Anniversary Day Address 2021 from President of the Royal Society, Adrian Smith

30 November 2021

First, let me say what a pleasure it is to be back to celebrating Anniversary Day here physically at Carlton House Terrace. It has been difficult to conduct my first year as your President largely by Zoom – so let us hope that the emerging worst fears about the new Covid variant prove unfounded. 

And let me take this opportunity to thank the Executive Director, my fellow Officers and all the staff at Carlton House Terrace for both their extraordinary efforts in keeping the Royal Society show on the road and for their support to me personally during my first year.

Let me begin by reviewing what I see as the general current context for science.

So far as science is concerned, we live in particularly interesting times. Within the UK, we have both government focus on science as the basis of future prosperity and higher than usual levels of public awareness and interest as a result of the pandemic. 

And this against the background of especially unsettled international tensions, with science increasingly a geopolitical force in the age of the knowledge economy, but perhaps with more emphasis on competition rather than collaboration – despite the global nature of the world’s most pressing challenges.

Science is more critical than ever in informing the decisions that affect our lives and the Executive Director has highlighted the impact that the Society’s work has had in the past year, working to ensure that debate about globally significant challenges is supported by the best possible science. The Society’s continuing work on Covid has been notable, but there is also significant work addressing longer term challenges like biodiversity, gene editing and the technological roadmap to net zero.

We will continue this vital role. For example:

We will be holding a Transforming our Futures conference in March, which will be looking at various aspects of the pandemic, including the basic science, vaccines, diagnostic logistics, treatment and recovery from long and acute Covid – as well as the opportunities opened up for the life sciences and how these can be taken forward for future preparedness.

The Society’s work undertaken on clarifying science-based solutions to climate issues ahead of CoP26 will continue and we will be working to embed those solutions in the remaining year of the UK’s presidency of CoP.  

In April, we will host an event which will bring together the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group Chairs, leading global scientists and UK policy and industry representatives. The aim will be to discuss the findings and implications of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report and identify some of the actions – including a research agenda – required in response to the IPCC findings.

In June, the Society will take part in the US-UK Scientific Forum, jointly organised with the US Academy of Sciences. This will bring together around 50 scientists to develop recommendations on how different approaches to measuring and valuing biodiversity can stimulate action to reverse the trend in biodiversity decline.

These are important activities and collaborations. But more generally, our positioning of the UK as a science partner and our reputation as a trusted collaborator has not of course been helped by the fallout from Brexit and our government’s change of policy on ODA. 

We have now seen some signs of a change of heart on ODA, but I have to say the continuing tensions with the EU post-Brexit remain worrying for the future of scientific collaboration with European partners.

Let me enlarge on this. 

The science community has overwhelmingly been in favour of the UK seeking formal association with the new Horizon Europe programmes and therefore welcomed the announcement on Christmas eve that agreement on this had been reached. 

What I fear, however, is that many of us slipped into thinking that this announcement signalled a done deal. It did not – and as of today has not. The EU Commission is refusing to ratify the deal until outstanding political disagreements are resolved – in particular, the Northern Ireland protocol and French fishing rights. And the impasse does not just affect Horizon Europe association, but also UK participation in Euratom and Copernicus.

In a recent letter to Minister George Freeman, I made clear the Society’s view that the majority of the science community continue to want association. However, if the political impasse is to continue for many more months, there will be serious impact on funding decisions for both programmes and people and we will all therefore need to face up to the possibility that association simply may not happen. 

In the recent Spending Review, the government included the budget for association, around £15bn over 7 years, within its R&D spending profile and guaranteed that the funding will be ring-fenced in the event that association does not happen. 

This is significant and means in effect that, for the first time, the UK research community is presented with a choice between cost neutral alternatives. 

As a consequence of the delay to finalising association, I believe the government will need to engage with the research community to prepare for and manage different ‘Plan B’ scenarios, against the background of the government’s overarching commitment to raise public and private R&D investment in the UK to 2.4% of GDP by 2027, requiring a global outlook in attracting R&D talent and investment. 

We will, of course, ensure that the Society remains close to these emerging discussions.

Returning to the recent Spending Review outcome for R and D funding, the overall announcement was welcome against the current tough economic background but the devil will be in the detail of the roll out to specific investments and, as a Society, we must continue to press for the importance of investment in high-quality curiosity driven research as the ultimate driver of innovation and prosperity.

Reflecting on the balance sheet for science in the context of the pandemic, this, of course, has been a clear demonstration of the importance of sustained investment over a long period in curiosity driven research.

It has also brought home to the general public the importance of science and the Society’s own public engagement has built on this to reach new and larger audiences.

But on the negative side, many science funding charities suffered major income loss with knock on effects for both research programmes and early career researchers.

And we have also – and not only in the context of the pandemic and, for example vaccines – experienced a significant growth in misinformation and anti-scientific discourse, amplified by social media outlets and the internet. This is a serious problem that we will need to reflect on as a society – both with a lower and upper case S.

The success of the UK’s vaccination programme was built on decades of funding for research but it also required the right, timely expertise to get vaccines from the labs and into people’s arms.  Last week, Kate Bingham, who led the vaccines task force that so successfully delivered that expertise, said that a lack of scientific understanding among ministers and civil servants left the country woefully unprepared. She said it was only the intervention of Patrick Vallance that allowed the setting up of the task force outside the normal Whitehall structures and we know the outcome.

This has reignited debate about the need for more scientists and engineers in government. While I agree wholeheartedly that having more scientists in parliament and the civil service would benefit our decision making, it is mistake to see this as a zero sum game. You do not have to be a scientist to bring the skills we associate with the scientific process to policy making, or rather, you should not have to be. If we had a broader and more balanced education system that did not force people to abandon science, or other areas of knowledge, at sixteen, we could have a workforce equipped with a more rounded set of skills and perspectives. That would better prepare them for the workplace of tomorrow – whether that workplace is a factory floor, an office or in the corridors of Whitehall.

Let me now turn to the role of the Royal Society.

As I said earlier, we live in interesting times for science – one that is rich in opportunities but also presents risks.

Fixed points for me – and I’m sure all of us – are the fundamentals of the Society’s raison d’etre: to champion the very best science in the national and global context and to promote the benefits of science in the service of humanity.

The Royal Society has demonstrated extraordinary adaptability over the past three and a half centuries – I want us to reflect on how best to carry out our mission in the current global and national context.

First, let’s take stock of what we have going for us: 

  • we are a globally respected institution, which opens many doors for us – at home and abroad – as a trusted source of knowledge and advice on scientific evidence across a wide range of the policy spectrum; 
  • we have at our disposal many direct levers of influence that help shape the culture and practice of science – including grants, publishing and events;
  • we have power and influence as a convenor of activity and thought leadership in areas where we need to reach out beyond our immediate networks.

So what should be our strategic focus over the next five years?

I think there are four underpinning key themes:

  • First, a continuing central emphasis on our role as a champion of scientific excellence in all its forms;
  • Secondly, jealously guarding our independence as a voice for the science community;
  • Thirdly, a commitment to the inherently international nature of the scientific enterprise and our ability to respond agilely, quickly and effectively to emerging opportunities for collaboration and dialogue, whatever the general geopolitical climate;
  • And fourthly, cultivating partnerships – domestic and global – which complement and enhance our capacity for impact and influence.

Let me now turn to some of the specifics, which I see as falling into four broad headings: influencing, UK and global: research system and culture; science and society; corporate, governance and fellowship.

The Royal Society’s Science and the Law programme has shown how much influence we can have through Fellows’ networking with other constituencies and professions. I would like to explore comparable programmes, reaching out to and establishing new networks – for example with the finance industry and with local and regional government and business partnerships.

We will, of course, continue to champion the role of curiosity driven research, but I would like to see more involvement from the Society in networking with key players in the innovation landscape to explore and enhance our understanding of the relationship between research and innovation.

We must continue to take a detailed interest in all relevant aspects of the education system, particularly, of course, the STEM pipeline through schools and colleges, but I would like to see us pay more attention in the future to the further and technical sector, working more with partners having expertise closer to the coal-face. Where we can and should uniquely contribute is in the kind of thought leadership exemplified by our work on requirements for more data focussed mathematics education in the decades ahead.

People are, of course, at the heart of all our scientific endeavours and I would like us to take a lead in working to promote greater coherence and security in scientific careers. We are already pressing for a new form of mid-career fellowship.

We will continue to work to promote a culture of research that supports both excellence and inclusion – for example through our transition to fully Open Access publishing.

And we must take a root and branch look at the Society’s engagement with and contribution to the societal Diversity agenda, in all its aspects – including gender, race, class and geography. Building on the seminar we held in March, we need to identify and develop a network of partners - both educational and community based - with whom to take this forward.

The UK Young Academy, which will come into being next year, will provide the potential to provide a greater diversity of voice, particularly at early career stages, as well as diversity of disciplinary perspective. We will oversee its first stages of development before it then transitions into a fully independent entity.

Finally, none of the above will be of any account if, in these changing times, we fail to preserve and maintain the ultimate source of our reputation and standing in the world – namely the quality of our Fellowship! Here, too, we need a programme of work to promote greater diversity – for example, in clarifying criteria for our various forms of fellowship and encouraging the widest possible basis of nominations. In the New Year, I hope to lead a series of in-person meetings with Fellows across the UK regions to explore these issues in more depth. 

Let me end on a personal note. We are all aware of increasing stridency and intolerance of the views of individuals. I would like to make clear that, while I am President, the culture of the Royal Society will be one of openness of debate and, within the law, openness of expression. It is not appropriate in the context of scientific discourse and debate to ask or require that all views of all others be “respected” – robust challenge to prevailing views and to others’ perspectives is the lifeblood of the scientific method. However, we should insist, as part of our culture, on courteous and tolerant behaviour towards individuals, with whom we might disagree on scientific judgements.