Select Committee on Science and Technology Fifth Report


33. The various awards run by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering account for most of their grant-in-aid. When we asked Lord Sainsbury, the Science Minister, in December 2001 why the Government funded these societies, he mentioned the award schemes and told us "I think that [they are] rather good scheme[s]. It is a good way of making certain that the very bright young scientists selected by the Royal Society do get a boost and I think that works as a whole very well."[41] There is no doubt that the fellowships and awards given by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering are valuable, but the question is whether the money could be distributed more effectively, through the Research Councils. We have sought to establish whether the awards deliver good value for money.

Comparison with Research Council awards

34. The Research Councils, which are responsible for the project funding of most academic science in the UK have extensive grant schemes. They also pay PhD stipends and have research fellowships. Research Council fellowships differ from the fellowships of the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering in several ways. Lord May described what he saw as the main differences between the Research Council fellowships and the Royal Society's URFs. He thought that the Royal Society URFs were -

"precise, long-term, up to ten years' renewable and freedom to do what you like where you like, based more on a proposal for a broad programme than a detailed specific thing, sometimes even in response to some directed programme of research, and not confined by particular disciplinary boundaries so that we can easily support somebody who falls between two boundaries".[42]

Professor Dame Julia Higgins, Vice President of the Royal Society, also mentioned the support given to award holders by the Society -

 "They form a cohort and are invited to the Royal Society, they are involved in the activities of the Royal Society, there is a support mechanism for them. To my knowledge none of the Research Councils is either in a position to, nor does it, support these people in terms of developing their careers".[43]

35. Sir Alec Broers, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said "having a Fellow as a mentor all the time to get to know is seen as very, very important by the holders of our various chairs and fellowships".[44] The long-term nature of the URFs was praised elsewhere as was the non-project nature of their funding. Professor Hall of the British Computer Society told us "The Royal Society fellowships are quite long term. They are actually seeking to take somebody young and let them develop their career without any impediment to worrying about tenure or administration or teaching".[45] In contrast, the Research Council fellowships usually last no more than five years and are project-based. Professor Ann Dowling, Vice President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, felt that their research fellowships were very popular in contrast with the Engineering and Physical   

Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) schemes because -

"when you have the engineers in direct comparison with pure scientists, the pure

 scientists' references are always outstanding. Everyone is going to be a Nobel Prize winner in two years' time. The Academy does attract applications because engineers believe that they will be judged by other engineers and get a fair hearing and EPSRC struggle with this and are working with the Academy because of that".[46]

36. We suggest that the Research Councils should consider introducing into their research fellowships those features of the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering's awards which are seen as praiseworthy, such as extending their fellowships beyond five years on a regular basis and being willing to fund more 'blue skies' thinking. It would also be of benefit if they were to develop a mentoring scheme to support research fellows.

Selection process

37. Both the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering carry out in-house peer review in the process of making their awards. Jon Burch, Executive Secretary of the Royal Academy of Engineering, described the process for all their awards:

"Each begins with a proposal being received by the Academy. Our reaction is led by a Fellow designated 'Lead Assessor' who looks at the candidate, the university and the company where applicable. The Lead Assessor convenes and seeks peer reviews from another three Fellows totally independent of the company, the applicant and the university so they do not have an axe to grind there. Formal interviews then follow to ensure that would-be post-holders are deemed appointable by all the sponsoring bodies".[47]

The Royal Society tells us -

"the primary criterion for selection is scientific excellence although for some fellowships, such as the Dorothy Hodgkin scheme, a secondary criterion is the degree to which the person will benefit from the scheme. This accounts for the higher success rate of women applying for this scheme".[48]

38. Selection panels in both the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society consist entirely of Fellows of each body. The scientific academic world is relatively small and many of those who sit on Research Council peer review panels may also be Fellows of either or both of the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering. The Research Councils are able to draw on whomever they wish and are not dependent on a particular group of scientists. The possible lack of a wide range of expertise in the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering, who are limited to their Fellowships, is a matter for concern, especially in newer sciences where representation amongst Fellows may not be adequate. Effective assessment of cross-disciplinary proposals requires a broad range of expertise. We call upon the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering to consult academics other than their own Fellows during the peer review process, where there is not sufficient expertise within their own bodies.

Fellowships for women

39. The Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships have been a significant success for the Royal Society in encouraging women to apply for awards and in raising the profile of women in science. The Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships are not however the only ones to offer features which make them attractive to women. The Royal Society's URFs also offer a mentor, training and the possibility of career breaks. The Research Councils who provided information to us about their research awards demonstrated that their awards were similar. The EPSRC told us "Research Fellows have the option to put their Fellowship into abeyance for up to two years within the five year Fellowship".[49] The Medical Research Council (MRC) stated "awards can be held in abeyance for up to one year, normally to allow the fellow to undertake a concentrated period of clinical training; extended periods of maternity leave are also supported".[50] The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) described some the features of their fellowships: "Special arrangement apply if a BBSRC fellow wishes to continue the award during pregnancy. In addition fellows may take up to four weeks paid paternity leave. Other considerations include: the cost of caring, removal expenses, holidays, sick leave and medical expenses for overseas travel".[51] BBSRC also runs a Daphne Jackson Memorial Fellowship to those returning to academia after a career break. We urge the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Research Councils to ensure that all their research fellowships and other awards contain 'family friendly' features.

  40. It appears that much of the success of the Dorothy Hodgkin awards is due to good marketing. Professor Higgins, Vice President of the Royal Society, told us "it is marketing. It is a quite extraordinary piece of marketing and it has been brilliantly successful".[52] The Royal Society also tells us that it varies its assessment process for the Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships, which accounts in part for the higher success rate for women. We recommend that all awarding bodies make an effort to publicise those aspects of their awards which may appeal to female researchers, in an attempt to increase the numbers of female applicants for all research awards. They should undertake a reassessment of selection procedures, in order to identify possible obstacles to the success of female applicants.


41. The geographical distribution of University Research Fellowships, perhaps the "next generation" of Royal Society Fellows, closely follows that of the Fellowships. 48% of URFs are based in the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford and London, known as the "Golden Triangle".[53] The recent Research Assessment Exercise results indicate that there are significant numbers of scientists and engineers in 5 and 5* rated departments in universities outside the Golden Triangle which are presently poorly represented amongst the URFs (and the Fellowship). We urge the Royal Society to encourage applications for its University Research Fellowships from all institutions.

42. The Royal Society has a disproportionate number of research fellows whose research area is astronomy, perhaps representing scientific preoccupations at the time of its founding. After biological science, chemistry and physics, astronomy has more research fellows than any other subject; 8.3% are astronomers. Information technology is the research area of only 0.33% of research fellows and mathematics only 2.3%.[54] The Royal Society must ensure that its research awards represent the whole scientific community, without undue weight in any one area.

Cost efficiency

43. We have tried to establish the relative cost efficiency of the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering and Research Council fellowships. The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) did not respond to our inquiry, and BBSRC said that this could only be determined at disproportionate cost[55] but others were able to tell us the administration cost per fellowship. The Royal Society estimated that it spent 3.21% (around £90,000) of its grant-in-aid on administering its fellowships.[56] The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) calculated its administration costs to be around 4.1%.[57] EPSRC estimated the unit cost of its awards to be £434 before the award was made. The MRC thought the average cost of its applications was £220, and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) around £100.[58] We are, however, not convinced that the cost efficiency of any of the schemes is being properly assessed, either by the learned societies involved or the Research Councils. We would like to see more effort made by those awarding publicly-funded grants and awards to isolate administration costs in order to identify the cost efficiency of their schemes.

44. While uncertainties about cost efficiency must remain, we are persuaded that the schemes managed by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering have a significantly different approach to the support of young researchers to that of Research Councils; research fellowships are longer-term, something that Research Councils themselves are moving towards, and less project-based. Maintaining a variety of fellowship programmes is valuable to the academic community. Those schemes run by the Royal Academy of Engineering are, in part because of the more specialised nature of the Academy, of great value to the engineering community. In our view, the government funding of grant and award programmes managed by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering should be maintained.

Learned societies

45. Some of the other learned societies run from their own funds limited grant programmes which award small sums to individuals. We posed the possibility of learned societies receiving government funding in order to run their own small scale research fellowships. Dr Rita Gardner, Chief Executive of the Royal Geographical Society, told us "we run a grants programme which administers to the order of between £100,000 and £150,000 a year so we have the infrastructure to manage grants and associated peer reviewing process".[59] The Royal Society of Chemistry, one of the largest scientific learned societies, was negative. Dr David Giachardi, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, stated "we are not geared up to do that. We just do not have the mechanisms in place to do that".[60] He thought that chemistry fellowships were better funded by the Research Councils.[61] Professor Hall, of the British Computer Society, was of the same mind, saying "I would not like to see the BCS have to set up the administration to run the fellowships. I think the EPSRC [and the Royal Society have] that well sorted".[62] She pointed out that "Most of us academics who are members of the BCS at professor level are on the EPSRC peer college and we do peer reviewing and therefore are much involved in the EPSRC fellowship awarding".[63]

46. Although we are aware of the grant programmes already run by some learned societies from their own resources, we do not think that government funding of these societies to run their own research fellowships would be appropriate. The extensive mechanisms needed to operate these programmes would be hard for many to put in place, and the administration costs incurred in awarding just a small number of fellowships would render the exercise relatively very expensive. There would be nothing to be gained from diverting funds from other sources for these fellowships; and there would be much work to be done to publicise the new awards whereas those already in existence are well known. There would also be a loss of flexibility as grants would be confined to the discipline of the awarding society. Someone, presumably the OST, would have to prejudge how demand and merit would be distributed across the sciences. We note that many of those involved in the wider body of learned societies are involved in the peer review process of current research fellowship schemes and that the learned societies therefore have input in that way. Most scientific learned societies do not have the administration capability or review processes in place to operate their own research awards. The effort required would divert them from their primary purpose, to serve their scientific communities through support for the discipline and the dissemination of knowledge.

41   HC 459-i, Ev 19 Back

42   Q 33 Back

43   Q 34 Back

44   Q 89 Back

45   Q 144 Back

46   Q 89 Back

47   Q 88 Back

48   See volume II, appendix 37 Back

49   See volume II, appendix 12 Back

50   See volume II, appendix 26 Back

51   See volume II, appendix 4 Back

52   Q 62 Back

54  53   Http:// Back


55   See volume II, appendix 4 Back

56   See volume II, appendix 39 Back

57   See volume II, appendix 27 Back

58   See volume II, appendices 26, 14 Back

59   Q 189 Back

60   Q 203 Back

61   Q 204 Back

62   Q 146 Back

63   Q 146 Back

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