Congratulations to all those who have received awards this afternoon.
At the risk of being invidious, I'd like specially to acclaim Professor C. N. R. Rao, who has travelled from Bangalore to be here today. His Royal Medal recognizes more than 50 years of distinguished research. But, over and above that, he's been a crucial catalyst for scientific excellence in India through his unflagging commitment and leadership—and an inspiration throughout the developing world.
And it's appropriate also to congratulate our three Fellows who gained Nobel prizes this year—Elizabeth Blackburn, Charles Kao and Venki Ramakrishnan—and the many who have won other major international awards.
This afternoon I want to comment first on some global issues. I'll then focus in to the here and now.
Events in the past year have highlighted the interconnectedness and vulnerability of today's world. The fall-out from the banking fiasco was worldwide. And there have been rising concerns about infectious diseases: thankfully, no catastrophic pandemic has yet hit us, but it's clear that in this context, as in finance, preventative measures require global monitoring and cooperation. There has also been stronger focus on crises that are less immediate but deeply disquieting: the pressures on energy and resources caused by a larger and more empowered population. This is the first century when one species—ours—risks irreversibly degrading the entire planet's environment.
To reduce such risks we shall more than ever need the fruits of science: vaccines against pandemics, better food supplies, ‘clean’ energy, more robust networks, and equitable policies to preserve ecosystems and climate. All these are rightly high on the agenda of any scientific academy, and they've featured strongly in our activities this year.
Food, climate and energy
The Society published last month a study entitled Reaping the benefits: science and the sustainable intensification of global agriculture. It was chaired by one of the world's most distinguished plant scientists, Sir David Baulcombe.
The global population has risen sixfold since Thomas Malthus offered his famously pessimistic prediction that human populations would outrun the growth in food supplies. But, despite devastating regional famines (generally caused by wars, distribution problems or economic inequality), food production has more than kept pace. We have, however, become unduly dependent on farming techniques that cause long-term environmental damage. Productivity must be further enhanced—but without degrading the soil or despoiling the ecology. The report's main message is that the ‘sustainable intensification’ of agriculture requires a multi-pronged approach. Improvements in farming practices, pest control and crop management are essential, but modern genetics and other biological advances must be deployed as well.
There is a big gap between sophisticated UK laboratories and the reality of subsistence farming. To eliminate malnourishment in Africa—and indeed to ensure food security in Europe—requires an adequate economic and political infrastructure as well.
Water shortages are, in many areas, a major constraint on food production. These will be aggravated by climate change—a topic that naturally remains high on our agenda in the lead-up to the Copenhagen conference next month.
The Society has of course been in the forefront of climate research, and UK scientists have had leading roles in the IPPC. It's sometimes asserted that the IPPC reports are accepted without enough critical scrutiny by scientists. That's absolutely not so—as would have been plain to any who attended the lively discussion meetings on climate change at the Royal Society. These meetings are open to all, and it's sad that those who disparage the science didn't attend them.
The 4th IPCC assessment came out in 2007. Subsequent work has strengthened the concern about dangerous, long-term and potentially irreversible climate change. Sea level rise could speed up; CO2 concentrations are rising at the higher end of projections; methane concentrations have also started to rise.
Everyone quotes a ‘headline figure’ of predicted global temperature rise: 2, 3 or 5°C. But the rise won't be uniform. Recent models from the Hadley Centre show that a 4°C global rise could lead to a warming of up to 10°C in western and southern Africa. Moreover, if our dependence on fossil fuels were not reduced, this could happen by 2070.
The models offer enough spatial resolution to address questions such as: Where will droughts be worst? Where will storms increase? What will happen to the monsoons?
The key—and uncontroversial—fact is that the atmospheric CO2 concentration is already higher than it's been for at least a million years, and is rising in an unprecedented fashion, primarily because of fossil fuels. The main downsides lie decades in the future. However, it seems that anthropogenic global warming has already begun. The last decade has been warmer, on average, than any other decade in the past 150 years. But there isn't a steady rise, because the ‘forcing’ by CO2 is superposed on all the other climate changes: El Niño, La Niña, and so on.
It's the consensus view that to ensure a better than evens chance of avoiding a potentially dangerous ‘tipping point’, the mean temperature rise must be held below 2°C. To achieve this, global CO2 emissions must, by 2050, be brought down to half the 1990 level. This 2050 target corresponds to 2 tonnes of CO2 per year from each person on the planet. For comparison, the current US level is 20 tonnes, the European figure is about 10 tonnes, and the Chinese level is already 5.5 tonnes and the Indian 1.5 tonnes.
The scientific evidence that underpins calls for action at Copenhagen is very strong. Without coordinated international action on greenhouse gas emissions, the impacts on climate and civilization could be severe. Because the key determinant of climate change is the cumulative anthropogenic build-up of CO2, this action mist be urgent. That's why the signal sent by the outcome of Copenhagen will be so crucial. The aim must be to turn around the annual rise in global emissions by the 2020s.
Reaching this target would be a momentous achievement—one where all nations acted together, in the interests of a future beyond the normal political horizon. Unless politicians are spurred to achieve real progress in Copenhagen, the outlook will be bleaker. Ironically, the political response to the financial crisis offers encouragement. Who would have thought two years ago that the world's financial system would have been so transformed that banks were nationalized, and so forth? Likewise, we need coordinated ‘outside the box’ action to cope with the looming climate crisis.
There is surely a moral imperative for developed countries to take the lead in cutting their carbon emissions and to share their wealth and skills so that developing countries can adapt to climate change and build their economies sustainably.
It's sometimes said fatalistically that the UK's stance is of marginal import, because our emissions constitute only 1% or 2% of the problem. But we have leverage in two respects.
First, politically: we have earned political influence because of the UK government's international leadership ever since the Gleneagles Summit, and because we've already enshrined into law a commitment to cut our own emissions by 80% over the next 40 years.
Second, through our science and engineering: we not only have a high profile in climate science, but we have the expertise to spearhead the technologies needed for a transition to a low-carbon economy—and it's in our national interest to take a lead. We need to keep our lights on—to ensure energy security for ourselves. But, beyond that imperative, we should seize the chance to pioneer ‘clean’ and sustainable energy to meet the entire world's growing needs.
Our energy R & D is still, despite some welcome government initiatives, on the same scale as it was in the pre-privatization era of the 1980s—minuscule in comparison with the scale of the challenge. But in the USA, energy took a big share of the stimulus package. Indeed, President Obama declared that energy R & D should have the same national priority that the Apollo programme had in the 1960s.
What are the ‘clean energy’ options—for this country in particular?
There's nuclear power. Many of us favour the UK having at least a replacement generation of power stations, and substantial R & D worldwide into ‘fourth-generation’ reactors, ‘fission–fusion hybrids’, and the like. But the non-proliferation regime is fragile, and before being relaxed about worldwide expansion of nuclear power, one would surely require the kind of fuel bank and leasing arrangement that has been proposed by the International Atomic Energy Agency. (In this context, our study of how to cope safely with separated plutonium, led by Professor Geoffrey Boulton, has been well received by the relevant government departments.)
There's wind—onshore and offshore. The technology is well tried, but government policy displays a lack of realism in the speed with which thousands of offshore turbines can be built and deployed.
There's wave and tidal energy. Here, the UK could lead. We have the geography—a large tidal range, and capes round our coast with fast-flowing tidal streams—and we have marine technology from the North Sea oil and gas.
And there's biofuels. There has rightly been ambivalence about first-generation biofuels—there is a tradeoff with land use for food production and forestation. A well-received Royal Society report last year set out the pros and cons. But in the longer run, genetic technology may have a lot to offer.
Another need is for improved energy storage—lithium batteries and super-capacitors—for transport, to smooth over peaks and troughs in demand, and to complement unsteady power sources such as Sun and wind.
And nuclear fusion (including of course the ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) project) remains an important area of research that could have long-term potential.
But a widely favoured long-term bet for Europe is solar energy—huge collectors in the Sahara generating power that's distributed via a pan-European smart grid. Achieving this will require vision, commitment and public–private investment on the European level.
If mitigation efforts are ineffectual, CO2 will inexorably reach a concentration at which there's serious risk of a ‘tipping point’. Some therefore argue that the international community should, as a fallback, contemplate a ‘plan B’: geoengineering the climate to combat the effects of fossil fuels.
In September the Society published a comprehensive assessment of geoengineering, chaired by Professor John Shepherd. The most widely discussed concepts entail countering the warming effects of rising CO2 concentration by (for instance) changing the albedo of clouds, putting aerosols in the upper atmosphere, or even deploying vast sunshades in space. The committee put a firm damper on all such options—this cautionary message is timely, as the possibility of a ‘techno-fix’ has an undoubted allure. The continuing build-up of CO2 would store up problems for our descendants—as well as having other deleterious effects, such as ocean acidification.
An alternative geoengineering strategy is direct extraction of CO2 from the atmosphere. This might be more politically acceptable, though it's not clear whether it would be feasible on the necessary scale.
The overall message is that geoengineering merits some long-term research, but it is not a substitute for the high-priority pursuit of mitigation. Moreover, it is in everyone's interest that any moves towards geoengineering ‘field trials’, let alone full implementation, enjoy the legitimacy that comes from robust frameworks of governance, accountability and public engagement.
No one could have been unaware that 2009 was Darwin's year. All scientists should be grateful to the wide community that was involved in the many high-profile commemorative activities, which undoubtedly raised public understanding of Darwin's life and ideas.
Darwin's work has practical relevance to the behaviour of viruses and suchlike: indeed, there was a Royal Society discussion just last month on that theme. But let's not forget that conceptual leaps have a cultural value that is worthwhile in itself. The impact of On the Origin of Species on intellectual life was immediate and profound—and of course resonates even more today, 150 years after its publication.
Darwin's anniversary year will now segue into the Year of Biodiversity—a topic that will be addressed at a conference here next January. This important meeting will be held under the auspices of the Inter-Academy Panel (IAP), a federation of 103 academies of science from all over the world who will be our guests for their triennial general assembly.
The IAP owes its origin to an ad hoc meeting of the world's academies that took place in New Delhi in 1993. A key impetus for this first meeting came from Anne McLaren, then the Society's Foreign Secretary. Its theme was global population.
The population has risen by more than a billion in the 16 years since the New Delhi meeting. It is now 6.8 billion. Barring catastrophe, it will reach around 9 billion by 2050—most people alive today are under 25 years old. The forthcoming IAP meeting offers a good opportunity to revisit the impact of population growth. And the Society hopes during 2010 to carry out its own assessment of the Earth's ‘carrying capacity’ and related issues.
The good news is that in half of the world, fertility has fallen below replacement level—empowerment of women being a key factor. If the same fall happened everywhere, then the global population could start a gradual decline after 2050—a development that would surely be benign.
But in Africa the prognosis is bleak. Ethiopia's population 100 years ago was 5 million. It's now 75 million, and it will almost double by 2050. Sudan and Uganda will more than double their populations. In 1950, Europe had three times the population of Africa. In 2050, Africa will have three times Europe's.
The rich world has the resources, if the will is there, to enhance the life chances of the world's billion poorest people—relieving the most extreme poverty, and providing clean water, primary education and other basics. This is a precondition for achieving in Africa the demographic transition that has occurred elsewhere. It would surely be shameful, as well as against even our narrow self-interests, if the UN Millennium Goals set for 2015 were not met.
Another issue that will surely concern the IAP—especially the African academies with whom our Society has forged special links—is migration. The combined effects of globalization, liberalized labour markets and ease of travel have led to international mobility on an unprecedented scale. Almost 1 in 10 people living in developed parts of the world are migrants. There's one big difference from earlier centuries. Those who voyaged from Europe to North America or Australia in the nineteenth century made an almost irreversible lifetime decision—breaking links with their roots and their families. Today, migrants can stay in contact with their homeland: travel is far easier, and communications are always open.
Governments are increasingly competing to attract highly skilled migrants. The USA, in particular, has benefited hugely by draining top talent from the rest of the world. This transfer need not always be a net loss to the ‘donor’ country—there's evidence of a growing two-way traffic. Some now use the term ‘brain circulation’ to describe what's happening in China, India, Taiwan and Ireland.
Nonetheless, the poorest countries face enormous challenges in retaining their all-too-few highly trained people, and even more in attracting them back. Africa's predicament is the worst. It shoulders a quarter of the global health burden, but has only 1 in 60 of the world's health workers. And of those, a survey in 2005 said that around half wanted to leave. Their loss can be ill afforded—it's doubly tragic if, having come to a developed country, they find they're not accredited—and doctors become cab drivers.
These issues warrant innovative international approaches to help developing countries engage with their diaspora. Maybe wealthy countries should reimburse enough funds to train two people for each one who is drained away to Europe or North America. We need programmes that encourage expatriate experts to go back to their home countries, even if just for short stays, to foster new collaborations for research and aid institutional growth.
To stimulate and inform policies in this important area, the Society is preparing a report on global science.
The UK scene
Let me focus now on some UK issues.
More and more aspects of public policy have a scientific dimension, but science tends to be trumped on the political agenda by seemingly more urgent, though less important, matters. Nor is the best scientific advice always taken adequately into account. In that context we welcome the survival of the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, under Phil Willis's effective chairmanship. It is disquieting to note how few MPs in any political party have any serious scientific interests or engagement—indeed, the Conservatives have not taken up their quota of slots on the Select Committee. Several MPs who have been its stalwarts will be leaving Parliament at the next election—one can only hope for some worthy replacements among the new intake.
In the last ‘reshuffle’, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) was disbanded after only two years' existence; science and tertiary education were shifted into an expanded Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). Few tears will have been shed for DIUS as such. But it is disquieting that reorganizations are imposed at short notice, and with an economy of forethought—the ensuing disruption distracts attention from a demanding agenda. It is reassuring that John Beddington and Adrian Smith continue in their key roles, and that Paul Drayson retains at least a part-time science brief.
We should welcome the appointment of Chief Scientific Advisers in further departments (including the Foreign Office)—though there still isn't one in the Treasury. (And, incidentally, it's welcome and important that there will be a new post of Chief Scientist for the EU—poor coordination all too often prevents Europe from punching at its full weight.)
When President Obama named the scientists who would join his administration he said that their advice should be heeded ‘even when it is inconvenient—indeed especially when it is inconvenient’. And his scientific advisers are indeed a ‘dream team’. We've been pleased to welcome Harold Varmus, Steve Chu and John Holdren to the Society for discussions during the year.
Professional bodies and learned societies all have a role in ensuring that the best evidence and advice is available to policymakers. But the Royal Society's coverage of all science and technology gives it a special status, and ensures that our advice (whether sought or not) deserves to have impact. However, to ensure that it actually does, we need to engage with Whitehall, with the media, and with all political parties—especially in this pre-election atmosphere.
Our ‘core competence’ as a Society is science: that is the only area where we should aim to articulate a consensus. In other aspects of their lives—in their politics, nationality and religion—scientists span a diverse range of allegiances and opinions. But it would be good if more of them—including our Fellows and University Research Fellows (URFs)—were to engage, from their individual perspectives, in wider political and policy activities.
Today we are formally launching our expanded Science Policy Centre. Its remit is a broad one: to address all areas of policy where scientific assessment plays a role. And in this address I've already mentioned several science-linked issues that are being addressed.
But I believe that the scientific community, and especially our Fellows, would expect the Society to have a special focus on ‘policy for science’—to spearhead efforts to ensure that UK science continues to flourish and is optimally applied to the nation's benefit. The autonomy of other bodies (Research Councils, for instance) is being eroded. In consequence, our obligation to articulate this case gets ever stronger.
To this end, we plan to publish, probably in March 2010, a report that will review UK science and innovation policy and chart its future direction. It will cover (and update), in a UK context, the range of issues that the US National Academy of Sciences addressed in its influential report, Rising above the gathering storm, in 2005. The advisory group for our report is a strong one: Sir Martin Taylor chairs it, and its members include two widely respected former science ministers and two Nobel prize-winners, along with a range of others (from within and beyond the Fellowship) who can offer distinctive perspectives.
The UK is a global leader in research, with a deserved reputation as a valuable hub in international innovation. Our strong research base is a complex and vulnerable ecosystem, and if we do not protect it we will lose this global advantage.
Our universities are vulnerable in many ways. The Far East is striving to achieve competitive excellence. Institutions on mainland Europe are competing for graduate students by offering instruction in English. Several countries (such as Australia, Germany, South Korea and Canada) have boosted their spend on science and innovation as part of a ‘stimulus package’.
More importantly still, the Obama administration has given America's already world-leading scientific community a massive boost—in morale and in substance. The allure of the USA is now much stronger than in the Bush era. Our success in attracting and retaining mobile talent will be at risk unless we respond. Even to retain our international competitiveness, we must raise our game.
The present government, from the Prime Minister downwards, deserves credit for its sustained commitment to science, in rhetoric and substantially in substance—a doubling in the science vote over the past decade. It would be tragic not to build on this momentum—once the tap has been turned off, it can't readily be turned on again.
It was thus a disappointment to us that, despite Lord Drayson's efforts, the UK didn't match other nations in offering a substantial ‘stimulus package’. Examples from previous economic downturns suggest that investing in the science base can be a driver towards prosperity.
All those whom we honoured at today's Anniversary Meeting (and who won major prizes) tend to be individualists—they certainly don't fit into a single mould. But there are three things that I'd guess they'd agree on: their achievements were long-term; their outcome was unpredictable; and they needed a supportive environment.
It is crucial to support the creative individuals on whom scientific advance depends. In the words of a former Royal Society 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.
When academics argue for ‘freewheeling’ research, they risk being accused of an ivory-tower attitude that disregards their obligations to the public. But I'd strongly contest that accusation—it's only by supporting such research that we can sustain high-quality universities, which are themselves of immense economic and social value to the nation. Much of economic growth that benefits all citizens can be traced back to research that starts in universities—generally a decade or two earlier. They are sources of expertise spanning the public and private sector, and a magnet for talent from around the world.
To ensure that our universities stay internationally competitive, they must attract world-class faculty. To do this, it's crucial that they offer faculty members the prospect, without undue hassle, of gaining ‘responsive mode’ funding for the research to which they're prepared to dedicate their lives. That's a fair expectation if you're at Harvard, Stanford or Berkeley; it must be so here if we're to compete for mobile talent at the highest academic level.
I emphasize this point because there's a risk that current efforts to prioritize and ‘audit’ academic research will backfire, by eroding the strength of our universities and thereby weakening the UK's competitiveness as a high-tech nation.
The impacts of science are often felt far away from the time and place of the original research. A recent report from the MRC, the Wellcome Trust and the Academy of Medical Sciences concluded that, even in medicine, where research is often highly targeted, the lag between scientific research and health benefit can be anywhere from 10 to 25 years.
Indeed, there is increasing evidence that academic research has high financial returns. Where economists have sought to reduce rates of return on public investment to a single number, they have arrived at figures of 20% or more. Patents now cite publicly funded science more than ever.
We can't confidently predict how, when or whether a specific research project will ‘pay off’. The social or economic benefit should not be credited solely to the most immediately relevant project, any more than a win at football is due solely to the team members who actually score the goals. The lineage of a ‘spin-off’ can be traced back to a surprisingly diverse range of influences. The overall impact of the UK's science and technology depends on ensuring that enough top-rate intellects enter the profession—and choose to work in this country.
But we should downplay the distinction between applied and ‘not yet applied’ science. Whether our motive is curiosity, or whether there is a practical goal in sight, ‘problem solving’ is the activity that motivates us all. The mindset is the same, whether one is an engineer facing a novel design challenge, or an astronomer mapping the remote cosmos. There is as much intellectual challenge in the applications as in the science itself—a point neatly made by an old New Yorker cartoon showing two beavers looking up at a huge hydroelectric dam. One beaver says, ‘I didn't actually build it, but it's based on my idea.’ In that connection I welcome our closer interactions with the Royal Academy of Engineering, now fully installed in 3–4 Carlton House Terrace. (Almost next door—only the Turf Club comes between us.)
It's in the UK's interests to support real academic excellence right across the board—and indeed it's affordable even in these straitened times. This support, directed to those with the highest international standing or the greatest promise, should come from within the ‘ring-fenced’ science budget—a policy that served us well in earlier decades. It would be ironic if a government that has been traditionally unwilling to ‘pick winners’ in industrial policy were to aspire to make such judgments ‘upstream’, at the less predictable research level. But—just to be clear—obvious funding outside the ‘ring fence’, for development, translational research and commercial start-ups, must plainly be selective, and channelled according to priorities broader than the science itself. (This latter funding includes, of course, other government departments, and Public Sector Research Establishments, with a turnover of £2.9 billion—and of course the R & D effort in the private sector.)
A Royal Society report entitled Hidden wealth, prepared under the chairmanship of Professor David Rhind, highlighted the importance of science, mathematics and computing outside the manufacturing sector—not just in finance, where the benefits of over-sophistication have been ambivalent, but also throughout the service sector. We now have a better understanding of the UK's relative strengths in ‘hidden’ but high-value areas of science and innovation, which don't always show up in international comparisons.
I make no apology for reiterating a point I made last year—the need to inject more (and more diversely sourced) resources into physical sciences. These sciences are the basis for information technology, electronics and ‘clean energy’ (and indeed a substantial part of medical research). But whereas biomedical sciences can draw on the Wellcome Trust, the medical charities and the pharmaceutical industry to supplement government funding, there are no real counterparts of these private sources for the physical sciences to draw on.
It's crucial that enough scientists enter research and university teaching. Their supply depends on the quality of graduate education, currently the subject of a keenly awaited review by Adrian Smith. The last Research Assessment Exercise uncovered ‘islands of excellence’ in many departments across our entire university system. This is good news because, ideally, all undergraduates should be taught by faculty members whose expertise extends well beyond the standard curriculum and whose teaching is nourished by research, scholarship and reflective enquiry—that's what distinguishes a university from an institution for further education. But it doesn't follow that every university should be free to offer PhDs in every subject. A student aspiring to a PhD needs more than just a good supervisor: he or she needs to be in a graduate school that is large enough, and well enough resourced, to offer courses over a wider range. Without this second component, newly minted British PhDs won't necessarily have the flexibility and range needed for their later career—whether or not that's in academia. So PhD-level education needs to be concentrated in fewer centres than research excellence is.
In this context one should surely welcome the formation of groupings and clusters of universities that can coordinate PhD-level graduate education. But that should not reduce the opportunities for an academic in any university—even an individual in a small ‘island of excellence’—to do good research. This is one of the potential strengths of our ‘dual support’ system.
The expansion of higher education has been welcome, but it has inevitably spread public funding thinner. There has not been sufficient acceptance that we need to foster as much institutional diversity as in the USA—rather than a uniform pattern measured by a single league table. There is concordance, not conflict, between sustaining excellence and widening access. But we should not typecast whole universities. An ‘island of excellence’ could grow to be a major research group. Indeed, the strongest departments around the country weren't all planned for: many stem from exceptional individuals who were able to build up strong groups. It's important for the country that these opportunities aren't choked off. Recruitment of staff into less favoured universities would be unduly handicapped if it were perceived that, however enterprising they were, they had no chance of emulating the careers of those who built up biomedicine in Dundee, space research in Leicester, building research in Bradford, and so on.
Turning now to more ‘parochial’ matters affecting the Society itself, I'd like first, as always, to pay tribute to Stephen Cox, whom we're fortunate to have as Executive Secretary. His speech has summarized the key developments and initiatives whereby we will use the opportunity of our 350th anniversary not only to ‘promote’ the Society itself but also to raise the profile of science generally.
Although they may not always be apparent to Fellows, our international activities are wider and more diverse. We have extended our long-standing links with the US National Academy of Sciences, thanks to the generosity of Raymond and Beverly Sackler. The first Sackler Forum, on global food supplies, will take place here in two weeks' time—a follow-on from the report by David Baulcombe's group that I have already mentioned. And we have been developing our links with Africa—the IAP meeting in January will be a major event. And we have regular gatherings with other academies, as well as fostering bilateral links and exchanges. I'd like to thank our Foreign Secretary, Lorna Casselton, for her indefatigable travels on our behalf.
Indeed, I want to express immense gratitude not just to her but to the other officers as well—the Treasurer, and the Physical and Biological Secretaries. These are honorary positions, with a heavy load, which officers undertake as a supplement to their often-demanding ‘day jobs’. Each serves for five years, and one leaves office every year. This year it is our Physical Secretary, Martin Taylor, whose term expires. He is a mathematician. There are some common misperceptions of mathematicians—that they are solemn people of few words. But Martin is the utter obverse of that caricature. He's contributed hugely. He's been specially involved in educational issues. He has also, within the Fellowship, laboured hard to enhance the participation of applied scientists and engineers in the Society. And, as a final comfort to all Fellows, he's improved the obituaries in Biographical Memoirs. Martin remains ‘in harness’ as chairman of the Fruits of Curiosity report, but we wish him well in coping with the culture shock of his impending move from Manchester to Oxford.
Our new Physical Secretary, John Pethica, is a distinguished physicist with experience spanning the academic and commercial sectors. We welcome him.
I'd like also to thank the staff, who keep the place humming and sustain the quality that we strive for in everything we do—our publications, our meetings, our media and ‘outreach’ work, and our interactions with Fellows, URFs and grant-holders. It's fitting also to acknowledge the extra efforts involved in the planning for our Anniversary Year, which has been led by Dominic Reid, guided by a committee chaired by Melvyn Bragg.
Among all that we owe to Stephen Cox and Ian Cooper, I'd like to highlight their superb professionalism in overseeing the purchase and conversion of Chicheley Hall—the site of the new Kavli International Centre, which will open next summer as a major enhancement of our facilities and activities.
And I'd like specially to thank Michael Murphy. He has proved an excellent leader of the development team. Guided by a committee chaired by David Sainsbury, the appeal is very close to its £100 million target. This achievement owes a huge amount to Michael's efforts. We shall miss him, and we wish him well in his new fund-raising challenge at Kew Gardens. We welcome Alison Pemberton as our new Development Director. We still have much work to do, and I hope you will all consider giving Alison a good start by further support to the Society—relevant information is on our (now much-improved) website.
Finally, as we begin our Anniversary Year, let us glance backwards to our founders.
Back in the 1660s, they met regularly to discuss scientific ideas and perform experiments—experiments with air-pumps, trials of different poisons on animals, improvements to gunpowder and to pendulum clocks. And sometimes rather gruesome experiments in which the blood from one dog was transfused into another.
(Indeed there was a blood transfusion into a human—who, amazingly, survived. Samuel Pepys—one of the early Fellows—conversed with him after the operation and found him to be ‘cracked a little in his head, though he speaks very reasonably and very well’.)
Discussion and publication—the core of the Society's activities right from its beginnings—have become the accepted procedures whereby scientific ideas are criticized, refined, and codified into ‘public knowledge’. Over the centuries our journals have published Isaac Newton's researches on light, Benjamin Franklin's experiments on lightning, reports of Captain Cook's expeditions, Volta's first battery, Talbot's pioneering photographs—and of course, more recently, many of the triumphs of twentieth-century science. Sixty fascinatingly varied highlights from our publications, with commentary and background, appear today on our new Trailblazing website.
Last year we invited our Fellows to suggest what would be the highlights of the coming decades. We have used the ‘top ten’ to guide our choice of topics for Discussion Meetings in 2010. So we will be discussing some big themes: biodiversity, ageing, Web science, global health, climate, brain science—and the search for extraterrestrial life.
The ‘ingenious and curious gentlemen’ who established the Royal Society enjoyed speculation and sought enlightenment: they were, in Francis Bacon's phrase, ‘merchants of light’. But they were also intensely engaged with the problems of their era: the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire, improvements to timekeeping and navigation, the maintenance of forests, and the exploration of the New World.
Science has been utterly transformed during the past 350 years—and the world has been transformed by science. Nonetheless, some values endure.
Our ambition for the next 50 years must be to sustain the curiosity and enthusiasm of our founders; to aspire, like them, to ‘see further’ into nature and nature's laws, but also to emulate their broad engagement with society and public affairs—no longer just in one city or one nation, but on global scales.
- © 2010 The Royal Society