Anniversary Day Address 2020 from outgoing President of the Royal Society, Venki Ramakrishnan

30 November 2020

Good afternoon. It is a pity that we cannot celebrate Anniversary Day in person at Carlton House Terrace, and the medal and award recipients we have just announced could not be here in person. But I would like to add my congratulations to them and to all of our Fellows who have been honoured with prizes and awards over the past year.

When I became your president five years ago, the Cameron government had recognized the importance of investment in science. I wanted to see science play a more central role in the national conversation and I wanted to address the narrow nature of our education system. What I did not foresee was that nearly my entire presidency would largely be hijacked by two events: the Brexit referendum and the Covid pandemic.

Just during my term, there have been five science ministers over three governments. Despite this turnover and turmoil, it has been reassuring that the importance of science to the national endeavour has been consistently recognised.  Recently, the Chancellor made a commitment to more than doubling public investment in research, taking us from around £9 billion a year to £22 billion by 2025.

The Treasury is under tremendous pressure due to the economic downturn from the pandemic and the uncertainties of leaving the EU. Nevertheless, in last week’s spending review, the Chancellor did reinforce that commitment to research and innovation with significant increases to funding next year and increased multi-year settlements for basic research, including for the Royal Society’s own programmes. Such a commitment in difficult times means that we scientists have a responsibility. We must now do all we can to ensure that science plays its part in transforming local economies and improving people’s health and wellbeing. We must also ensure that research and innovation prepares us for future challenges and shocks. 

The ability of British science to excel depends on nurturing and retaining the most talented researchers in the UK and attracting the most talented researchers globally. This will allow us to strengthen the UK’s place in the world and take a lead in addressing global challenges, including supporting a resilient green recovery. Next year, the UK’s presidency of the G7 and hosting of the United Nations Climate Change Conference provide an opportunity to exercise leadership on global challenges such as climate change and the threat to biodiversity.

Our ability to compete in the future also requires us to ensure that our educational system prepares future generations for a rapidly changing world. The A-level system has remained largely unchanged since the 1950s and today is one of the narrowest in the world.  We force young people to restrict their choices too early and in so doing deprive them of the broad foundation that they will need to thrive in a future in which old jobs change or even disappear and entirely new industries emerge. In such a world, businesses need employees who can creatively adapt to a rapidly changing and technology-rich world.

There is growing support for reform from industry and from within the teaching profession, but some people believe that the current system has served us well in the past and should therefore be left alone.  And indeed, it has served some people well.  At the moment some people are getting the broader education that will prepare them for the best jobs in the future. While the average young person studies 2.7 A-level subjects, you are more likely to study three or more subjects if you come from a well-off family. You are more than twice as likely to be studying four or more subjects if you are ineligible for free school meals.  You are more than three times as likely to be studying four or more subjects if you are at a private or Grammar school, and you are more than twice as likely if you live in the South East as opposed to the North East. This is not how we ‘level up’. 

It is time for a major review of education to ensure that every young person has the opportunity to study the widest range of subjects and qualifications to 18, including science, maths and computing, so that they have the skills they will need to compete for the good jobs of the future. I had hoped to make progress on this in my time as President and I feel that momentum is building. Now, as we prepare for a post-pandemic, post-Brexit Britain, is the time to look at this issue afresh. If the government want to ‘build back better’ they must start with the basics of educating the best equipped workforce possible.

I now turn to the two issues that will probably define my presidency. The first was Brexit. Very soon after my election in April 2015, the Conservatives won an outright majority in the general election and announced plans for a referendum to leave the EU, which was advanced from a proposed date in 2017 to June 2016, only some months after I became President. Thus from the very beginning of my term, my colleagues and I have worked at many different levels to address the consequences of leaving the EU for the scientific enterprise. These include contacts with our scientific counterparts throughout Europe as well as key individuals in our own government. Often this involved discussions with people who may be diametrically opposed to my own personal views politically, in an effort to find common ground. 

The key issues, as always, have been people, funding and regulation. We have to retain highly-skilled scientists working in the UK and ensure that talented people from around the world still choose to come here and contribute to our globally competitive science.  We have to maintain access to money and networks which support our collaboration with scientists around the world. And as far as is appropriate, we need to maintain regulation that supports access to new medicines, technologies and constructive collaborations.

We have been listened to in varying degrees. The establishment of the Global Talent Visa has been a significant step.  It sends out the message that the UK is open for business and remains outward looking.  It is a good step towards creating a visa system that can help attract global scientific talent by being welcoming, faster and more flexible, and take into account the long-term aspirations of scientists and their families.

But other areas are still unresolved. There have been plenty of expressions from both sides to commit to collaborating on scientific programs, e.g. by an association with Horizon Europe. However, this has taken a back seat to more contentious areas. The uncertainty has the potential to affect our ability to recruit and retain the best researchers.  We are now nearing the end game on Brexit.  If we get it wrong, we could do irreparable damage to our science base and that damages everyone’s future. It is time all sides put aside an adversarial approach to negotiations and strike a deal that is in the best interests of the people they represent.

The other event that will define my presidency is the COVID-19 pandemic.  A year ago, nobody had heard of the virus that now dominates our lives.  Science has been thrust into the spotlight as we struggle to understand the virus and its impact, and battle to manage the suffering it is inflicting on people’s lives.

International progress has been spectacular in terms of our understanding of the virus.  The speed at which SARS-CoV2 was identified as the cause of COVID-19 and isolated was amazing. Its genome was rapidly sequenced, paving the way for tests as well as helping to drive progress on treatments. It has enabled the rapid development of vaccines, several of which seem very promising.  The pandemic has had a terrible impact on societies but without the tireless efforts of scientists it would have been so much worse.

A lot of people, including many in the cabinet, last experienced science in school and remember it as a series of immutable facts written on tablets of stone. So in response to scientific advice early in the pandemic, their refrain was that they were ‘following the science’.  But SARS-Cov2, is a new virus and we are obtaining new information and insights about it every day.  

The fact is that at the frontiers of science, there is always uncertainty.  The government cannot follow ‘the’ science because there is no ‘the’ science on COVID-19. Our understanding of it is provisional and can change as new data and insights are obtained.  We must be ready to modify our views in the light of new evidence. For example, many early decisions were made because we did not know at the time the extent to which asymptomatic carriers of the virus could be infectious. We would do many things differently now. That is not a U-turn or failure, rather it is progress.

And science is only one factor the government must take into account. We must be honest about the fact that we are dealing with a situation in which hard choices have to be made very quickly, in scenarios with varying degrees of uncertainty. And the reality is that any choice is likely to have some significant negative consequences.  These are not easy decisions and the government has to take into account many factors as well as the broader implications and unintended consequences of any particular implementation of a piece of advice. As Margaret Thatcher once said, advisers advise, ministers decide – they are the ones who were elected to govern.

It is not surprising that in this rapidly evolving situation, there were missteps and mistakes.  Despite a pandemic being the number one item on the national risk register, we were poorly prepared. We did not take the virus seriously enough, early enough. It does not strike me as a coincidence that in January and perhaps even part of February, we were distracted by Brexit and our main focus was on plans for a post-EU Britain. We did not have the PPE needed; we were slow to go into lockdown; we spread infection from our hospitals to our care homes; we did not have the procedures in place to stem infections in hospitals; our understanding of who was being impacted the most was hindered by a failure to gather and understand data – that left some groups more exposed; we had insufficient testing capacity; and we likely went into a second lockdown too late as well, despite scientific advice to the contrary.

In an effort to gather and analyse data and provide useful advice, the Royal Society had several strands of activity: RAMP which augmented the modelling efforts of those advising government; SET-C which allowed experts in the fellowship to weigh in on urgent questions; and DELVE, a group I convened as a result of discussions with Demis Hassabis and Tim Gowers.

DELVE was unusual in that we had an international group consisting not only of epidemiologists and clinicians in infectious pulmonary disease, but data scientists, economists, and behavioural scientists. It was active in a number of areas, including an analysis of hospital-based infections, testing and tracing programmes, and how to manage the risks of opening schools given their real and significant benefits to children. Of note was work on the economics of COVID-19 led by Tim Besley and Nick Stern of the BA; Nick is also one of our own Fellows. This work clearly showed that the economy and public health are not in opposition but rather support one another, and lives versus livelihoods is a false dichotomy. DELVE also argued in favour of the widespread use of face masks in public spaces, something which was initially met with some scepticism even by some in the scientific community, but which has now been accepted worldwide as a useful public health measure. 

We have learned a lot and both management of the pandemic and treatment of the disease have improved. But the road ahead is still a difficult one.  Vaccines will hopefully be with us soon but even if successful they will take time to ease the situation. We will also need to improve rapid diagnostics, as well as have an array of treatments for those who become seriously ill despite a vaccine.

The investment in modern molecular biology and biotechnology in the last few decades has paid off handsomely. It took many years to identify HIV as the cause of AIDS, to sequence it and obtain a test, and many more years before there was a treatment. By contrast, with COVID-19, we are making comparable progress in weeks and months. 

We must learn from the mistakes made in this pandemic as well as think about how best to plan for future crises including future pandemics, and develop resilience against these shocks to the system. Ultimately it will be science and technology that will provide us the tools, and we must regard investment in it as crucial.  The Prime Minister has spoken of building back better.  So the post-pandemic world presents an opportunity to use science to build a better and more just world.

Before some concluding thoughts, I want to take this opportunity to thank the people who made my job possible and indeed enjoyable. My fellow officers have been exceptionally collegial and helpful throughout my term. The executive director Julie Maxton and her staff at the Royal Society have been truly dedicated throughout my term but must be especially congratulated for the thoughtful way in which they have adapted to the difficult circumstances imposed by the pandemic and thus allowed most of the activities of the Society to continue. They have been wonderful in helping me understand and navigate the sometimes complicated process of leading the Society. And many Fellows, including members of Council, have been very supportive of me during some difficult times.

It has been a privilege to serve as your president. When I was approached, I must confess I thought of myself as an unlikely choice and made that clear. Ironically, the first Fellows to come into contact with India were colonisers like Robert Clive and Warren Hastings, or colonial administrators like Thomas Macaulay and Richard Temple. They certainly did not regard Indians as their equals in any way, and would frankly have been astonished that one day, someone born in India would go on to become a fellow, let alone a president of the Society. I came to Britain relatively late in life, and spent much of the time since in the confines of the LMB in Cambridge working on ribosomes. I had neither the large networks of someone who grew up here, nor indeed any familiarity with the British establishment. So it was particularly broad-minded and generous, and perhaps a bit foolish of you to have entrusted me with this position. I was very touched that you did so, and in turn, I have given it my best in what has been an exceptionally challenging and turbulent five years. Perhaps being a somewhat naïve outsider who tried to see both sides of issues may actually have helped make the case to people of divergent political persuasions.

As I step down as President of the Royal Society I wish my successor the very best.