The Royal Society and its kindred academies have had to evolve in their own unique ways to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. They try to offer sober advice on some of the most divisive issues — such as climate change, reproductive biology and genetically modified food — without offending their patrons or members. They must be seen to be independent of government, despite considerable reliance on public funding. And they need to reflect the growing ethnic and gender diversity of the scientific community, while still selecting members on the basis of their scientific reputations.
Ever more nations are establishing academies of their own. They range from the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences in Addis Ababa, which opened for business two months ago, to the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in Washington DC, which employs 1,100 full-time staff members to turn out 200 reports each year for the government.
“The academy’s function is to provide the consensus view of the scientific community,” says Bruce Alberts, former president of the NAS. Given the range of topics that it handles and the diversity of views within that community, he says, “it is very difficult to do”.
The Royal Society and the NAS are two of the largest independent scientific academies in the world (see ‘Two elites’), and illustrate two principal models of operation. The Royal Society is a self-constituted club with no formal, official role in government; the NAS is chartered to provide advice at the behest of the US Congress. (A different type of academy, of which the Chinese Academy of Sciences is an example, is effectively part of the state and runs many of the government science programmes in several communist and formerly communist countries.)