Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Royal Astronomical Society


  The Royal Astronomical Society was founded in the year 1820 and received the grant of a Royal Charter in 1831; its aims as stated in the first Byelaw are "the encouragement and promotion of astronomy and geophysics." The Society is a professional and learned Society with an international membership of 3,000. The Society's scientific interests span a range including the solid earth, the solar system, stars, galaxies and cosmology. The two grant awarding Research Councils with which the RAS is connected are the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).


  Any person over the age of 18 may apply for Fellowship, including amateur scientists. Applications may be made in two ways, either sponsored by a Fellow with personal knowledge of the candidate and supported by another Fellow, or through a newly introduced way intended to open up membership, by the candidate making direct application to the Society, providing evidence of their work or interest in astronomy or geophysics. The terms of the Fellowship encourage the participation of younger scientists and currently the Society has 150 young scientists.


  The Society receives no direct Government funding. The Society actively fulfils its Charter commitment in a number of ways.

(a)  Publications

  The Society publishes front-line research papers in two academic journals which enjoy international acclaim. Monthly Notices is the world's leading astronomical journal and Geophysical Journal International for geophysics is the leading European publication on solid earth geophysics. Publication is free of charge to contributing scientists, of whom there were 3,000 in 2001; two thirds of these work overseas. In addition, the Society publishes Astronomy and Geophysics which has broader appeal and carries reports of scientific meetings, papers on current topics, correspondence and book reviews.

(b)  Public Understanding of Science

(i)   Education

  The Society promotes the wide appreciation and understanding of astronomy and geophysics both in the classroom and by the general public. Astronomy has a key role in attracting young people into physical science. Recent activities at schools level have included advising on the content of astronomy and geophysics in the National Curriculum, holding teacher training days at a number of venues around the country, running national competitions for school children, publishing information leaflets and a 32-page booklet on Astronomy in the UK, and setting up resource centres for the loan of teaching material. At University level, with commercial and PPARC sponsorship, the Committee has organised annual prizes which are awarded for the best doctoral theses in astronomy and geophysics.

(ii)   Information for the Public and the Media

  The Society has an active programme in the field of education and media information. A Press Officer issues frequent and regular media releases to an international list of recipients on the latest astronomical discoveries and events, special emphasis being placed on British achievements. She also provides a media enquiry service, routinely dealing with many requests per week for assistance and information. She is assisted by second Press Officer (Space Science) financed from an external grant, appointed to extend and develop this service by making expertise in space science available.

  The Society maintains an excellent Library which contains material for research in astronomy and geophysics as well as the histories of these sciences and of associated fields such as navigation. The Society aims at a comprehensive collection of the current literature on astronomy and the relevant sections of geophysics. The Library staff respond to scientific and historical enquiries from members and from the public and provide material for a wide variety of publication media. Collections of the Society's instruments are currently on loan to museums, universities and observatories throughout the country.

(iii)   Grants for Astronomy

  The Society has custodianship of various Trust Funds and Bequests, from which it makes grants for Astronomy. It targets especially recipients and activities outside the normal scope of the remit of Research Councils.


  The Society holds scientific discussion meetings three times per month (except during the summer), in London which are attended by its members and to which overseas speakers are invited. An annual National Astronomy Meeting is held, normally at a University location and attended by in excess of 300 astronomers; members also participate in similar annual geophysical meetings. Regional astronomy and geophysics meetings are occasionally held at out of London venues. In 2001, the Society sponsored or cosponsored 27 meetings in five cities at which 180 hours of talks were given by 500 lecturers of whom 10 per cent were from overseas. The Society meetings are open to both Fellows and non-Fellows.

  The Society also contributes to the annual meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, National Astronomy Week and the Edinburgh Science Festival. The Society is the UK's Adhering body to the International Astronomical Union (IAU). On behalf of the UK the Society organised the 24th General Assembly of the IAU in Manchester in 2000 attracting 2,000 participants from the entire world. The Society has a number of affiliations within the international scientific communities. Five prestigious named lectures recognising the work of eminent Fellows are given each year by invited speakers.


  The Society regularly submits evidence to a number of inquiries held by the Government, Parliamentary Committees and other scientific organisations and institutions, on matters concerning the organisation of science and technology, scientific education at all levels, and on the health of fundamental research. Society representatives attend meetings of the Parliamentary scientific committees.


  The Society gets no direct Government funding of any kind. The Society has charitable status (in common with many other learned and professional societies) and its headquarters building is in Burlington House (along with several other societies) so to that extent the Society can be said to benefit in financial terms indirectly from its charitable status and its physical location. Since 1834 the Royal Astronomical Society has occupied Government accommodation free of charge, firstly at Somerset House and latterly at Burlington House.

April 2002

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