Select Committee on Science and Technology Fifth Report


97. The Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering both achieve a great deal with the funding they receive from OST and other sources. Their awards and fellowships provide valuable alternatives to those provided by the Research Councils. However, it would benefit both organisations to make their processes more transparent and to make greater efforts to become more inclusive. Academies of excellence are useful, provided that they really represent the best in their fields and not those with the best connections. It is imperative that the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering be able to remain above accusations of insularity and elitism if they are to maintain their dignity and good name in the scientific community. Neither society should forget that it is a recipient of government funding and that scrutiny is therefore justified.

98. We have considered the work done by other learned societies across the UK and found them impressive. They are able to sustain a high level of activity on often limited funding, little of which can be attributed to Government, and we praise their efforts. We have concentrated in this Report on those who receive government funding. Under the present system, some societies receive a great deal of money and others none, or almost none. Although we recognise that some societies reject the idea of government funding, seeing it as a threat to their independence, we also know that others would welcome grants towards their activities. The Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering have not found their independence compromised by receipt of government funding. We know many societies already benefit from one-off payments for specific projects. While it would be unrealistic to suggest that the Government fund the work of all scientific learned societies, we have suggested that a mechanism be established through which learned societies could have access to centralised government funding. We recommend that OST evaluate the work done by these societies with a view to identifying and funding some core activities.

99. Considerable expertise rests in the scientific learned societies and we do not think that Government makes sufficient use of their knowledge. In this Report we recommend that the Government make more effort to commission research from scientific learned societies and to meet the costs of research from those societies from whom they commission substantial pieces of work. Raising the profile of the scientific learned societies can only be a positive thing for the enthusiasm for, and knowledge of, science in the general public. Government should make every effort to assist.

100. Although we have found some areas for concern, we are impressed by much of what has been achieved, not only by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering but by the UK's learned societies as a whole. Some efforts are still too piecemeal, particularly in the public communication of science, and would benefit from a strategic approach. We recommend that OST give thought to what it would like the learned societies it funds to achieve and how best to ensure this. Not enough attention has been paid to the publicly-funded activities of these bodies. OST should ensure that they are held properly accountable. Learned societies receive funds not just from the OST but also from other Departments. The Government needs to think strategically about the money it is giving out to learned societies through its various funding streams in the form of one-off grants and whether this money could be used more efficiently.

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