Who owns the The Royal Society?

Posted by TonyN on 09/08/2009 at 11:17 am The Climate Add comments
Aug 092009

There is no doubt that The Royal Society has a position on climate change, but to what extent is this venerable and distinguished organisation able to express a truly independent and objective opinion on a matter of current public policy?

Here is what the Society say at the head of the main page on their web site dealing with climate:

International scientific consensus agrees that increasing levels of man-made greenhouse gases are leading to global climate change. Possible consequences of climate change include rising temperatures, changing sea levels, and impacts on global weather. These changes could have serious impacts on the world’s organisms and on the lives of millions of people, especially those living in areas vulnerable to extreme natural conditions such as flooding and drought

http://royalsociety.org/landing.asp?id=1278

At a glance, this appears to be a reiteration of the current orthodoxy, but a more careful reading reveals it is remarkably cautious. There is no reference to conclusive, or even compelling, scientific evidence but only to ‘international scientific consensus’, it speaks of ‘possible consequences’ rather inevitable consequences, and suggests that these ‘could’ be serious rather than predicting certain disaster. There is plenty of wriggle-room here should opinion change.

This statement is at variance with the certainties expressed by government ministers, climate activists and many high profile scientists. It is also very different from what the last president of the Society, Lord May of Oxford,was wont to tell the media. His claims that the science of anthropogenic climate change is as clear as that relating to gravity or evolution made one wonder why a distinguished and clearly very well informed scientist should be saying such things. It is unlikely that many of the 1400 fellows of The Royal Society would heartily endorse such a ludicrous claim.

In the United States, both the American Physical Society and the American Chemical Society have come under pressure from members to review their alarmist and dogmatic public utterances on climate change (See post at WattsUpWithThat). It would seem possible that the somewhat ambiguous statement on The Royal Society’s website is an attempt to forestall a similar revolt among its own membership.

I don’t suppose there are many fellows of The Royal Society who would be prepared to openly express sceptical views on global warming. Mavericks are unlikely to find themselves welcomed into that particularly august fold. On the other hand there may well be those among them who would object to the website making claims in their name that they feel to be without scientific justification.

If, for a moment, one sets aside the hallowed reputation and unique place in the history of science that is accorded to The Royal Society, and look at it is as just another organisation, what do we find? Here are a couple of notes from Wikipedia:

Although a charitable body, it [The Royal Society] serves as the Academy of Sciences of the United Kingdom (in which role it receives funding from HM Government).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Society

So we have a body that is registered as a charity, which is a prominent national institution, and also receives government funding. Under the heading ‘Current Activities and Significance’ the Wikipedia entry says:

Funding scientific research. This is the largest area of expenditure for the Society, costing around £30 m each year.

Now that is quite a substantial amount of money, and this made me curious enough to look at their accounts. Here is what I found.

Government funding comes in the form of Parliamentary Grants-in-aid which, over the last four years (most recent accounts 31st March 2008), has amounted to: £31.7m, £32.9m, £36.6m and £44.9m respectively.   So from 2005 to 2008 the government’s contributions have increased by about 42%.

The next heading in the accounts is ‘Other grants and contributions’, which suggests more support from the public sector. For the same period this amounts to: £9.5m, £8.8m, £7.3m and £7.8m. It looks as though you can add about another £8m (on average) in public funding to the amount received from Parliamentary Grants-in-aid.

Turning to the expenditure side of the accounts, we find that items that are attributable to research funding amount to £29.0m, £30.2m £32.3m and £38.4, an increase of 32% over four years. So the Society’s activities as a conduit for government funds directed towards research have also increased at the same time as the Parliamentary Grants-in-aid, but to a lesser extent.

But it is some other items of expenditure that really caught my eye.

2005 Informing scientific policy £0.4m
2006 Independent advice nationally and internationally £1.1m
2007 Influence policymaking with the best scientific advice £1.5m
2008 Influence policymaking with the best scientific advice £2.3m

This area of expenditure has increased by nearly six times.

Although the wording in these entries varies, it is pretty clear that they all cover the same activities, and the latter two entries are quite unambiguous. Moreover they look very much like allocations for lobbying activities directed towards the government, which  in turn funds the Society. Why should this be?

Overall, it is apparent that government support for an institution which is, at the same time, a charity, a national academy of science and a channel for public expenditure related to scientific research has grown very considerably during the period when global warming has become a political hot potato. This is understandable given that saving the planet is a cornerstone of government policy, but it is also reasonable to ask whether an organisation that is so heavily dependent on public funding can be truly independent either in the way that it allocates funding for research or in the views that it can express about climate change?

One last point. During an interview on Radio4’s Today programme, the following exchange took place between Evan Davis (the presenter) and Sir Jonathon Porritt, chairman of the Sustainable Development Commission, who is a lifelong environmental activist.

Evan Davis: Does it worry you that somehow the pressure … .  isn’t being brought to bear on government [to take action on climate change] and the government isn’t making the case loudly enough for actual change to occur.

Sir Jonathon Porritt: Yes it’s a funny one this, you sometimes hear minsters saying that they wished the environmental organisations were whipping up more public pressure so they would then be able to respond to that pressure.

Radio4 Today 29th June 2009 about 2mins 25sec in.

This provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse of how the business of government is conducted under the present administration. I’m sure that Sir Jonathan saw nothing strange in his admission that the government are happy to use environmental activists to drive policies that they know the public are, at best, lukewarm about. And if our national academy of science lobbies the government alongside the activist groups, then that is even more potent pressure that ministers can react to.

Returning to the question at the top of this post, ‘Who owns The Royal Society?’, it may be fair to pose this question: if The Royal Society depends on government funding, to what extent is this highly respected institution, which is a charity and our national academy of science, bound to promote government policy and assist in the political process of making it seem credible?

Or in other words, has the government bought The Royal Society?

11 Responses to “Who owns the The Royal Society?”

  1. Yet in spite of that funding they claim on their web site that:

    “The Society is independent of government, as it has been throughout its existence, by virtue of its Royal Charters. In 1663, The Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge was granted its Arms and adopted the motto “Nullius in verba”, an expression of its enduring commitment to empirical evidence as the basis of knowledge about the natural world.”

    Bit of a disconnect somewhere….

  2. Dennis

    Just imagine the consequences for the government’s climate change policy if there was the least murmur of scepticism from that quarter, and the likely consequences for RS funding if that happened.

    Independence must be very difficult indeed.

  3. Strange for a government to insist on external pressure to guide policy – they don’t normally listen! I can only assume that they want someone to blame if/when it all goes wrong…

  4. I have made my views on the RS known elsewhere and hold them responsible for the malaise that science finds itself in. Tony you are correct about their independence now that they have cleverly manoeuvred themselves into this position.

    If we take Robin’s view and not give up on them, then it follows that they show equal cleverness in extracting themselves from the mess before they then get the blame as it all goes pear-shaped. This Government in particular is clever at getting others to set the agenda and then distancing themselves when it all goes wrong. Think education and exams. Perhaps a first step would be to reply properly to the letters sent to them by scientists who question AGW, give them some confidence that the Society is “with it”, irrespective of the way the letter is crafted. I don’t believe they deserver polite letters at present and they need some pain to gain redemption. They should be having diner with senior Tories every week to ensure that the next Government doesn’t go off wasting money. This all presupposes that they do in fact understand and I’m not convinced they do.

    For me as a taxpayer I want to see more spent on science so that this country can propel its way back to the top again, but we won’t get their wasting this money on fictitious AGW research. The down side for the Royal Society is that they will be sidelined and other means will be found to channel money for research.

    Just as an aside the Government has used money to buy favour, and done it in a most innovative way. The Banks fell for it, especially the 2 Scottish ones, and the RS has fallen for it. Notice how the Banks are now blamed for all the current financial ills, a situation that covers up the real faults in the system; not withstanding there was some stupidity and greed by the Banks. But this was all encouraged, make no error about that and the RS needs to understand the same will happen to them.

  5. Tony,

    Thanks for doing this homework.

    Do the RS have ‘official’ positions on any other subject ?

    String theory ? Relativity ? How best to pronounce “tomato” ?

  6. Jack:

    That is a very neat point.

    Update – that very astute blogger Bishop Hill tells me that the RS actually has a whole page giving their position on a range of scientific issues. We both seem to have gone astray on this one.

  7. According to this:
    http://www.openmarket.org/2009/08/04/british-government-pays-lobbyists-to-lobby-it-on-climate-change/ payment of activists by government is not uncommon.

    I find incredible the RS attitude to AWG stating that they accept there is an “International scientific consensus..” Since when has a consensus on any scientific subject meant anything?

  8. Tony I wish to acknowledge having used this article heavily in a blog of mine linking the Royal Society to fakecharities which in turn was picked up here http://sharecrazy.com/beta/

  9. Peter:

    That’s an interesting link. Some weeks ago Newsnight had a report on the US administration organising summer training camps for students to indoctrinate them on AGW and also train them in the black arts of organising high profile demonstrations, including how to deal with the police when being arrested/carted away. Sadly I didn’t record it.

    Neil:

    I saw, and you are more than welcome, particularly as you (very correctly) credited Harmless Sky, which is more than Greenie Watch did when they used that post verbatim. Thanks for getting in touch.

  10. Yes the RS has a sprawling website with house opinions on all kinds of subjects. Many of these are completely unrelated to science for example the idea that science would be better if more women were involved. Very interesting discussion point but science will not answer that question.

  11. It’s tinfoil hat time at the RS

    Man-made volcanoes may cool Earth

    hat tip (not tinfoil) to WUWT

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