10 Things You Should Know about Election to the Royal Society

There has been much consternation today in the Twittersphere –  and no doubt elsewhere too  – about the fact that there were only two women this year in the list of 44 new Fellows elected to the Royal Society. It goes without saying that this is deeply disappointing. I know that this is a view held by many, including (possibly particularly) those involved in the decision-making this year, which I was not.  However, the low number of women does not mean to say the Royal Society is chauvinistic, backward-looking, biased or unaware of the challenges it faces in ensuring its fellowship more accurately represents the scientific population. It has for some time past been working very hard to try to improve the situation.  So, since I am one of the few Fellows who blogs (and tweets) I will take the risk of being drummed out of the Society by speaking out, to try and set the record straight and counter some of the more prevalent (and sometimes daft) myths that fly around about the election process.

Firstly, what is my pedigree for pronouncing on this? I was elected to the Royal Society in 1999. That year, as it happens, there were 5 women elected: Frances Ashcroft; Lorna Casselton, who went on to become the Foreign Secretary; Janet Thornton, the late Rosa Beddington (who tragically died when she was only 45, a few years later) and myself. I have always found myself welcomed in the Society and most certainly not felt as if I was the victim or target of some patronising group of unreconstructed males. Since my election I have served on many of their committees, including Council from 2004-6. Currently I am Chair of the Education Committee and a member of the Equality and Diversity Advisory Network. I am sure, in their endeavour to make sure all their committees do include female representation, I have been given far more opportunities than many of my male colleagues. Hence, overall I have been involved in many different parts of the Society’s work, and found it rewarding and fascinating. This includes close involvement with the election process itself. First I served on Sectional Committee 2 (I’ll explain this below) for 3 years, then on Council for 2 years, and then on Sectional Committee 2 for another 3 years, chairing it for the last two of these (finishing in 2009). So, I believe I am well placed to provide some hard facts about the process, without breaking any sort of confidences.

In case you think I am a stooge, simply writing this to try to dampen down the collective anxiety ‘out there’, I would point you to an earlier post of mine, where I covered the broad issue of diversity work at the Royal Society long before this current furore started. This covered some of the same ground, although it was not primarily focussed on the Fellowship elections. As I said then, it is easy to pillory the Royal Society on its gender composition, and also completely misconceived to do so. I find it sad that people are so willing to point a figure at our national academy of sciences, without really pausing to think about the realities. The realities which start way before the point at which women could be considered for election; indeed even at birth, as my last post said. I get angry with the casual assumptions people make without careful thought, particularly as my own (sometimes painful) experience tells me there are many other organisations which are substantially less bothered about diversity issues, but which pass unremarked.

So here are 10 facts for you to chew over, 10 things you probably didn’t know and maybe should.

1 You can only be elected if you’re nominated.

Sounds obvious, but it does require someone to act and not just assume that ‘someone else’ will do it. Nor does it require an existing Fellow to start the process. To my certain knowledge, ever since Lord May was President  – so for at least a decade – and possibly before, the Society has actively sought nominations by writing to Heads of Departments and Vice Chancellors encouraging them to put names forward.  Officers have also gone to talk to the Professional Societies to do likewise. If there is no one appropriate locally to proceed with the nomination, then the Officers of the Society  can find a Fellow close enough to the candidate’s field to make a reasoned judgement as to whether the case is strong and, if it is, to get the paperwork together. Each nomination must be supported simply by a Proposer and a Seconder, both FRS’s. Back in the days when I was elected there had to be at least 6 Fellows supporting each application. That was reduced to two (again about a decade ago and again I suspect prompted by Bob May’s concerns) because it was so obviously harder to be nominated if you were a minority or in an emerging field or came from a university without many existing Fellows.   This action, by  lowering the barrier of connectivity as it were, in itself should have facilitated a more diverse field of nominations coming in. It should also be recognized that any Commonwealth citizen can be nominated, or anyone working (for more than 3 years) in the UK, if they are not a UK national.

2 In the first instance you are considered over a 7 year period

Fairly few candidates are elected in their 1st year, although I have seen it happen. The average age of election (and I can’t remember what it currently is) is older than one might like and this is a source of concern. However some individuals do get elected in their early 40s – and some in their 70s.

3 There are 10 sectional committees

I referred to Sectional Committee 2 (SC2) above, which is the one I served on. It covers physics and now includes astronomy; I chaired it as it switched to include both fields. The remits of the committees change from time to time, to reflect the changing realities of the disciplines; they are not so fossilised as still to look the same as they did years ago.  The move of astronomy from SC5 to SC2 was to allow SC5, which includes environmental sciences, to expand as this field grew in size and importance. The 10 committees are divided into two groups: the A side (SC1-5, the physical sciences)  and the B side (the biological sciences covering SC6-10).

4 Membership of the Sectional Committee’s constantly turns over

Each member serves for 3 years. Thus, if you were feeling suspicious that someone could block a particular woman for instance, they wouldn’t be able to do so for long and certainly not throughout the 7 year period an individual is under initial consideration.   Anyone who has either proposed or seconded a particular candidate, or who is from the same institution, is barred from speaking up for that candidate.

5 Much thought is given to the geographical, sub-field and gender distributions in the composition of the Sectional Committees.

Nor is it the case that the committees are stuffed with Fellows from the Golden Triangle. Far from it. I suspect that these universities are actually under-represented on the committees, given their proportion in the Fellowship, although I’ve never done the sums to check. There will also be representatives from overseas on each committee. Additionally, great care is taken to ensure that all sub–fields are as well–represented as possible. This may cause challenges as new areas emerge. In recent years a particular concern has been the situation for candidates from industry, and great effort has been expended in making sure people working there are both nominated and then given appropriate consideration. For instance, mere bulk of standard papers would be an even less reasonable metric for them than for those in universities. In general, though, metrics are not used: no slavish following of h factors, citations or impact factors in my experience.

6 ‘Pedigree’ does not matter

I have heard it said that if you haven’t passed through Oxbridge your path is much harder. I don‘t believe this for one moment.  Or maybe you fear that you had the ‘wrong’ PhD supervisor, or your postdoctoral experience was not in a Russell Group university etc. I think all these wild fears are wide of the mark. What matters is what you have done and whether you have become a clear leader and set a field alight, not where you did it.

7 Approximately 8 reference letters are sought, nationally and internationally for each candidate

Reference letters are hugely important. The committees go to immense trouble to identify appropriate international scientists (ideally Fellows of their own National Academies, although sometimes that isn’t possible because of the field) whom to approach. Feuds are of course not unknown in science, and sometimes this comes through in letters of reference. Committee members are shrewd enough to know when such vitriol is unjustified and can and will discount them in that case. However, I suppose it is possible a sterling candidate who has upset the entire rest of the world will fail to get elected because they are uniformly panned.  Anyone who thinks lobbying of potential referees is likely to be a good thing should think again; it is likely to backfire.

8 Council members sit through all meetings to see that things are both conducted ‘properly’ but also to tension between fields and committees.

As a Council member it is expected that you sit through all the relevant committees i.e. the A or B side as appropriate. That means, were a committee to forget itself and start playing games, or being chauvinistic or ageist or whatever, Council will spot it. They can intervene or even overrule committee ranking. That rarely happens of course. It does also mean, though, that if one SC has an even stronger field than usual in a given year, it can be factored in when the final list is produced. That does and should happen.

9 I have seen ‘all other things’ being equal brought to bear in various ways, but things are rarely equal.

One comment was made on Twitter that, even without lowering the bar for women (which I believe would be intolerable and totally inappropriate) perhaps if ‘all other things’ were equal a female candidate could be bumped up.  This, I believe, is something that might happen and not just around gender but around sub-field discipline too.  However, it is rare that things are that equal that this action can be brought into play.

10 Ultimately the full Council makes the decision on the final list

This, as I indicated above, means there can be tensioning between committees carried out, and the whole slate of Fellows-elect  considered in the round.

The selection process undoubtedly has its vagaries, but I believe overall is pretty fair. Committees are not peopled only by blindfolded elderly men who couldn’t care less about what the outside world believes of the Society. The Royal Society is however not going to start electing individuals just to improve its ‘appearance’ in the eyes of the outside world. If only there were more women nominated there would at least be the opportunity to elect them, but it is going to take many years before the pool of candidates   – even in the biological sciences, let alone in the physical – is anything like an even split between the genders. I look forward to the time when the number of women elected each year approaches parity and ceases to be a topic of interest to anyone. However, I fear that time will not come for a while yet, despite the Society’s best endeavours.

If you’ve waded through to the end of this rather long post, I hope you feel a little less suspicious about the process. Personally, I feel very strongly that the Royal Society is working as hard as it can to create an even playing field, even if scientists collectively can seem a very conservative bunch.

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11 Responses to 10 Things You Should Know about Election to the Royal Society

  1. Tom Hartley says:

    It’s really useful. I had always wondered how this worked. I don’t think there is any need to suppose that anyone involved in the current system is being biased, rather it may be that people who ought to be nominated are not being brought to the attention of the fellows. I know a few FRSs but I would feel a little uncomfortable about mentioning excellent colleagues – it would feel a bit presumptuous and I think I’d always assumed that the RS was getting all the input it needed, but the lack of female RS in the current round suggests this may not be the case and one can think of individuals of both sexes who seem to be in the right league; have they been or are they being considered? More effort to solicit nominations might go a long way to increasing diversity and this post seems like an excellent step in that direction.

  2. Thanks for giving publicity to the rules.

    In my experience too, there is little or no prejudice against women in the selection process. It is, though, a rather unpleasant process. When I was on sectional committee 8, we were forced to select 4 people from about 60, all of whom were serious candidates and that is a near-impossible job.

    There is a problem for women, but it arises, mostly, at an earlier stage. I have always been struck by Peter Lawrence’s essay, The Mismeasurement of Science. He said

    “As less aggressive people are predominantly women it should be no surprise that, in spite of an increased proportion of women entering biomedical research as students, there has been little, if any, increase in the representation of women at the top [16]. Gentle people of both sexes vote with their feet and leave a profession that they, correctly, perceive to discriminate against them [17]. Not only do we lose many original researchers, I think science would flourish more in an understanding and empathetic workplace.”

    • Tom Hartley says:

      Great quote and I wholly agree that less agressive people are not favoured in the current climate. I don’t think it’s a problem just for the RS, but affects the way scientists judge one another, formally and informally. It is one of the issues identified by Casadevall and Feng in their recent article on reforming science (well worth reading).


      Whether it disproportionately affects women or not, it a any bias toward agression and overconfidence is unlikely to be optimal for science, and it is likely to affect the nomination part of the RS process, since this (point 1 above) requires someone to act on the basis of their informal assessment of status. The people making these judgements are people who have succeeded under the current system, so there may be a tendency to reinforce the values that made them successful. If the nomination process were opened up (so that more people were considered even if only fleetingly) it might be improved. For example, individuals could be nominated by panels of less stellar scientists or enter consideration on the basis of their objective achievements – early professorial appointments, repeated senior fellowships, top prizes. It might involve more work, but it might be the only way to increase the diversity of those nominated. One problem with the objective achievement approach is that even these may have been affected by a similar “pro-agression” bias in early career.

      This modelling paper from Nature (2011) suggests that current “economic” systems (like those in Science) may be selecting for overconfidence. The RS election seems to do a good job of identifying real excellence, but the systems that feed into it may be filtering people out.


  3. Uta Frith says:

    Thanks, Athene, for clarifying the process of election to the RS. I want to say that as a fellow Fellow I can only state that I am in full agreement with what you said, and that I am very glad you said it. It will surely take away the bad taste that has been left by the current list of names that provoked @Henry_Wellcome to tweet: “Can’t believe women are allowed to join the Royal Society now. Thankfully *hardly any* are. Might pop over and see if my FRS is still valid.” My own experiences at the RS have been quite similar to yours and very positive. What can I add? The rules for the election procedures are not hidden, but they are freely available on the RS website. With the abundance of female scientists, especially in the biological sciences, where there is an abundance of rising stars, we confidently hope that more and more women will get elected. But neither of us would agree to lowering the bar.

  4. anon says:

    Thanks for the post. I’m just curious about the numbers. Are all the sections like the ones David describes, choosing about 4 people from 60 nominations? I think knowing that the pool is wide might encourage more nominations.

  5. David and Uta – I am very glad that as fellow Fellows your own experience tallies with mine, particularly as you are on the B side where clearly I have no experience.

    Tom – At various points I think there have been discussions of whether the RS should maintain its fellowship for those right at the ‘top’ or open it up more. Different national academies do different things: the French are even more picky, for want of a better word, electing only a tiny number each year. Hhowever, no one has ever been convinced that changing the current pattern radically would be a good thing to do, although the number elected each year has been creeping up (I think it was 40, or possibly 42, in my year for instance, compared with the current 44).

    Anon The numbers David gives are not at all unusual, indeed a list of 60 may be relatively small.

    As for the quote David uses, yes I am afraid that is all too true in spirit, although I would actually say in practice people tend to say ‘men are assertive, women are aggressive’ when a woman does try to stand up for herself. I have discussed this unfortunate parsing here and here previously. Whatever the precise word used, though, I think it is clear many women – and probably less aggressive men – do walk with their feet away from an environment they find inhospitable. It is one of the ways the leaks in the pipeline manifest themselves.

    • Tom Hartley says:

      Just to be clear I am not arguing above that the RS should be less picky, I think they are getting it just right with the people they currently consider. They need to do more to ensure that everyone worthy of consideration reaches their attention (this blog may help) and I suggested a couple of ways this could work above; one key point is that the senior people who are currently approached for recommendations may not have a full appreciation of the individual’s work as it appears to people in the specialist field (this will generally apply to VCs and also to those whose work spans different fields, and HoDs can be fairly remote as in very large institutions with amalgamated faculties covering huge areas).

  6. Heather says:

    Excellent read with clear parallels to equivalent societies with equivalent minimal female representation in France and the U. S. It’s almost disheartening to not find an easy fix, though. Probably a source of some of the vitriol.

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  8. Tom Hartley says:

    This list of the worlds top 100 neuroscientists as judged by ‘impact’ metrics is revealing.


    Its my impression that the RS has never set much store by these measures, but nonetheless it is a telling insight into the way that our culture measures status and the how that plays out for men and women. Clearly in this game most of the winners are men – often great neuroscientists, but I scrolled past a Nobel prize winner on page 3.

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