis and are very dependent upon high-quality staff individuals, who need to be able administrators and organizers and have the interpersonal skills to deal with sometimes eccentric and quirky scientists! They also provide expertise in certain areas that are not always well represented in the Fellowship. We rely heavily on our staff and it is important both to recruit and maintain high-quality staff and to recognize adequately the crucial roles they have in supporting the Society's endeavours. Our policy reports also require non-Fellowship appointments to our committees who are expert in other disciplines, such as the social sciences and economics.
A further point is: who speaks for the Royal Society, and on whose authority? Most of the time this is relatively straightforward. Official policy statements of the Royal Society are the responsibility of Council acting as trustees. All our policy reports have to be considered by Council once they have been through one or two rounds of independent review. After Council has approved a report, the content of that report can be used in public statements. Quite often, content can be recycled in somewhat different contexts to respond to new situations or requests for information. It is very important that as far as possible the Society sticks to this approach, because as long as our reports and studies are well executed and followed, it allows the Society to speak with authority.
Some bodies or individuals who have strong politically or ideologically motivated opinions about issues that involve aspects of science try to undermine the Society with the tactics of the lobbyist, using personal attacks, innuendo and half-truths as their weapons. They are forced to use these approaches because of the strength of securely evidenced and reasoned scientific analysis that the Society pursues, but that is why we must ensure that the governance of these processes is unassailable.
Sometimes the Society needs to respond over an issue which is not covered by a report reviewed and approved by Council, and these situations always need to be handled with some care. These situations are complex, but often the advice or comments can be couched in terms that are compatible with the aims and principles of the Society, in particular emphasizing the importance of reliable scientific evidence and reasoning.
Thank you for listening to me on these matters. I hope I have clarified why some of the recent changes in the Society have been made, and have also identified further issues we should consider in the future.
- © 2014 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society.