Strengths and weaknesses at the top
Cross examination of representatives of the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering revealed both strengths and weaknesses at the Olympian heights of UK science and technology.
The occasion was the taking of evidence by the Select Committee on Science and Technology into government funding of scientific learned societies.
Among the interesting snippets to emerge is the fact that the Royal Society, 10% of whose 1,203 fellows are engineers, receives two-thirds of its £39 million income from the Government while the Royal Academy of Engineering, with 1,270 fellows, receives only £4 million (one third of its income) from that same source.
To be fair to both societies, most of their money comes in and goes straight out again in support of research fellows and a host of other worthy activities. Lord May, eloquently defending the record of the 340 year-old Royal Society claimed that administrative expenses for all programmes was 6% of income, which compares well with the USA. But committee member Dr Andrew Murrison, (Conservative) hinted that the Academy was more efficient than the Royal Society because of its greater private sector involvement, adding that engineers are the basis of the UK’s prosperity, a fact which nobody present attempted to dispute.
Committee chairman Ian Gibson (Labour) duly asked Sir Alec Broers, president of the Royal Academy of Engineers, whether his organisation would be prepared to take over the whole of the engineering support role, including that currently undertaken by the Royal Society. He replied that he, “would not dare” to do such a thing, and was heard to mutter that if he were to do so, he would be “hounded out” of his fellowship of the Royal Society.
The committee hearing also revealed that there are currently 36 different bodies representing the engineering profession, or 37 if one counts the new Engineering and Technology Board chaired by Sir Peter Williams. Small wonder, then, that Jon Burch, chief executive officer of the Royal Academy of Engineers, admitted: “Just how we are going to work together, I don’t know.”
Both Royal institutions said in response to questions that they were proud of being elitist, and it seems neither has an ethnic monitoring policy with regard to their awards of research fellowships, and this despite a legal requirement to do so.
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