The right kind of elitism

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
465,
Page:
986
Date published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/465986a
Published online

National academies can be pivotal in speaking up for science, both to those in power and to the public.

Britain's Royal Society is 350 years old this year, and its track record is one worthy of celebration. It stands today as a relatively successful model of what an independent national academy can achieve, having made itself both highly regarded in the corridors of power and prominent in public debates on major science-related issues (see pages 1002 and 1009).

Such success cannot be taken for granted. In many parts of the world, scientific academies either lack real independence from the state (as in China) or else struggle to make themselves heard within it (as in Italy). And even where academies have established an independent voice — other notable examples include those in the United States, the Netherlands and Sweden — they must still maintain the difficult balance between taking stances that are full-throated enough to make the news, yet not so rash as to tarnish their reputation for impartiality.

As the Royal Society has demonstrated, however, scientific academies able to navigate these treacherous waters can offer authoritative input on contentious public-policy issues such as climate change, or the regulation of human embryonic stem-cell research, and can thus enrich public debate by ensuring that science is properly heard.

Sometimes that input will be articulated through technical reports, such as those produced in large numbers by the US National Academy of Sciences through its operating arm, the National Research Council. Academies also exert influence through informal consultation with government officials, and by influencing the selection of their government's scientific advisers.

But these traditional avenues are only part of what academies can do to exert influence today. They can also issue more concise statements for wider audiences. And they can proactively engage with the public and the media in the same way that corporations and environmental pressure groups do — by anticipating or responding rapidly to events, and making sure that science's voice is heard amid the general cacophony.

The Royal Society has, in recent years, used this kind of engagement to good effect. Academies that are seeking similar impact, such as new and reconstituted ones in Africa and the Leopoldina, which assumed the official status of Germany's national academy only three years ago, need to be similarly bold and outward-looking in their approach.

Their memberships should note, however, that in order to have an independent voice, at least some of their funding must come from non-government sources. To exert influence, they must also carefully nurture connections with people and institutions inside government who genuinely want independent scientific input — and who can tell the difference between such advice and propaganda. Without that audience, no amount of earnest objectivity will establish a place for a scientific academy inside the framework of a state.

And even successful academies need to keep an eye on their own processes, and resist the opaqueness and cliquishness that can afflict any self-appointed club. Ten years ago, for example, the US National Academy of Sciences staunchly resisted what it now concedes were positive advances in the transparency of its processes. And just recently it has noticed that Asian-Americans, who have become ubiquitous in American universities, are largely absent from its own ranks.

Academies can still have a crucial role in taking scientific truth to the public, and to the heart of government. But to do so, they must constantly strive to properly represent an increasingly diverse scientific community. And they must adapt their processes and actions to a political and media landscape that doesn't sit still for 350 minutes, never mind 350 years.

Comments

  1. Report this comment #11486

    Chris Exley said:

    Inorder for The Royal Society of London to 'take scientific truth to the public and to the heart of government' it certainly does not need to 'represent an increasingly diverse scientific community'! Such a comment serves only to demonstrate a lack of understanding as to the value of such a Society. Neither gender nor race has any role to play in the scientific consensus and to strive to fit such to politico-social objectives will serve only to undermine the value of science. Election to The Royal Society is a matter of scientific excellence and is not necessarily indicative of any other personal or otherwise trait. If you want scientific advice based upon the scientific consensus and the informed opinion of first class scientists then such is available, or at least should be available, from The Royal Society of London, an example of positive elitism at its very best.

  2. Report this comment #26299

    A J said:

    Your excellent editorial and I agree with your views.

    The Royal Society has been providing scientific advice to policy makers since 1664, when it delivered to King Charles II a report on the state of Britain's forests. Today, scientific advice to underpin policy is more important than ever before.

    From neuroscience to nanotechnology, food security to climate change, the questions being asked of scientists by policy makers, the media and the public continue to multiply. Many of the issues are global in nature, and require international collaboration, not just amongst policy makers, but also between scientists.

    Such a role is expected by Scientific Academies in Developing countries.

  3. Report this comment #35085

    Frank Itsmel said:

    The questions being asked of scientists by policy makers, the media and the public continue to multiply. Many of the issues are global in nature, and require international collaboration. laser hair removal nyc

  4. Report this comment #35726

    Allyson Cassona said:

    "Britain's Royal Society is 350 years old this year, and its track record is one worthy of celebration. It stands today as a relatively successful model of what an independent national academy can achieve, having made itself both highly regarded in the corridors of power and prominent in public debates on major science-related issues (see pages 1002 and 1009)." I found this to be very factual. :)
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