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The Need for Scientific Excellence

Aaron Klug
President, the Royal Society

'There is one common principle regardless of the wealth of a country: excellence is central to continuing development'

The Royal Society was founded in 1660 to propagate the ideals of the Scientific Revolution as expressed by its motto Nullius in verba - or, to put it in plain English, "don't believe everything you're told". This view was radical at the time the Society was founded. But today it is virtually taken for granted, and the Society's current mission is expressed more by a desire to promote excellence in science.

It is the individuals who make a difference - and are thus an integral part of this excellence - that the Society seeks to recognize. It does this, for example through the election of Fellows, the award of medals, and the support of both leading researchers and a large number of younger researchers with demonstrated potential. The Society administers 17 awards and medals that are awarded annually in recognition of excellence in science and technology. It is bright individuals who are supported, not the disciplines in which they work.

Scientific excellence is a key asset for an individual nation or state, in terms of both the esteem attached to ground-breaking research, and the potential to harness such research in innovative ways. Once leadership is attained in a particular scientific field, it becomes possible to drive the science forward in a specific direction, and increased scientific success often goes hand-in-hand with increased investment. Such investment may take the form of direct financial input. But it can also be an influx of 'know how', in other words individuals with expertise and knowledge who are drawn to work with like-minded individuals in a specific field, or to apply research results to industrial use.

New knowledge underpins all areas of our lives. The needs of different countries vary enormously. Developing countries need new knowledge to enable them to develop further, whilst in developed countries with a sound economy, it is possible to pursue scientific research for its own sake rather than its potential applications (although these may, of course, often follow). The definition of excellence will therefore vary from country to country, depending on its level of development and its needs. But there is one common principle regardless of the wealth of a country: excellence is central to continuing development.

Governments can play a crucial role in creating excellence by providing the funding and environment for scientific research, and must be convinced of the continued need to invest in science. Patronage also plays an important part in fostering individual excellence; the Royal Society acts as a patron by providing the opportunity for individuals to establish themselves in independent research careers, for example through the Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships. These have the added benefit of enaabling women to take a break in their career and then return to their work, so that the damage to their career is minimized.

The World Conference on Science will encourage countries to take stock of their strengths and weaknesses in science, and to use this to establish objectives for the future. Hopefully the declaration on science to be agreed at the end of the meeting will provide a stimulus to both developed and developing countries to maximise the benefits of their scientific outputs, and to strive for excellence in their work.

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