Only a modern Royal Society will be relevant
MAYBE THIS IS A DAFT question but let’s try it anyway: what exactly is the point of the Royal Society of Edinburgh? This is not, I admit, the main subject of debate over the pints at the Guildford Arms most nights. But maybe it should be, as the RSE does get more than half of it’s funding from the Scottish Executive, and that means from you and me.
In fact it is a question that is on the table this week as the Fellows of the RSE consider a new Plan for their future. So maybe it is a good time for the rest of us to ask a few questions too.
Of course I know what the Royal Society of Edinburgh is for – it is Scotland’s national academy and learned society, founded in 1783 at a time when Edinburgh was at the peak of its influence on the wider world – the so-called Scottish Enlightenment. Pioneers of philosophy and economics such as David Hume and Adam Smith had developed new ideas that changed the world and Edinburgh’s brand new New Town was the most vibrant and exciting place to live and work.
The scope of the RSE was widely drawn; to encompass Science, Engineering and Medicine, Arts and Letters, the Professions, Technology, Industry and Commerce. The very first volume of the RSE’s Transactions contained James Hutton’s initially controversial but subsequently universally adopted basis for the modern science of Geology.
The RSE has not revised this charter, but over the last 200 years it has changed in character, and diminished in importance. Some of this is inevitable: the development of professional Societies for Law, Medicine and Engineering have taken over the role of providing leadership in specialised fields and it is no longer possible for a general society to remain at the forefront of each area. Another change has been in the scope of the membership base, which has narrowed. One glance at the register of Fellows confirms the view that the RSE today is really a club for Scotland’s top academics.
Almost all of the Fellows are senior Professors at Scottish Universities. It is difficult to detect signs that the RSE, in it’s selection of new Fellows, is appointing people who are actively engaged at the cutting edge in technology, industry or commerce.
Then there is the question of the age profile of the RSE Fellows. Of course, as with any leading academy, it is important to ensure that Fellows have the required degree of eminence and authority, and are undoubtedly leaders in their field of specialism.
However it is fair to say that very few Fellows are ever elected to the RSE until they are at least in their late forties or fifties. I must say, from my own experience, that the most significant developments in science and technology are achieved by researchers who are in there twenties and thirties. So you have to ask if the RSE Fellows are best equipped to lead our thinking in developing areas of technology innovation.
It is intriguing to note that James Clerk Maxwell, who was later to define the laws of electromagnetism, had his first paper published by the RSE in 1846. He was only 15 years old at the time! It is hard to escape the conclusion that if Maxwell were alive today, he would have another thirty years to wait before he would be elected to the RSE.
So how relevant is the RSE today? When Magnus Linklater, the then editor of the Scotsman, co-edited the reference book Anatomy of Scotland a few years ago they set out to describe all the main institutions and organisations of modern Scotland. The RSE didn’t even rate a mention among the 400 pages of this otherwise comprehensive volume.
Maybe this doesn’t matter but it does seem a shame. Scotland now has a new parliament, and our new MSPs are, broadly speaking, not experts in subjects such as science, technology, or commerce. Their backgrounds are more often from local government or teaching. They best understand and have an appreciation of policies concerned with public services, employment, and social inclusion. These are all very appropriate concerns for politicians but, if we are to build a modern vibrant economy in Scotland, it is also essential that we, as a nation, understand and embrace the developments in technology and commerce. These will create the jobs and the wealth.
We need leadership in Scotland today. We need to ensure we fully engage in science, technology, industry and commerce in the 21st century. The RSE should be as much at the heart of this challenge as it undoubtedly was 200 years ago, but in order to do so, it must change, modernise and rediscover the energy of youth.