Select Committee on Science and Technology Fifth Report



25. We received memoranda from a large number of learned societies explaining their role and work and many of these submissions, giving full details of the societies' activities, are printed with this Report.[22] By way of giving example -

  • The Royal Astronomical Society is open to interested amateurs and has 150 young scientist members. It has three publications, two of which are academic journals. It has a library, organises meetings, and holds events and competition in schools.[23]

  • The Institute of Biology provides scientific advice, briefing for both academics and lay readers, holds branch meetings open to the public and works with biology teachers, through the Journal of Biological Education.[24]

  • The Institute of Physics has a Schools Lecturer who delivers talks to more than 10,000 children a year. There is an Annual Congress each year open to the public. They also provide a list of physicists prepared to lecture to children and adults.[25]

  • The Geological Society of London has a Fellowship of 9,000 academics and amateurs. It accommodates the Geologists' Association, an entirely amateur organisation. It provides the staff for the all-party group on the earth sciences.[26]

  • The British Psychological Society responds to a wide variety of government consultations and works closely with the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology on individual projects.[27]

  • The London Mathematical Society promotes mathematics at university level, although it also provides Popular Lectures for the public.[28]

We frequently receive memoranda from learned societies in the course of our inquiries and are grateful for the expertise and advice they provide.


26. The membership numbers of those societies who informed us of them, along with the Fellows of the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering, are shown below.

Table 10: Membership and funding of learned societies:



(April 2002)

Core government funding support (if any)

for 2001-02

Academy of Medical Sciences


Accommodation in 10 Carlton House Terrace (till early 2003)

British Computer Society



British Pharmacological Society



British Psychological Society



Geological Society of London


Subsidised accommodation in Burlington House

Institute of Biology



Institute of Physics



Royal Academy of Engineering

1, 270

£4.27 million

Royal Society


£25.9 million, including accommodation in 6-9 Carlton House Terrace

Royal Society of Chemistry


Subsidised accommodation in Burlington House

Royal Society of Medicine




27. Six of the learned societies who have given us evidence are overarching institutions, or "academies". As we have seen the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering receive grant-in-aid from the OST. The British Academy, which funds the social sciences, receives parliamentary grant-in-aid from the Department for Education and Skills for its activities. The Academy of Medical Sciences, the newest body, founded in 1998, does not receive grant-in-aid but is seeking government funding of £1 million a year. It already has grant award programmes and hopes to expand its activities with further funding.[29] The Royal Irish Academy operates in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It receives _2.7 million per annum from the Higher Education Authority in the Republic of Ireland but receives no UK government funding.[30] The Royal Society of Edinburgh is the Scottish academy. It receives grant-in-aid of £278,000 from the Scottish Executive Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Department.[31] Both the Royal Irish Academy and the Royal Society of Edinburgh cover all academic disciplines.

Views on government funding and independence

28. Two themes were recurrent in the evidence we received from learned societies. The majority of learned societies were happy to remain largely privately funded, fearing that government funding might interfere with their independence. The Institute of Physics, for example, told us -

"The Institute receives no government funding for its core activities and does not wish to. Learned societies value their independence. It is without fear or favour that societies like the Institute of Physics can either commend or criticise Government".[32]

The Institution of Chemical Engineers described its attitude to government funding as "wishing to stand on its own two feet".[33] The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering did not consider their independence compromised by their government funding. Lord May, President of the Royal Society, told us -

"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 that is audited. Recently we have given an independent report with 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".[34]

The argument that government funds compromise independence seems to us to be flawed. As is seen in paragraph 77, a few of those societies who reject the idea of government funding are in fact occupying crown property for which they pay no rent. Nor do we see any evidence of pro-Government bias in the Royal Society or the Royal Academy of Engineering. We do not think that receipt of government funds compromises the independence of those societies which benefit from it.

Equity of funding

29. The second argument raised throughout the submissions was for a fairer distribution of existing funds. The disparity of funding between the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering was one area of concern. The British Computer Society said "We believe that the Royal Academy of Engineering gives very good value for money, supporting a comparable level of activity to the Royal Society. Thus, the disparity in funding between the two bodies does not seem justifiable". It wanted to see the level of funding for the Royal Academy of Engineering raised substantially.[35] When we asked Sir Alec Broers, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, why he thought the Academy received less money than the Royal Society, he replied "we are relatively young, we are quite ambitious".[36] The relative age of institutions does not seem a sensible basis for determining their funding. Funding should reflect the work they do.

30. A few societies expressed a desire to see government funding distributed more widely, rather than going only to the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. The Institute of Food Science and Technology thought that -

"the funding currently directed to the Royal Society could be more widely dispersed to other learned and professional and scientific societies in order to ensure a wider spread of advice to government and public".[37]

The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management said -

"Many of the bodies that do not receive government funding could easily make a case for doing so. The fact that there is no obvious mechanism for accessing available funds is unfair. It discriminates against those learned societies with an excellent track record of achievement in favour of an elite few who are effectively 'subsidised' by the taxpayer and who do not necessarily represent the views or activities of other bodies".[38]

The Royal Geographical Society told us that "it would greatly welcome a more equitable distribution of government funds to learned societies".[39]

31. It is unrealistic to expect the Government to fund all the hundreds of scientific learned societies, and some would not want it. There would need to be some mechanism through which the societies could bid for government funds for core funding as well as project grants. There is no practical way that the Government itself could determine which bodies to fund. Societies would need to be pro-active, and provide clear financial plans for their use of government funding. Dr Rita Gardner, Chief Executive of the Royal Geographical Society, told us -

 "all of the learned societies and bodies act to a strategic plan, act to implementation objectives on an annual basis and those would need to be monitored against delivery".[40]

Government should provide a central fund to which learned societies could bid, but they would need to be prepared to submit financial plans and be aware that such funding would require demonstrable outcomes and accountability.

32. The present funding of scientific learned societies appears to be haphazard rather than the product of strategic thinking on the part of the OST. The Government must consider how funding could be distributed more effectively and rationally.

22   See volume II Back

23   See volume II, appendix 33 Back

24   See volume II, appendix 18 Back

25   See volume II, appendix 20 Back

26   See volume II, appendix 15 Back

27   See volume II, appendix 9 Back

28   See volume II, appendix 25 Back

29   See volume II, appendix 1 Back

30   See volume II, appendix 36 Back

31   See volume II, appendix 42 Back

32   See volume II, appendix 20 Back

33   See volume II, appendix 21 Back

34   Q 15 Back

35   See volume II, appendix 5 Back

36   Q 78 Back

37   See volume II, appendix 19 Back

38   See volume II, appendix 10 Back

39   See volume II, appendix 34 Back

40   Q 174 Back

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