Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)




  1. Thank you very much, Lord May, for bringing your team along this afternoon to help us in our inquiry into government funding of the learned societies. Welcome, Mr Cox, and welcome, Professor Higgins. We have met as a Committee with yourselves in the past and we have joined in debates and so on. You know what we are looking at here, it is the government funding of learned societies and following you will be the Royal Academy of Engineering and we will have another session. We have not made up our minds about reports and so on yet, we will see how it proceeds. Let me lob you the easy one to begin with, Lord May. It is often said that we are tough on elitism and tougher on the causes of elitism in this country. How do you see elitism in terms of your organisation, the Royal Society, who get something like 30 million of Government funding? We have got an hour so we will all try to be short.

  (Lord May of Oxford) I will try and be short too but if I may just quickly pause because I am not sure that all your members know the colleagues I have brought along. The Royal Society has five unpaid officers: Treasurer, Physical, Biological Secretary and the Foreign Secretary. We had a Foreign Secretary several decades before the United Kingdom had a Foreign Secretary so in some sense Julia has precedence over Jack Straw. Julia, like 10 per cent of our fellows, is also a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering. She is currently the President of the Institute of Chemical Engineering, she is also a foreign member of the US Academy of Engineering. Stephen is our Executive Secretary, our, as it were, Permanent Secretary and our accounting officer. Back to your question, which I think is an excellent question. The word "elitism" I think is an unfortunate word because it has rebarbative edges to it in that it can connote a posh voiced product of a privileged upbringing. Equally, however, I would say that the Royal Society can in a different sense very fairly and willingly be characterised as an elite institution in that it seeks to support and recognise scientific excellence at every level and as the discussion progresses we will sketch some of the things we do in schools, the most important things we do oriented to younger scientists, the things we do to try and reach out more broadly and the things that we try to do in short recognising that science is an international activity. The Royal Society is a Commonwealth society, it elects people from all around the Commonwealth as well as Brits who live outside the country as well as non-Brits who live in the UK and Ireland. In everything it does it tries to foster and recognise and encourage excellent performance. If you will pardon an analogy that is directed, Chairman, at your past, I would say it is elite in the sense that the English soccer team is elite. That connotes a certain arbitrariness of choices too. I think it is probably much more democratically elected within its framework and the process of appointment is in a sense less autocratic than what Sven has for the England team. Different people might do it differently. You would be more expert than me and we may do shades of difference but there would be many people we would agree on. I say all that because if you do have an institution that stands for and recognises elite performance then you have got to be very self-conscious and self-examining to be sure you are doing it fairly and you are not just picking someone from Manchester United rather than someone from Tranmere by virtue of where they come from rather than how they perform.

Mr McWalter

  2. I notice in your submission to us that you said "The election process for the fellowship is based on a rigorous peer review and we are constantly seeking ways to make this process as transparent and fair as possible. We have recently broadened and simplified the criteria for nomination to attract a higher number of women and candidates from emerging disciplines or bodies, although there are relatively few fellows". I am particularly interested in that business about how you represent newer sciences, systems engineering, bioinfomatics, theory of computer science, whatever, and the people making the elections may actually not have a clue about who are the leading practitioners in those areas, so you are not very well equipped to represent yourself as a cutting edge group. How would you respond to the criticism that where it is happening is not where you are?
  (Lord May of Oxford) Again, excellent question. Let me just say the Society goes back 340 years, goes back to Charles II, one of whose contemporaries, Rochester, once said "Since 'tis nature's law to change constancy alone is strange". The one thing that characterises the 340 years' history with dips and rises is continual change. The reason we welcome this with such enthusiasm, as I think any occasion like this which is a different kind of prompt for self-examination, is that it is helpful. We have been engaged in that over the last couple of decades. Let me tell you a wee bit about the mechanics and then come to the gist, the real guts of your question. We have ten sectional committees that cover the waterfront of science in the broadest sense embracing medicine and engineering. At the same time the Society is in its very nature much more integrative of different disciplines than fissive of them, as so many other things are, as the RAE arguably is. On each of those ten committees half the membership turns over every year, the entire membership turns over every two years and none of the paper that we solicit from the short listed candidates—we solicit letters not just from here but also from other academicians in other countries—is kept year on year. People are up for election for seven years. In that sense it is very difficult for anything other than a large and highly organised clique to, as it were, keep people out but, on the other hand, it is a human institution and you have got to try very deliberately to guard about yesterday's hot subject having built a pyramid beneath it, electing more of it. Hence, I in particular worry a lot about newly emerging disciplines or about people, particularly the conjunction of the two, people in newly emerging disciplines who are in places that are not centres of science more generally. The example we elected last year who was overlooked for long year would be Tim Berners-Lee who created something very new but did it in a way that did not produce many scholarly publications and did it at a centre for elementary particle physics. What do we do to try and guard against that? Firstly, in every one of these sectional committees we now have a strict injunction "if you get before you a nominated candidate about whom nobody around the table feels expert in what they do then regardless of your impression that person is automatically short listed and letters are solicited". It is not perfect but it is a step. Secondly, and I think really quite important, we have set up a small committee of a group of the officers and a few other people that meets at the end of each cycle of elections to review what we just did, to look at the candidates' book and say "can we think of people who are being overlooked?" In conjunction with that last year I wrote to all Vice Chancellors and heads of major private and public research labs saying, just as I have said to you, "are there people we are overlooking? Make suggestions. We will not automatically put them in the candidates' book because if we really think it is not a good suggestion that is not doing anyone a favour but otherwise we will". Out of that process last year have come two of the 42 people we elected—we will elect tomorrow. One other point is worth emphasising. The Society's main criteria for election of mainstream candidates is contributions to pushing back the frontiers of knowledge in science, medicine and engineering. We have categories specially defined of applied and general candidates. Applied candidates are people whose contributions are not so much scholarly literature but are actually novelties in practical implementation of, say, fisheries policy or new advances in IT that are, in a sense, in practice rather than in academia. General candidates, the definition of which we have slightly simplified and I would say carried back more to the roots of the Society, are people who are notable figures in science by virtue of qualities primarily other than their own contributions to basic research either through writing, through leadership, through various forms of other iconic activity. By more rigorously enforcing a standing rule which we have had for a long time but which had tended to lapse in the enthusiasm of mainstream candidates to have more people like themselves last year and again this year we have a sprinkling of such people that I think hugely helpfully widens the breadth represented in the Society.

  3. So you have got mechanisms in place then for overcoming the sins of the past?
  (Lord May of Oxford) Or doing our best.

  4. I do not know if Alan Turing was an FRS, perhaps you know?
  (Lord May of Oxford) No, I do not know offhand but I am willing to give you heavy odds and bet he was.

  5. You do not have a computing panel. Surely whatever the fads of fashion—
  (Lord May of Oxford) Not true. One of the sectional committees, interestingly, is essentially an IT, computing panel.

  6. So, for the British Computer Society who told us you did not have a computing panel, there is one but they just do not know about it?
  (Lord May of Oxford) I get many interesting letters because if you try and carve the vast waterfront of science in the most general sense into ten boxes you put a lot of disparate people in one box. In the mathematics panel you put pure mathematicians, applied mathematicians, statisticians, and some people want to bring them together, other people want to emphasise differences. Feyman once, for example, did not endear himself to pure mathematicians by saying "Pure mathematics is like masturbating as distinct from theoretical physics or applied mathematics, which is like the real thing".

  7. He had a turn of phrase, did he not?
  (Lord May of Oxford) So too from time to time there will be different problematic committees. The one that puts together earth scientists, astrophysicists and the emerging but hugely important discipline that deals with climatology, that has uneasiness from time to time.

  8. So despite the fact that computer science is at least as old as many of these other subjects, dates at least from Pascal and Leibnitz, there has been no British distortion because those were people who were marginalised by the Royal Society in its formative days but there is no effect of that now?
  (Lord May of Oxford) Not in its formative days, that was the 1600s. If you want to read a wonderful vituperative screed against the Royal Society I heavily commend to you Babbage in the middle of the 1800s on just this subject, it is really worth a read. Just to refine an answer I gave off the cuff, sectional committee one is pure and applied mathematics and computer science but it also embraces statistics. Other aspects of IT would be picked up in engineering.


  9. Just to come back to my original question about money to your Society. Other organisations have written to us and suggested that there could be a redistribution of that across the societies and a better working together. How would you respond to their comments on that?
  (Lord May of Oxford) First, let me just give you a fact. The Society gets just over 25 million from the parliamentary grant-in-aid which accounts for 66 per cent of our income and just a shade over a third is money we raise from foundations, other private sources and so on and that private bit is up as a fraction. Just a few years ago the Parliamentary grant-in-aid was 78 per cent. Secondly, why do we have that money? Both parts of it have been increasing in recent years as the Office of Science and Technology—When I was head of the Office of Science and Technology I was more generous to the engineers than to the Royal Society, which people now keep reminding me of in both places. It has come in response to all of us putting initiatives to the Office of Science and Technology and the market, I would argue, working. The greatest single factor driving our increase in funds is they are throughput, they are not money we have, they are money we distribute as, as it were, a broker for OST. The biggest single chunk of that 25 million, about 16 million if my memory is correct, is for the university research fellowships of various kinds. That had a modest beginning about 20 years ago when the Royal Society was ahead of the game in recognising in the crunch of the Thatcher years that there were no job openings and we wanted to hold the best young people. We found some of our own money to do it. It was seen to be very successful and I passionately believe this is the best start to a career in science anywhere in the world, accidentally invented. Up to 10 years to do what you like where you like. Roughly half of them are people who are outside the golden triangle, roughly half inside the golden triangle, success rates are uniform from inside and outside. More than a third of them are women. Year on year we have been given more money to do more of this because we are seen to do it well and we do it so cheaply because nearly all the labour involved is the free labour of the fellowship and others that we engage in that process. I think any recommendation for a redistribution, which obviously I would reflexively resist and others would reflexively welcome, is a recommendation essentially to overturn the workings of peer review, the evaluative things and asking what is the best way to spend the money. I would very much hope, particularly from you, Chairman, and the spirit that we share that your recommendations would be much more along the line of asking for more money for everybody. I have got a wonderful plate of things that I want to offer for your endorsement.

  10. We hear what you say. I will just declare an interest. I was a Research Fellow of the Royal Society, so let us get that out of the way so they cannot catch me out.
  (Lord May of Oxford) We make mistakes.

  Chairman: There is always one that slips in.

Dr Murrison

  11. Lord May, it is impertinent for a Committee like this to get into the weeds of how you spend your money but seeing as you admit you receive such a large portion from the public purse we are enjoined to do so. One thing that I noticed particularly was what is described as "Russia, etc." in your break down of spend for 2001-02 and it is 600,000. That, as against the rest of your international support, strikes me as a great big chunk. I am fascinated to know why Russia has been so favoured.
  (Lord May of Oxford) Before referring it to Julia and Stephen I would say for goodness sake, and this is not an apologetic note, it is good to be forced in a different way to examine yourself. Furthermore, you are constituted to ask us questions about the money, you are not constituted to ask us questions about how we elect people but I welcome that too because it is good to talk about it.


  12. That is a red rag to a bull, watch us go.
  (Professor Higgins) I think the short answer would be that within Russia there are a lot of very interesting young scientists. There are not, within Russia, very many mechanisms for allowing them to come and talk to people in the UK or for people in the UK to go and talk to them, there are more mechanisms for some of the other countries we are talking about. That would be the short answer. The second answer would be to do with history and the agreements we have managed to set up with the Russian academies and others to set up these exchange agreements. Thirdly, I would like to say we are in the process of reviewing our entire foreign policy in order to check that we are happy with such different expenditures. Each of these will be peer reviewed, looked at by a properly constituted panel and will have been set up as part of an exchange agreement with the academies as far as I can remember.
  (Mr Cox) Julia is absolutely right on that, it is partly historical. Of course it was the former Soviet Union, Russia, etc., now it refers to Russia, the Ukraine and other of the republics of the former Soviet Union. That is a huge part of the world. There is an enormous scientific infrastructure in Russia and the Ukraine. Secondly, it is an area of the world where access traditionally has been very difficult and remains difficult for all sorts of practical reasons of language and travel and cost and so on. So the Royal Society's programmes have tended to stress areas where we feel we can make a difference, where our money will make a difference. Because of our close contacts with partners in these countries, particularly Russia and the Ukraine, we are able to facilitate scientific exchange. There are all sorts of major projects that scientists in the UK are interested in pursuing. We have a major project on Lake Baikal in Siberia which is an ecological project looking at what is the largest single freshwater lake in the world. These are reasons why British scientists are interested in going to Russia and why they are interested in having Russian scientists over here. The other thing I would say about Russia is that the calibre of the individual scientists remains extremely high indeed, particularly in theoretical subjects, and the benefit to the UK of collaborating with them is very substantial indeed.

  13. Two quick questions. You have a programme with Cuba too, do you not?
  (Mr Cox) We do.

  14. That does not figure on your break down. Is it "and others"? Why not name them? Some of us are proud to be associated with them.
  (Mr Cox) We do have a programme with Cuba and we have a programme with it in the medical and biological sciences, which is a very vibrant programme. It comes under "other" because the amount of money spent is really quite small but the scientific establishment in Cuba is relatively small.
  (Lord May of Oxford) We actually have three particular days in the calender, one of which is India Day, one is Japan Day and the third one is Cuba Day.

  15. Other organisations have said that they value their independence by not having government money. The corollary of that, of course, is because you have government money you are in our pockets and do as you are told, like every Labour MP does these days according to the press. How would you answer that?
  (Lord May of Oxford) At the risk of finding some of my American friends reading Hansard let me say it really is a very real thing that one should worry about. The US National Academy of Sciences, which is a wonderful organisation created by Lincoln around 1850 explicitly as an advice giving body for government, has by this time acquired a thing called the National Research Council with about 1,000 staff heavily dependent on a steady flow of money from government to undertake studies of this, that and the other, it publishes a study a day. I feel, as do many of my fellow members in the US Academy, that this on occasion handicaps the NAS from being too critical of the Government in power, so it is not a chimerical feel I would endorse. However, if you look at what we do, essentially all that money is coming from Government but it is coming in a sense in the same way as NERC or the Medical Research Council or the Engineering Physical Sciences Research Council and so on. It is coming as money for us at a much lower overhead because we are using mainly free labour to disburse in the university research fellowship programmes, in our overseas activities that we just touched on briefly, and in that sense I do not see that as a worry at all. It is not compromising our independence. We are taking it to do a particular job and it is a particular job that is audited. On the other hand, among the many other things we do we organise discussion meetings, journals, much of that is with our own money and, in fact, the journals bring in a profit. Then there are the international things that we do but there are also policy studies that we do. For example, recently we have given an independent report with our own money, that is my understanding. The money we spend on policy studies is primarily our own money. We did one on depleted uranium which was quite critical of aspects of the Government. Also we offer responses to Government consultations which are often quite critical, as was the one published on radioactive waste earlier this week. I have gone on at length a bit here, Chairman, because I think it is a very pertinent question. You will be aware that we were asked by the Government to conduct an independent inquiry into infectious diseases of livestock and for the first time, and this is for the first time, we were given the money to conduct that study. We had a thorough discussion with the council before we did that because it was a very thin edge but nonetheless the worry was that it was the thin edge of the wedge. We have undertaken that study on the conditions, first, that we drew up the terms of reference, we decided how we would do it, we put together the committee, we have no further contact with Government and we will publish the report in the next few months subject only to the scrutiny of council, our own internal mechanisms, and nobody in Government will have the slightest ability to influence that even in the most indirect or subtle ways in a manner that could exist were we too heavily dependent for our very core existence not on the throughput of money but on money that paid everyone's salaries. Yes, it is a worry but I do not see it as a worry for the Royal Society at all at the moment although it is something one should always be aware of.

Bob Spink

  16. Nevertheless in taking on that inquiry you enabled the Government to avoid having a full public inquiry into that subject. Do you not feel used?
  (Lord May of Oxford) There are three inquiries, as you know probably better than I do. One is a general thing into rural affairs and one, which I will not comment on, is a backward looking one on lessons to be learned, and ours is an inquiry that is designed to say in the light of current scientific knowledge and in the light of likely future developments in vaccines and other understandings—

  17. Let me make it clear before you go on because I am not questioning the validity of the study that you are doing, I am sure it will be an excellent study on its own terms and all the rest of it, but do you not feel politically it enabled the Government to get off the hook?
  (Lord May of Oxford) No, I do not think so. I am sorry, I am being a bit long winded. In fact, I was just in the middle of a sentence. If you contrast it with a judicial inquiry, first of all it would have been vastly longer. Our focus is narrowly on how better in future to prevent such a thing happening, or if it does how best to handle it. We put together a committee that has 15 people, five of them fellows, the other 10 mainly younger people, it has a farmer, an environmental group representative, consumer representative—

  18. You are into the detail again.
  (Lord May of Oxford) We have had wide public consultation to ask people what are the questions you think we should be asking. But then we have a wide range of really expert opinion to look ahead to ask what will be the role of vaccines in the future, what should be the strategy before the next war starts, what are the permanent processes of ongoing review so that this report just does not get shelved like judicial inquiries will. We have been able to do that openly in the sense of consulting people. The most recent progress report was downloaded over 5,000 times from the website, it has engaged people. I do not think it has let the Government off the substantial hook of asking in the light of what we are saying how you should do it, that will have implications, even though our focus is on the future, if there were errors made. It is only part of a troika.

  Bob Spink: You mentioned funding and we have mentioned the government funding. You said earlier about a third of your funds come from non-governmental sources. You started that process in 1998, I believe, raising money from non-governmental sources.


  19. You submitted another document today on operational costs in which you upped it by 2.5 million, so maybe you could explain the finances of it, the public-private funding.
  (Mr Cox) The Royal Society started in 1660 privately financed and our endowment goes back to—


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