Beki Grinter

Posts Tagged ‘royal society’

350 years of the Royal Society

In discipline, women on October 28, 2010 at 8:37 pm

The Royal Society is celebrating 350 year anniversary. Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal Society was published in 1667, just five years after the Society received it’s Royal Charter. Sprat’s history, included a description of  Science as being driven by experimentation rather than the reading of historical texts. Practice not theory, perhaps.

[The Fellows] never affirm’d any thing, concerning the cause, till the trial was past… for whoever has fix’d on his Cause, before he has experimented; can hardly avoid fitting his Experiment, and his Observations, to his own Cause, which he had before imagin’d.

Francis Bacon’s novel, The New Atlantis (published posthumously in 1627) argued for research focused not just on the physical world, but on improving society. I am struck by how central that remains… not a day goes past where I don’t hear arguments that turn on how knowledge improves society, science is an economic driver (and economic drivers are the key to societal uplift), and more recently about how science should solve important global problems (the environment).

Something else that struck me reading these early histories was the differences in the practice of science then and how. We talk about interdisciplinary research a lot nowadays. One of the founding members of the Royal Society, was Christopher Wren (the architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London). As a scientist, influenced by William Harvey who was a physician who challenged convention by arguing that blood flowed round the body, Wren decided to experiment with a transfusion on a dog. He was also a professor of Astronomy. Of course science has become more specialized, but this gives me a feel for how much more specialized science has become.

The Royal Society was a Gentlemen’s club, a rich gentlemen’s club. A woman asked to visit the Royal Society, and in 1667 she became the last woman to visit the Society’s meeting rooms until the 20th century. The Royal Society was a closed society.

There is so much more that could be written, but for me this anniversary has been a personal opportunity not just to learn more about something that is a part of my national heritage, but also something that is a part of the business I find myself in 350 years later.


The Royal Society: science and society

In research on July 28, 2010 at 2:35 pm

The Royal Society is celebrating it’s 350th anniversary. To coincide with a series of exhibits about scientific advances in the past, the Royal Society is also taking the opportunity to reflect on the future of British Science. The Royal Society makes the following recommendations for science in the United Kingdom in the 21st century.


  1. Put science and innovation at the heart of a strategy for long-term economic growth
  2. Prioritize investment in excellent people
  3. Strengthen Government’s use of science
  4. Reinforce the UK’s position as a hub for global science and innovation
  5. Better align science and innovation with global challenges
  6. Revitalise science and mathematics education

I’ve got to say that this list doesn’t surprise me terribly. But, Georgia Tech is also going through a strategic planning process, and the emphasis on #5 has come up there. If I think back through my career, I have always heard a lot about #1. But #5 seems newer as a narrative about the role of science. It reminds me of things I’ve heard about the Millennial generation, that it’s time for science to address problems whose impact might not be entirely economic, but something different. For the National Science Foundation, this is probably the perfect storm of scientific merit and broader impacts.

And the piece of me that grew up in the 1980s wonders whether this is trading in Gordon Gecko for a Millennial?

History and Impact

In academia, academic management on March 16, 2010 at 7:33 pm

The Royal Society is celebrating it’s 350th anniversary. To coincide with a series of exhibits about scientific advances in the past, the Royal Society is also taking the opportunity to reflect on the future of British Science. Here’s an excerpt from the report.

From Faraday to the iPod

Michael Faraday was a leading light of 19th century science. He began his career as secretary to Sir Humphry Davy, himself a formidable chemist and inventor. Faraday then joined the Royal Institution, where his experiments allowed him to elucidate the principles of electromagnetism and build the first dynamo. Explaining a discovery to then Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone, Faraday was asked, ’But after all, what use is it?’ He famously, but perhaps apocryphally, replied, ’Why sir, there is every probability you will be able to tax it’.

Faraday’s ideas were taken forward by James Clerk Maxwell, Lord Kelvin and numerous others, including Albert Fert and Peter Grünberg. Fert and Grünberg received the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physics for work on giant magnetoresistance, showing that tiny changes in magnetism can generate large changes in electrical resistance. Their 1988 discovery revolutionised the way that computers store information. The minuscule hard drives inside laptops and the earliest iPods would have been impossible without Faraday’s pioneering work more than 150 years earlier.

I’m not entirely against the narratives of impact that permeate the academy. We tell each other, we should strive for impact in our research, it’s more than the production of knowledge, it’s impact. But, I think Faraday provides a useful reminder: not everything that is discovered now will have its full impact in a short time frame. Perhaps impact should be treated like the history that it is, something that can not be assessed until sufficient time elapses. Early judgements likely to fall short and potentially be imbued with the personal orientations of those who make the assessments.