Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Science academies - old and new

The Royal Society is now 350 years old. To celebrate its 350th anniversary, last week's Nature had several article on the role of science academies in shaping public opinion. If you are at all interested in the history of science and public policy, check out this short article: Scientific Academies - In the best company (you may need subscription to access it). Here are couple of paragraphs that talk about the difference between the Royal Society and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS):
The Royal Society and the NAS are two of the largest independent scientific academies in the world (see 'Two elites'), and illustrate two principal models of operation. The Royal Society is a self-constituted club with no formal, official role in government; the NAS is chartered to provide advice at the behest of the US Congress. (A different type of academy, of which the Chinese Academy of Sciences is an example, is effectively part of the state and runs many of the government science programmes in several communist and formerly communist countries.)
Some of the differences between the Royal Society and NAS models can be traced back to their respective histories. The NAS, like many other national academies, was set up by a patron — President Abraham Lincoln, at the height of the American Civil War, in 1863. The Royal Society, in contrast, was started by scientists themselves, expressly to promote science (see 'The Royal Society through the ages'). But these founders were strong supporters of a monarchy recently restored after the English revolution — and their society soon sought, and got, the patronage of King Charles II.
Early on, the Royal Society made clear that it owed allegiance not to king and country but to scientific truth. The society maddened King George III, for example, by siding with its fellow Benjamin Franklin in a debate about the shape of lightning conductors, even as Franklin fomented rebellion in the colonies.
The society has continued to chart its own course. Like other national academies, it establishes its rules and elects its own members — an arrangement that draws charges of elitism.
"There's a sense of pride here in being elitist: the proportion of scientists who are fellows is very small," says Martin Rees, who became the society's president in 2005. "But we're elite only in the sense that we ought to be elite." 
Now there are national science academies in more than 100 countries - and this elitism is a bit relative in other places. You should also check out another article in the same issue that implores the science academies to play a more active role in the public and policy sphere:
There are several crucial ways in which academies can champion science and technology in their countries. The first is to promote excellence in scientific research and stimulate the public understanding of science, for example by awarding grants, publishing high-level proceedings or organizing public debates. They can also release reports on issues of public interest, such as the US National Academies' On Being a Scientist: A Guide to Responsible Conduct in Research, published in 2009.
Second, academies can mediate between scientists and politicians. This role has been pioneered particularly successfully by the UK Royal Society, which celebrates its 350th anniversary this year. In 2001, the Royal Society established a scheme that pairs scientists with a Member of Parliament (MP) to help scientists understand the parliamentary process and the pressures that politicians work under and to help MPs to improve their knowledge of how science works. More than 170 of these pairings, which involve reciprocal visits to the Houses of Parliament and to research facilities, have been established. Inspired by this, the French Academy of Sciences launched a similar project in 2005 in which an academy member teams up with a member of the French parliament and a promising young scientist. So far about 50 of these three-way partnerships are up and running.
Third, academies can bolster science education. For example, those of Australia, France and the United States have pioneered a worldwide effort to promote a hands-on approach to teaching science in schools, known as 'enquiry-based learning'. This has led to specially tailored education initiatives in many countries. Fourth, academies can help boost science in less developed countries by giving financial support to scientists, such as the many grants and fellowships offered each year by TWAS, the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, in Trieste, Italy. Last, academies can help increase prestige for scientific disciplines by organizing prizes, such as the Nobel prizes awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
As mentioned above, collaborations between science academies will be especially beneficial to the developing countries (see an earlier post about the US-Indonesia collaboration on scientific issues).

As an aside, I thought it was interesting that in 2006, science academies of 68 countries, including 14 Muslim-majority countries (Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Palestine, etc.), signed a strong statement in support of the teaching of biological evolution (including human evolution) in schools. Check out the press release related to it here (pdf). I don't know if it led to any practical measures, but it is good to see such a strong statement in support of science.


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