Select Committee on Science and Technology Fifth Report


  80. The purpose of this inquiry has been to examine the funding received from the Government by the scientific learned bodies. These societies are not government bodies and it is not for us to say how they should regulate their own affairs but it is reasonable to expect bodies in receipt of large amounts of public money to submit to public scrutiny. We would not want to see public funding going to bodies who do not demonstrate high levels of fairness and transparency. Given the accusations of elitism, exclusivity and discrimination on the basis of gender levelled against them, it seemed right to include in our inquiry some consideration of the Fellowships of the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering. The membership of the Fellowship and its distribution in universities is likely to have some influence on the outcomes of the funding schemes that the bodies operate with public money.

81. Both bodies have been open and helpful in providing us with details of their Fellowships and election procedures. In evidence to us, Lord May, President of the Royal Society, said "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".[123] It is presumptuous of Lord May to seek to interpret our terms of reference for us, but we are pleased that the Royal Society is coming to appreciate the benefit of openness. We note that in 1830, Charles Babbage wrote of the Royal Society that it "has been managed by a coterie... [whose members have] opposed all improvements in the Society, all change in the mode of management; and have maintained that all those who wished for alteration were facetious".[124] We are delighted to see that things are beginning to change.

Application process


82. The Royal Society had 1,203 Fellows in April 2002.[125] Since then it has announced new Fellows for 2002. The Royal Society elects a maximum of 42 Fellows each year, who can be British, Irish or Commonwealth nationals, or residing in those countries. There are also Foreign Members, of whom up to six are elected each year. Staff cannot be Fellows. Election to the Fellowship is for life and there is an annual fee. Each nomination must be supported by two existing Fellows. These nominations then go before one of ten subject committees. Each candidate is considered on the basis of their CV, research record and a selection of papers. Independent references are sought for those who are short-listed. The Royal Society Council, elected by the Fellows, then consider the short-list and make the final decision. Candidates can remain on the nomination list for seven years. 60% of current Fellows are over 65 years old.

83. The Royal Society is conscious of criticism of its election procedures and has modified them in recent years to try and mitigate some of these concerns. The number of Fellows required to support a nomination was reduced from six to two, as it was felt this would help those who were less likely to know a number of Fellows to support their nomination, such as those in minority subjects or from institutions with few Fellows. Lord May, the President, has contacted Vice-Chancellors and the Research Councils asking them to provide names for which the Society will then find a nominator and seconder. The Royal Society is also keen to broaden election criteria to include those who have contributed to science in areas other than academia.


84. Candidates for Fellowships at the Royal Academy of Engineering are proposed by existing Fellows. All applications go before a Membership Committee and are voted on at the Annual General Meeting. All Fellows can vote. There is a restriction of 60 Fellows a year, and only British citizens are eligible. There were 1,270 Fellows in April 2002; 49 new Fellows have since been elected. Unlike in the Royal Society, Fellows are often elected because of their contributions to engineering, rather than their academic achievement, and thus it has a wider representation from outside academia. The Royal Academy of Engineering has more Fellows than the Royal Society, despite its relative youth. Sir Alec Broers, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, told us "we cover everything from biotechnology to pure computer software to civil engineering; there is an incredible range. We have this very broad spectrum and to have representation from all of those areas we have found this is the fellowship number we need".[126] In April 2002, only 34 Fellows were under 50, roughly 3.7%. In July 2002 the Royal Academy of Engineering elected its two youngest ever fellows, aged 36 and 37. Both are women.

85. The Royal Academy of Engineering has also made moves to improve its nomination methods, establishing a group within the Fellowship to identify areas in which it was under-represented and to proactively encourage nominations. Mr Jon Burch, Executive Secretary of the Academy, told us "it is interesting to note that eight of the 49 fellows up for nomination at the Annual General Meeting this year came from that group".[127] The Academy is also in discussion with the Electoral Reform Society about its method for electing its Council. Professor Broers said "both my predecessor and myself were very keen to make our elections to Council, etc, more transparent".[128] It did not extend this scrutiny to the election of Fellows.

86. We are pleased to see that both bodies are thinking about improvements to their selection processes to ensure a representative Fellowship and clear lines of applications. The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering should ensure that their selection procedures are fair and transparent, so as to ensure good representation in their Fellowships and confidence that they are not an "old boys' network".



87. In April 2002, 44 Fellows of the Royal Society were women, which is 3.7% of the Fellowship. Given the age range of the Fellowship, this overall figure does not fairly represent the pattern of election in recent years. Of those Fellows under 60, 4.5% are women. Of the candidates for nomination in 2001-02, 11.5% were female. The Royal Society's Fellowship should, if it is to be representative of the scientific community, have a female Fellowship which mirrors the number of women at the highest levels of academia. The Higher Education Statistics Agency estimated in 2000 that 8.9% of full-time and part-time professors in science subjects in UK universities were women. The Royal Society pointed out that if nursing and paramedical studies, which have more than 50% female professors, are excluded, the proportion falls to 7.6%. It does not seem evident to us that these disciplines should be excluded. Since 1999, 7.9% of the Fellows elected have been female.[129]


88. The number of female Fellows in the Royal Academy of Engineering is even lower. Only 15 of the 1,270 Fellows are women, just over 1%.[130] There are very few women at a high level in engineering. Of the 34 Fellows under 50, 20% are women. The Royal Academy of Engineering tell us that only 14% of current engineering undergraduates are female.[131] The Royal Academy of Engineering has several programmes aimed at encouraging people into engineering which have relatively high female participation, and in the latest round of post-doctoral research fellowship applications, 20% of applicants and 2 of the 5 successful awardees were women.[132]

89. We do not expect either society to appoint women to their Fellowship if they are not there to be appointed nor that they should move to any sort of quota. We recognise that both bodies are aware of the lack of women in their fields and making efforts to encourage women and remove barriers to their success in science. We note that Lord May told us "once women get into the candidate pool they do slightly better than men".[133] Though the low level of female Fellows is disappointing, we have found no evidence of discrimination. We do not think that the present low level of female Fellows in the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering represents any discrimination against women. We urge both bodies to extend their efforts to encourage women to continue with scientific research and engineering careers.


90. The Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering do not carry out any ethnic monitoring for their Fellowships. This is not the case for paid positions or awards; applications forms include clear sections on ethnicity and other equal opportunities considerations. When we asked Lord May about the lack of ethnic monitoring for Royal Society Fellows, he replied "I could tell you the statistics and particular people. It is not that we are doing it through any sense of obligation, as it were, these people are ace people, they just happen to be Malaysian, Indian and other such things".[134] Professor Higgins added "We do, of course, know how many Indian Fellows we have because they are part of the Commonwealth. We actually do rather well on numbers of Indians".[135] We are concerned at the Royal Society's apparent confusion between ethnicity and nationality. It would appear to demonstrate a lack of awareness of the need to ensure that scientists from ethnic minorities are not excluded from organisations such as the Royal Society, and suggests a head in the sand attitude to the current political climate. We are not in a position to comment on the number of Fellows from ethnic minorities, as there are no figures available. We understand from the Commission for Racial Equality that it is against good practice not to carry out ethnic monitoring at all levels, and as the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering are in receipt of public funds, they are laying themselves open to criticism if they continue not to monitor the ethnicity of their Fellows.

91. The Higher Education Statistics Agency has estimated that only around 3% of professors in science subjects classify themselves as having ethnicity other than white.[136] Neither the Royal Society nor the Royal Academy of Engineering have programmes designed specifically to increase the number of ethnic minority participants in science. We note that the Royal Society is considering introducing a focus on scientists from the ethnic minorities as role models into its Acclaim project at Sheffield Hallam University. Such a development would be welcome. The Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering should think strategically about programmes to increase ethnic minority participation in science.

Institutional bias

92. The Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and London form what is known in academic circles as the "Golden Triangle". 46.3% of UK-based Fellows of the Royal Society work in the Golden Triangle. The Royal Society told us "the Society believes that the distribution of Fellows reflects concentrations of world class researchers at the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and the colleges of London. For instance, of 17 Nobel Laureates in Chemistry, Physics and Physiology or Medicine in the UK, seven (41.2%) were or are based at these three institutions".[137] We recognise that these universities attract high quality researchers. We are not in a position to examine the validity of the election of Fellows of these universities or to assess the quality of researchers in other institutions. Efforts to improve the distribution of the Fellowship will be wasted if it is perceived to discriminate in favour of Cambridge, Oxford and London at URF level, or if those awards also become thought of as riding on "who you know". We commend the Royal Society's effort to encourage Fellowship nominations from under-represented institutions but urge it to guard against unquestioning complacency that the "Golden Triangle" really holds all the best academics in the UK.



93. We heard criticisms from some learned societies that the Royal Society did not represent the entire scientific community adequately. This was felt to be an impediment to the provision of high quality scientific advice, as mentioned in paragraph 70. The British Computer Society told us "we are very concerned about the poor representation of modern areas of science".[138] They estimated the number of Fellows with computing as their primary discipline as 20, and mentioned that there was no computing 'panel' in the Royal Society. They concluded "we are concerned that there is not enough 'critical mass' to rectify the under-representation of computing by natural evolution in a fast changing world".[139] The Institute of Food Science and Technology said "the Society is not representative of British science and technology as a whole as it fails to represent the very broad spectrum of science and technology within the UK".[140] Professor Charles M Goldie, Dean of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Sussex, wrote -

 "The Royal Society, which has long had few Fellows from the mathematical sciences, has in recent years drifted into almost total neglect of the area within that I know and belong to: statistics and probability. That is, the self-replicating nature of the Fellowship has been allowed to drift into a state where the natural tendency of Fellows to favour their own fields has led to a serious distortion and imbalance".[141]

He estimated that there had been only two UK-based Fellows elected in the field of statistics since 1990.

94. We asked the Royal Society about the British Computer Society's comments. Lord May said that he was worried whether the Royal Society was adequately representing newly emerging disciplines or people in newly emerging disciplines who were in places that were not centres of science more generally.[142] He told us that candidates who came before a sectional committee on which no one felt expert enough to evaluate them were automatically short-listed and that each year nominations were reviewed to try and assess where candidates might be being overlooked. He told us "one of the sectional committees, interestingly, is essentially an IT, computing panel".[143] He later defined this as "pure and applied mathematics and computer science, but it also embraces statistics. Other aspects of IT would be picked up in engineering".[144] The Royal Society later estimated that they had 50 Fellows in computer science.[145]

95. Professor McDermid of the British Computer Society said "our concern is that there is a broad spectrum of activities within computing which is not perhaps well matched to these two particular committees. Our feeling is it does not cover the whole spectrum very evenly or very adequately".[146] He felt that perhaps the Royal Society was including people who apply computing in their research.[147] In further written information the British Computer Society said "even getting up to 20 has required us to be rather generous in the definition of the scope of computing".[148] It also said -

 "we note that the Royal Society of Edinburgh realised some years ago that it had poor representation in a number of disciplines, including computing, and found it necessary to introduce a new committee in its own right. While it not for us to say how the Royal Society should manage its internal affairs, it is hard to see how the situation will improve whilst it assesses computing from the standpoint of traditional engineering or mathematics".[149]

We agree with this statement. We also worry that the scientific expertise of the Royal Society is compromised if new disciplines are not monitored and encouraged. We are glad to note that the Royal Society is making positive efforts to improve representation across its Fellowship. We believe however that more could be done in areas which have specific cause for concern. It would be a welcome signal of change if the Royal Society were to establish a committee specifically for computing science.


96. The British Computer Society levelled similar criticisms at the Royal Academy of Engineering. It estimated that 29 Fellows of the Royal Academy of Engineering were also Members of the BCS.[150] Other Fellows were also involved in computing. The Royal Academy's efforts to address the issue by soliciting nominations from the BCS were held to be a positive step, but the BCS had reservations about the ability of the Royal Academy to provide effective scientific advice given this under-representation. The Royal Academy of Engineering should represent engineers in all areas. Definitions of what constitutes engineering are changing and this should be taken into account when electing Fellows. We commend the Royal Academy of Engineering for making efforts to increase the number of Fellows in under-represented areas, and urge it to ensure that it achieves representative levels of new disciplines in its Fellowship.

123   Q 11 Back

124   Reflections on the Decline of Sciences in England and on some of its Causes, Charles Babbage, 1830, p 141 Back

125   See volume II, appendix 37 Back

126   Q 93 Back

127   Q 94 Back

128   Q 95 Back

129   See volume II, appendix 37 Back

130   Numbers in April 2002 Back

131   See volume II, appendix 31  Back

132   Ibid. Back

133   Q 60 Back

134   Q 68 Back

135   Q 66 Back

136   See volume II, appendix 37 Back

137   Ibid. Back

138   See volume II, appendix 5 Back

139   Ibid. Back

140   See volume II, appendix 19 Back

141   See volume II, appendix 16 Back

142   Q 2 Back

143   Q 5 Back

144   Q 8 Back

145   See volume II, appendix 39 Back

146   Q 135 Back

147   Q 136 Back

148   See volume II, appendix 6 Back

149   Ibid. Back

150   See volume II, appendix 5 Back

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