Into the New Millennium: Opportunities for the Bioscience Community

Into the New Millennium: Opportunities for the Bioscience Community

Into the New Millennium: Opportunities for the Bioscience Community

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the Institute of Biology’s consultation on the report ‘Into the New Millennium: Opportunities for the Bioscience Community’. The RSE is Scotland’s premier learned society, comprising Fellows elected on the basis of their distinction, from the full range of academic disciplines, and from industry, commerce and the professions. This response has been compiled with the assistance of a number of Fellows from a broad spectrum of biological disciplines.

The RSE believes that this is an interesting report which contributes to the debate on the organisation of the biosciences. It raises a variety of issues, but more work needs to be done to put quantitative flesh on the bones. The exact shape of any future structure for the bioscience community must be decided by the community itself in order to ensure the widest possible sense of ownership, however, if further debate is required, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, with a Fellowship from the full range of academic disciplines, would be willing to act as an ‘honest broker’ to discus these issues.

The biological sciences is a broad church, and if a ‘bioscience community’ is to represent all the biosciences, then it needs to be inclusive, spanning the range from the protein molecule through to the environment. Similarly, some of those influential in Universities and Research Institutions engaged in various aspects of "bioscience" and in touch with students could also provide useful input to these discussions. These bodies have a strong stake in the development of this science and in its public image and public service.

There is no doubt that the UK biology community is fragmented in much of what it does, and it is probably less cost effective in its activities than it might be. However, the degree to which the limitations of the structures have a real importance is difficult to quantify, because many biologists are members of several scientific societies in addition to the Institute of Biology.

Further, there may be difficulties in these proposals which will need to be avoided. For example, the interests of the individual societies will need to be recognised. These societies, at the frontiers of their specialist disciplines, would have to agree to give up some of their autonomy, and possibly income, for a perceived greater good. They have therefore a major stake in any changes.Consideration will also need to be given to whether it will be possible for the 'energy' generated within smaller organisations to be captured if they became Divisions in a very much larger organisation. There would also be merit in a mapping analysis to identify what the various organisations will bring to any new structure and what functions might need to be added or developed to make the Biological Federation fully effective.

The different conclusions of the report are addressed below:

The bioscience community should operate with greater coherence and visibility than in the past and, thus, play a more influential role in serving science and scientists. (Para. 25)

There is undoubtedly merit in the bioscience community having a single body with which to interact with government and the world at large, particularly media, with regard to policy issues and biological issues of general interest. It was for these reasons, that the UKLSC committee was established and, by and large, it has been successful. There can, however, also be strength in diversity.

In terms of the proposed restructuring, there is concern over the potential loss of some disciplines,core skills and techniques which may be deemed unfashionable by some. For example, the restructuring of biology in universities in recent years to create large schools of life sciences has substantially reduced (and sometimes eliminated) teaching in systematics, field studies and organismal biology. Therefore, there are many proponents for the maintained presence of specialised Professional societies, both to provide a forum for scientific exchange and to maintain an identity for the smaller disciplines.

There should be more joint working and pooling of resources in the community's internal and external activities. (Para. 43)

Universities are ahead of the learned societies in achieving economies of scale through the integration of formerly separate bioscience disciplines, and the need to source, maintain and provide support staff for increasingly expensive common technologies. The economic case for integrating the various professional bodies involved is much less obvious. However, many (but not all) eligible learned societies may welcome the greater efficiency of operation that should result from sharing resources.

Effectiveness in public affairs and communications are key issues. Working together, thereare also opportunities for the British bioscience community to have a stronger impact in Europe. (Para. 44)

A central informed means of contributing to public affairs is a key area. However, further work is needed on how this could be achieved in practice to reflect the diversity of views from the broad range of biological disciplines. With devolution, there might also be merit in regional communication points, with specific sensitivities to the needs of the respective parliaments and assemblies.

A further important consideration will be the aspirations of individual societies to take on an international, particularly European, role and how to place this within any overarching UK structure.

It would be prudent to concentrate new joint working initiatives on those activities with potential for new outputs. Public affairs and web-based communication, particularly electronic publishing, are examples that would create few threats to existing working patterns, could produce some quick success stories and generally add value. (Para. 45)

Existing learned societies in biological sciences vary in size by two orders of magnitude and generally have aspirations appropriate to their size. It remains to be seen whether many would benefit from having a central office.

With regard to the issue of electronic publishing, a measured approach, exploring the appropriate balance, is what is needed. A number of the Professional societies are thriving organisations, with income from, and a long association with, publication of a major journal or journals. Despite the points raised in the report about electronic publishing, it unlikely that commercial publishing houses will go out of business because of it so the same should be true of learned societies. The capacity to sell sufficient subscriptions to maintain income will, however, be dependent upon maintaining and improving the quality and ranking of the journals (with impact factors remaining a crude monitor of this effectiveness).

Future management arrangements should be more formal than in the past to give the necessary sense of direction, priority and authority to joint working. (Para. 59)

The suggestion for using the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), or the Geological Society, as a model for the proposed Federation is interesting. However the RSC arose from the merger of 4 similar societies as opposed to the 70-100 different societies of the biosciences. It could also be said that the biosciences have evolved and enlarged much more rapidly than Chemistry or Geology, becoming much more diverse, and with boundaries to other subjects much less easy to define. The development of such a model will therefore be more difficult and what is needed, perhaps, is a process of evolution, rather than of forced marriages.

Individually, none of the IOB, UKLSC and UKNCM has the resource or commands sufficient support to take the lead in creating a new management structure. They should work together and with the learned societies in a spirit of co-operation to create a new federal management structure. (Para. 61)

Creating the structures advocated in the Report will require additional resources. Although resources were outside the remit of the Report, suggestions as to how a Federation might be financed or managed will be a key consideration.

There are basically two options for proceeding. A federal management structure could take the form of a formal Bioscience Federation with policy and national leadership responsibilities (Option A), or simply of an informal Management Group for joint activities (Option B). (Para. 67)

Within the biosciences field there are so many learned bodies, with different historical backgrounds, that it will be difficult to cater for all these interests in one scientific body. In view of this diversity of bodies and widely differing concerns, Option B may be a more realistic and achievable solution in the short term, recognising that at the end of 24-36 months, the management group might recommend the more radical step of creating a Bioscience Federation, as long as there was strong majority support for this solution.

In addition, there would be merit in fostering natural associations between societies. The Report already points to the formation of the UKSLC and UKNCM. For example, officers of the Scottish Association for Marine Science also regularly meet and consult closely with the Fresh Water Biological Association and Marine Biological Association because all three receive core funding from NERC.

Additional Information

Copies of this response are available from the Research Officer, Dr Marc Rands


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