I haven't structured my comments in exactly the same way as Jeff Hughes. First of all I wanted to say thanks to Peter Collins for involving me in this at the last minute. It has been a rather splendid two days with some wonderful talks where aspects of the Royal Society have been exposed to history, the history of various parts of the science in which it takes part, the pure science, the industrial aspects, the technology and biotechnology, the public understanding of sciences, the global dimensions of the scientific world, aspects of security, the influence of the Royal Society on world academies, and very much more. What I would like to do is to pose some questions that have occurred to me during the course of the meeting.
The Royal Society has, I think, been a catalyst in so many areas of science, not by making huge investment in any particular area but by excellence and everything that involves. We heard from Peter Collins this morning the way in which the real percentage of the money that they were able to use over time went down from something like 100% at the beginning to about half a percent by the 1960s and probably at a similar level now. Several people mentioned the fact that science is a global phenomenon and we've seen this repeatedly in the talks that we've heard in the past two days, with speakers mentioning the rather large role that the Royal Society has been playing in that global endeavour for the last 350 years. And I wonder whether the influence the Royal Society has had—and this has, I think, been referred to in some cases—has been in part related to the effective autonomy of the Royal Society. It has generally not been setting up institutions to control the way in which science was carried out; it has stood apart from State control. And that I think has had a huge influence.
There's also the comment that was made earlier this morning by Stephen Cox and referring back to the early words of the Society, namely to go out and to work with researchers in other places, with foreign scientists, and basically ‘without let or hindrance’ to let this happen. This wording is still used by the International Council of Scientific Unions, where we do say that we should support the belief that scientists can move around the world freely and share their experiences and their ideas without any interruption, political or any other sort.
There was one comment this morning concerning whether the tenure of the Officers should be limited rather than unlimited or at least variable as it seemed to have been in the past. I wondered whether any of the Officers in the room today would like unlimited tenure of office to come back in, or whether they would be perfectly happy with the five years!
Then there was the concern that science really cannot be planned: we should be free to follow our noses to some extent. Of course that's fine if the financial pot is pretty much bottomless—which it isn't. In effect there is some control: we have top-down policies, we have initiatives, we have grand challenges from our research councils, which are the major sources of much of our funding in the universities. Are we free really to do what we want? And does the control increase as the money decreases? There are some hard decisions for those who manage the budgets because, for example, the central facilities are very expensive to maintain and the decision has to be made about how to prioritize whether we fund more observatories or more exploratory ships or more synchrotrons. It's not an easy balance. I'm mindful of the words of George Porter: ‘Don't feed the applied sciences by starving the basic sciences.’ I'd like to hear some debate on how to set priorities and who should be involved.
The stories from George Hemmen yesterday were, I thought, charming—the expeditions that the Fellows in the Royal Society and others got up to in various times, and the freedom with which those expeditions were mounted and the tremendous work that resulted. I wondered if we had freedom to choose something like that now what we might do, where some of you in the audience would take an expedition and what would you do with it? However, I'm not trying to reinvent Darwin! I thought it was interesting that in Brazil, where they wanted to build this road for hundreds of miles across a forest, and although it didn't extend more than a couple of hundred miles in the end, the government actually thought about it and launched an expedition so that what was there and what was about to be removed or destroyed could at least be charted and recorded first. I wondered whether we would do that today every time we had a bypass or a small detour built by some heavy equipment.
We had a lot of visitors from Centre College, Kentucky, this morning, and I wondered at what point young scientists today become interested in the history of science. Is it when you get to a certain age that you start looking back and thinking about the history because you've been part of it? Are we raising enough awareness in the young scientists? I suspect we are, because of increased public understanding of science, but I am interested if there is awareness in young scientists that they are actually making the history that they and others will be talking about in another 50–100 years. Also linked to what Jeff was saying earlier about the importance of protecting the archives, protecting this information: it may be getting easier when you think of the digital age we're in, because keeping some of the material now takes up a lot less space. That doesn't mean to say it's going to last forever and it doesn't mean to say the cataloguing gets any easier, but it does still need to be considered carefully.
We heard today about public understanding of science and the fact that it's our responsibility to be able to communicate well with the general public about what we do. It's a strange idea and I think it's been referred to more than once today, because it's almost suggesting a division between ‘them’ and ‘us’. But at some point I'm the general public because I don't understand all of somebody else's science. So I have to have that explained to me as well; we're all of us the general public at some point, when somebody else is speaking. So it needs to be thought about carefully when we are explaining scientific ideas. Trust and mistrust come into it too, because increasingly the more we tell people what we're doing, the more we seem to be almost mistrusted. Maybe a little learning is a dangerous thing; I'm not sure. Of course, the public—that's us included—is being asked more and more frequently to have a debate, make a decision, vote for parliamentarians or whatever, on an issue that might have a basis in science, whether it's to do with vaccinations or whether it's to do with the dangers of mobile phones, but are we well enough informed and have we helped others to be able to handle those debates and handle those questions for our own sakes and for our families'?
Thinking about the global security issues, it would be good if the only thing we had to worry about when we were setting off on a long journey was whether a volcano was going to erupt or whether other natural causes had stopped us going somewhere—or, more topically, getting back from somewhere—rather than worries about terrorists and terrorism being a frightening cause of disruption in our travel. In many ways the world is much smaller and we're very dependent on air travel, as we've seen this past week. Young researchers are now much more actively travelling around the world, experiencing other people's cultures, their social set-up and their science, thanks in many cases to the Royal Society and the funding it provides. Does that bring with it a hope for the future that we will understand each other better at all levels?
- © 2010 The Royal Society