Many congratulations to Dame Anne Glover, James Prosser and Neil Gow at the University of Aberdeen, Sarah Cleaveland at the University of Glasgow, and James Dunlop, Professor of Extragalactic Astronomy, University of Edinburgh, on their recent election as Fellows of the Royal Society.
This is the highest honour awarded by the UK scientific community; only 50 UK Fellows are elected annually.
The Royal Society is quintessentially British. Of its 12 founders, four had studied at Oxford, including Christopher Wren, three at Cambridge, one at Eton and Geneva (Robert Boyle), and two in Scotland, Alexander Bruce and Robert Moray.
Moray was contemporaneously described as the “soul” of the society. He was one of its principal architects, securing its Royal Charter from Charles II in 1662. These Scottish roots are still celebrated; the anniversary of the Society falls on St Andrew’s Day.
Moray was from Perthshire. Although a Scottish patriot, his early career was in the French army. As a senior officer in the Scots Guards at the French court, his negotiating skills impressed Cardinal Richelieu. Returning to Scotland, he was quartermaster general of the Scots army that occupied Newcastle in 1646. After the Restoration, Moray came to London and was appointed Deputy Secretary of State for Scotland. For the next decade a triumvirate of the King, the Earl of Lauderdale and Moray ruled Scotland. Moray maintained a laboratory in Whitehall. Samuel Pepys visited and said: “a pretty place; and there saw a great many chymical glasses and things but understood none of them.”
The Royal Society concerns itself only with science. The humanities and social sciences got their UK national academy with the foundation of the British Academy in 1902, UK engineering with the foundation of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 1976, and UK medicine with the establishment of the Academy of Medical Sciences in 1998.
Scotland (the Royal Society of Edinburgh, founded 1783), Ireland (The Royal Irish Academy, founded 1785) and Wales (The Learned Society of Wales, founded 2010) have their own national academies. They all encompass a wide range of intellectual disciplines. But, as with the Westminster Parliament, England has to make do with the UK institutions only.
A particular personal pleasure is that four of the five new Royal Society fellows considered here are microbiologists. Sarah Cleaveland has a particular interest in rabies in Africa. Neil Gow is a fungus expert (medically important ones, not toadstools), and James Prosser’s studies focus on the application of molecular biology to environmental problems, as has Anne Glover’s laboratory work.
Science and government
In 2006 Glover was appointed as the first Chief Scientific Adviser to the Scottish Government. Latterly she was Chief Scientific Adviser to the European Commission. Since she demitted office, the first post has been downgraded in that its holder no longer reports directly to the First Minister. It has been vacant since Glover’s successor’s term of office finished in December 2014. The European Commission post has been abolished entirely.
It is reasonable to conclude that some politicians have a problem with scientific advice. They struggle in the face of the Royal Society motto: “Nullius in verba” – take nothing on authority; withstand its domination, and verify statements with facts determined by experiment.
Whatever our government in Holyrood claims, it is not revolutionary, so scientists can feel secure that they will not follow the fate of Antoine Lavoisier, inventor of the words oxygen and hydrogen. But the words uttered by the judge when sending him to the guillotine on May 8 1794 still seem apposite: “The Republic has no need of scientists or chemists”.
The negative aphorism “scientists should be on tap but not on top” is attributed to Winston Churchill. It implies that scientists should only speak when asked. But even that is not happening in Scotland today.
The contrast between Robert Moray as a Scottish politician and our current MSPs and Cabinet Secretaries couldn’t be greater. As far as I am aware none has published ten papers in the top scientific journal of the day, and it would be a big surprise if any of them used their spare time to conduct “chemicall operations… sitting at the cheek of a furnace which will gar your eyn reel when you see it”. And certainly, unlike Moray, none is a proven polymath. A Chief Scientific Adviser wouldn’t be one either – but would know which experts to ask – and, like Moray, should have direct and unencumbered access to the top. But there the comparison ends. It would be an unreasonable expectation to be buried in Westminster Abbey at the monarch’s expense.
Image of Dame Anne Glover via Robert Bosch Academy and Aberdeen University