Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Society for General Microbiology


  The Society for General Microbiology (SGM) supports the concept of Government funding of the Royal Society for specific purposes, and believes that the Royal Society gives good value for money in these activities. As the national academy of sciences it is the appropriate channel for this funding.

  SGM does not receive Government funding, but supports its activities from membership subscriptions, publishing and investment income. The Society regards its independence and freedom to act in the best interests of the science of microbiology and the community of microbiologists as of paramount importance.

  SGM provides advice to Government, in the form of evidence and opinions to inquiries and consultations, and nominates experts to serve on committees. The Society makes great efforts to communicate information about the importance of microbiology in today's world to schools, the general public and opinion formers, and devotes significant resources to these ends.

1.   Background: microbiology is important

  Microbiology is a dynamic and fast-moving subject. Microorganisms affect our health, food and environment, and are important in many industries.

  In terms of health, new infectious agents such as HIV, Ebola virus and BSE/vCJD continue to emerge. The development of antibiotic resistance in existing pathogens is a continuing and major concern. Microbes are becoming implicated in chronic diseases such as duodenal ulcers and stomach cancer. Climate change may cause some infectious diseases to extend their geographical range. For example, TB and malaria are increasing their impact alarmingly. There is a real threat from biological terrorism. The Chief Medical Officer's new strategy on the control of infectious diseases emphasises the need to strengthen microbiological services including surveillance and diagnosis, and also the need for research on the development and introduction of new vaccines. The recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease emphasises the need to strengthen veterinary microbiology in the UK.

  The Government has identified the biotechnology industry as of growing importance for our economic development. Microbes of many types are essential tools in the development of new prophylactic and therapeutic medicines, and may play an increasing role in crop protection and cleaning up the environment. The success of biotechnology depends on scientists with knowledge of modern molecular biology and genetics, both of which have to be underpinned by microbiological training.

2.   The Society for General Microbiology (SGM)

  The Society, founded in 1945, is the largest microbiological society in Europe, with over 5,600 members. 75 per cent are resident in the UK; the remainder are in more than 60 other countries. Almost all full members are qualified to doctoral or higher level, and there are 850 postgraduate student members. A recently introduced category of corporate membership for schools is growing rapidly. The Society provides a common meeting ground for scientists working in academic centres and those in medicine and health care, veterinary medicine, pharmaceuticals and numerous other industries, agriculture, food and beverages, the environment and education. The Society is a registered charity and a company limited by guarantee; it employs 30 people. It is governed by a Council drawn and elected from the membership.

  The Society's objective is to advance the art and science of microbiology. It does this by:

    —  organising regular international scientific meetings. The largest last 5-6 days and involve over 1,000 participants;

    —  publishing four major international learned journals: Microbiology, Journal of General Virology, Journal of Medical Microbiology and International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology, the SGM Symposium Series books, and the award-winning magazine Microbiology Today;

    —  representing and publicising the science and profession of microbiology to government, the media, the public and schools;

    —  providing grants to support the career development of young microbiologists, and projects in developing countries.

3.   Comments on Government funding of The Royal Society

  The Royal Society is not a "typical" learned society, in that it has additional roles as the UK national academy of science. This makes it an appropriate body to receive Government funding; its prestige and the quality of the fellowship guarantee the necessary independence of thought and action.

  The activities funded by Government through the Royal Society are a valuable component of the fabric of UK science. Their nature makes it appropriate that they are funded through the Royal Society rather than through other routes such as the Research Councils. In particular:

    —  The Royal Society fellowships for UK and overseas scientists are important means of recognising, recruiting and retaining talented individuals for UK science;

    —  Royal Society interactions with the national academies of science of other countries, and with the International Council of Scientific Unions, provide a framework for international interactions by other UK learned societies;

    —  Royal Society support for international conferences, and travel grants to attend them, are valuable to SGM members;

    —  we hold in high regard the Royal Society's work in science communication and education, in research into science education, and in briefings and one-off inquiries.

4.   Government funding of other learned societies

  SGM does not receive Government funding for its core activities, and would only consider accepting it if the independence of the Society was not compromised in any way. We regard learned societies based on scientific disciplines—such as microbiology, endocrinology and pharmacology—as important components of the intellectual and enterprise fabric of the country. Learned societies are of value to society as a whole because they are different. They represent professional communities with roots in many types of organisations, and in coherent sectors of science, but retain independence of Government, universities, Research Councils and industry. As responsible but unconstrained independent bodies, they can target their activities for maximum effect and public value. This independence is particularly important for emphasising the social, intellectual and economic importance of the scientific discipline, in a time when we have seen the emergence of a virulent culture of "antiscience" and public distrust.

  The Society has adequate income from its membership subscriptions, publishing business and investments, to support its charitable and professional activities. Prudent management has allowed the accumulation of sufficient reserves to sustain these activities in the event of changes in economic or other conditions.

5.   SGM provides advice to Government and other bodies

  The Society submits evidence and opinion to Select Committee and departmental inquiries and green papers etc. We have recently increased support for such activities by the appointment of a full time Public Affairs Administrator and a Professional Affairs Officer on Council.

  Where advice or opinion is required on more generic issues affecting wider aspects of biology, or scientific education, SGM co-operates with appropriate umbrella bodies such as the UK Life Sciences Committee and Institute of Biology in preparation of collective responses. But where the issue focuses on microbiology, the Society will take a leading role and respond directly, as this is the most efficient way of producing a quality response. Where appropriate, there is consultation with other learned societies within the discipline of microbiology.

  SGM Council nominates individuals for membership of expert committees, such as the Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens, and the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee. The Society has a very broad knowledge of the microbiology community in the UK, which together with its independence, makes it a good source of quality and unbiased nominations.

6.   SGM communicates science

  SGM aims to communicate accurate information about microbiology to all sectors of society through a wide range of activities. We employ professional staff and allocate significant funding to achieve this objective:

    —  promotion of microbiology in schools at Key Stages 1-3 and post-16 through the production of teaching resources, INSET training, advice to teachers, pupils and technicians, sponsorship of competitions, attendance at exhibitions for science teachers and the organisation of lecture programmes for schools. The Society offers Schools Corporate Membership and runs an educational website Grants are also available to members wishing to organise education projects in schools. We also collaborate widely with other bodies engaged in science education and act as the secretariat for the Microbiology in Schools Advisory Committee;

    —  communication of microbiology to the general public is achieved by organising debates and lectures, encouraging members to participate in a national database of speakers on microbiology, and responding to enquiries by telephone, letter, fax and e-mail. SGM regularly organises activities at National Science Week, the Edinburgh Science Festival, other large events and on behalf of the Royal Institution and the British Association;

    —  promotion of careers in microbiology through the wide distribution of leaflets, posters and factsheets, attendance at careers fairs for schools and provision of a dedicated website: A large number of enquiries is dealt with annually at SGM headquarters. The Society collaborates with other life science bodies in running one day careers conferences for final year university and postgraduate students.

Microbiology in the News, a digest of current reports in the media, is maintained on the SGM website SGM issues regular media releases based on papers published in its learned journals and delivered at its conferences, together with occasional briefing notes on topical issues. Assistance is also provided to broadcasters making documentaries and journalists preparing review articles. SGM members are encouraged to undergo media training. A register of experts who can give advice when required is maintained.

April 2002

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