Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Talk : Prof Poliakoff on the Royal Society

Chemisty Professor Martyn Poliakoff gave a short, but very charming, talk this week on his new role as the “foreign secretary” of the Royal Society (Wiki here).

Professor Poliakoff perfoming his party trick of making a TV levitate

The professor began by mentioning that the full name of the organisation was “The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge” and that it was formed in 1660.

Viscount Brouncker, the first Royal Society President, had a really nice 'tache

Essentially doing the same job as the Academies of Sciences found in other countries, the Royal Society is unusual in that it was formed by a group of individuals, as opposed to a government decree to make a king or president look good.

Surprisingly, the Society only needed a Royal charter so that it could publish documents and journals. The Professor explained that publishing was the radio and TV of its time - and just as today one needs a licence to broadcast today, so one needed a licence to publish in the 17th century.
After a nasty incident in the early 70s involving some metallic purple paint, the Royal Society has always been painted white

Since the Royal Society operates pretty much according to its original charters (there were three, in 1660, 1663 and 1669) the Professor Poliakoff’s job description is essentially as stated in the first charter: “to enjoy mutual intelligence and knowledge with all and all manner of strangers and foreigners”

Incidentally, the charter is a fascinating document, and one wonders whether the Royal Society still takes advantage of the right to "require, take and receive the bodies of such persons as have suffered death at the hands of the executioner, and to atomise them. . ."

Or call on the big guns if it finds itself beset by some kind of disagreement or difference: “we do authorise. . the Archbishop of Canterbury. . to reconcile, compose and adjust the same differences. . . ”

Which is certainly a different approach to going to ACAS to sort a problem out.

The Archbishop of Canterbury solved a Royal Society dispute a few years ago by the simple expedient of telling the warring parties that if they didn't come to an agreement, he would punch their lights out. .  .allegedly.

But I digress. Let us return to Professor Poliakoff’s talk. . .

He continued by providing an outline of the Royal Society, something that it elaborated on by the Royal Society’s website (here) which states that the Society has an elected council of 21 and permanent staff of some 140. Today the Royal Society has some 1,500 fellows, including more than 80 (!!) Nobel prize winners.

The Society has three roles. As an advocate for science, as a leaned society and as a funding agency.

In its funding role, the Society supports more than 460 post-doc fellowships and 17 professorships, as well as providing grants for over 3,000 scientists in the UK and abroad. This programme has supported researchers such as Prof Andre Geim (who co-won a Nobel Prize for the discovery of Graphene)

As a learned society, it publishes a number of evidence-based reports each year, covering topics ranging from the teaching of computer studies to nuclear fuel stewardship.

And to advocate for science, the Society undertakes activities such as advising on the teaching of science and pairing up MP’s and scientists.

One aspect of the Royal Society’s activities that was a surprise was the work that they do in other countries. Professor Poliakoff commented a number of times on the work that the Society had been doing to help the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences get up and running - and mentioned that there was a much higher level of engagement from the Ethiopian Government in the new Academy than there was by the UK Parliament in the Royal Society.

After the talk had drawn to a close, there was an extended Q&A session. Perhaps due to the topic at hand, there were a lot of questions bemoaning the teaching of science and the media’s portrayal of scientific topics.
It has to be said that there was a faint hint of Victor Meldrew in the audiences questions

In response, Professor Poliakoff, pointed out that journalists worked to tight deadlines and needed focussed material to work with - scientists needed to appreciate this fact.

He also mentioned that high quality science teaching was vital, pointing out that scientists are often able to trace their careers back to a teacher who made science interesting and fun.

Further Information
The talk was part of the Café Scientifique Spring Programme of talks. Although there is no formal fee, the idea is that you will buy a drink or two (the group gets the room for free) and this is the Quid Pro Quo (Clarice) and contribute a couple of pounds to the costs of the organisation (such as travel costs for guest speakers)

Image Sources
Royal Society, Martyn Poliakoff, Rowan Williams, William Brouncker, Victor Meldrew

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