Government Funding of the Scientific Learned Societies

Government Funding of the Scientific Learned Societies


The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee inquiry into government funding of the scientific learned societies. The RSE is Scotland’s foremost learned society and Scotland’s National Academy of Science & Letters. Although the Society is based in Edinburgh, its 1200 distinguished Fellows are drawn from all parts of Scotland and beyond.

Background to the Royal Society of Edinburgh

Although the Royal Society of Edinburgh was founded in 1783, under a Royal Charter granted by George III, for the ‘Advancement of Learning and Useful Knowledge’ it is committed to playing its full part in helping the people of Scotland to meet the challenges of the twenty first century. The Society is an independent, non party-political body with charitable status. The Society embraces all disciplines in the Sciences and Letters, and its Fellows are elected from the full spectrum of the sciences, medicine, engineering and technology, education, law, the arts, humanities, social sciences, business, industry, the professions and public service. The breadth of this range of subjects gives the Society a multidisciplinary perspective that makes it unique among the United Kingdom’s learned societies.

  • The Society’s mission today remains ‘the Advancement of Learning and Useful Knowledge’. In promoting learning and putting the multidisciplinary expertise of itsFellows to work for the good of Scotland, the Society has three functional goals:
  • To serve as Scotland’s national academy of science and letters - acting as a source of multidisciplinary, independent and expert reflection on matters of public relevance, as a catalyst for educational progress, and as a stimulator of lifelong learning.
  • To support research and innovation in Scotland - acting in productive and effective partnership with a number of public and private providers of funding to support research and innovation and to sustain the excellence and usefulness of Scotland’s research base.
  • To act as Scotland’s premier learned body - honouring outstanding achievement across all academic subjects, the professions, the arts, commerce, industry and public life.

The work of the Society has six major strands:

Independent policy analysis and advice - acting as an independent source of authoritative advice on matters of public relevance through a unique multidisciplinary perspective.

  • Communicating knowledge and understanding - communicating knowledge in order to foster lifelong learning, providing a forum for informed debate, engaging both the general public and specialists and improving the perception of research and careers in the Sciences and Letters.
  • International activities - promoting the international activities of the Society as part of Scotland’s scientific and cultural infrastructure in keeping with the international role that Scotland increasingly seeks to play through the devolution settlement.
  • Grants and awards - supporting advanced research and postgraduate studies, using the expertise of Fellows as a peer-review system to validate the allocations, to sustain the excellence and usefulness of Scotland’s research base.
  • Commercialisation and innovation - encouraging the commercialisation of appropriate science-based research to fully exploit the scientific output of its universities and research institutes to the benefit of the national economy.
  • The Fellowship programme - involving the Fellowship in the work of the Society in order to promote learning and put the expertise of Fellows to work for the good of Scotland.

Funding from the UK Government

The RSE has effected significant developments in areas of strategic importance to Scotland through partnerships with major charitable trusts, industry, government and academia. The RSE receives £278,000 grant-in-aid from the Scottish Executive Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Department, details of which can be found in the Forward Look 2001 of Government-funded science, engineering and technology. The Society also runs Research Fellowships funded by the Scottish Executive and other public, private and charitable bodies. In this context, the RSE in partnership with the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC), ran in 2000 and 2001 PPARC Enterprise Fellowships across the UK, designed to encourage the commercialisation of PPARC funded research, with support of £179,000. These one-year Enterprise Fellowships, developed initially by the RSE in partnership with Scottish Enterprise, have equipped post-doctoral researchers, or younger lecturers, with the hands-on business knowledge to enhance the commercialisation potential of their own research. They encourage the establishment of new start-up companies and allow young researchers to devote time developing their research from a commercial perspective. PPARC will be continuing to fund the RSE for theirscheme in 2002-2004 with a further 4 Fellowships with the support of an additional £175,000. Scottish Enterprise has also recently announced a major expansion in the number of Enterprise Fellowships to be run by the RSE, with funding of £5.5 million for a further 80 new Enterprise Fellowships in Scotland.

The role of the learned societies in providing scientific advice to Government and in communicating science to the public
The RSE recognises its growing obligations as Scotland's national academy of science and letters, and is committed to playing its full part in helping the people of Scotland, the UK and society more generally to meet the challenges of the twenty first century. A key activity of the Society, which is useful to the public, the Scottish Parliament and the Executive, is to act as an independent source of authoritative advice on matters of public relevance. The expertise of the RSE’s Fellows is the foundation for bringing a multidisciplinary perspective to bear on the formation of public policy. From April 2001 to March 2002 the RSE responded to 41 requests for comment on proposals prepared by Government Departments, committees of inquiry, Parliamentary committees and other bodies. The RSE also proactively undertakes a number of independent inquiries on matters of importance to Scotland, with recent examples including an inquiry into Foot and Mouth Disease in Scotland, the Scientific Issues Surrounding the Control of Infectious Salmon Anaemia in Scotland, and Encouraging Resolution: Mediating Patient/Health Service Disputes in Scotland.

With financial support from the Scottish Executive, the Society also ran, during 2000-2001, a series of public policy seminars to inform public policy development and decision-making. These involved Scottish Executive, Ministers and officials, Scottish Parliamentarians and the public, as well as practitioners in the academic, private and voluntary sectors. They provided a platform for open informed discussion on public policy issues on key issues affecting Scotland’s future economic, cultural and social development. Topics included the active involvement of older people, educating through inclusive schooling, 21st Century challenges and changes of renewable energy, and urban transport congestion.

Another intensive activity of the Society is communicating knowledge in order to foster lifelong learning, providing a forum for informed debate, engaging both the general public and specialists and improving the perception of research and careers in the sciences and letters. The Society’s Meetings and Events Programme, together with the Young People & Schools’s Programme, are all designed to meet different aspects of these needs effectively. 

In late 2001 the Scottish Executive launched a Science Strategy for Scotland for the support and use of science to achieve the Scottish Executive’s objectives. Two of the strands of the Strategy are to ensure the effective use of scientific evidence in policy formation and resource allocation by government; and to promote the awareness, appreciation and understanding of science across society. As part of this Strategy the Executive has decided there should be a Scottish Science Advisory Committee, independent of the Executive and established under the auspices of the RSE. The person appointed by the RSE to Chair the Committee has, ex officio, become the Chief Advisor on science to the Scottish Executive. The decision to ask the RSE to establish this important new committee is a clear reflection of the RSE’s standing as Scotland’s National Academy. This Committee will provide advice to Scottish Executive Ministers on science strategy, policy and priorities to allow the Scottish Executive to make effective use of available scientific advice, knowledge and techniques in formulating and implementing policies to support the full range of its objectives. Specific activities will include: advise on strategic priorities for science across the Executive's responsibilities; provide an overview of the provision and use of science in Scotland and advise on ways of increasing public knowledge and understanding in relation to science and science based issues.

The Society also enjoys good relations with UK and international academies. In terms of international activities, the RSE hosts visits to Scotland from representatives of overseas bodies and has developed special relationships and joint activities with national academies overseas. This includes establishing agreements of scientific co-operation, for example, with China, Taiwan and Poland. The main thrust of these being to facilitate an exchange of scientists and researchers to and from Scotland. It also organises a two-way flow of Caledonian Research Foundation Visiting Research Fellowships between Scotland and continental Europe.


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