Since its foundation in 1660, the Royal Society has carved a niche for itself at the heart of science in the UK. It has counted among its past Fellows Isaac Newton, Ernest Rutherford, Albert Einstein, Dorothy Hodgkin, and Charles Darwin to name but a few. Within the current pool of Fellows there are 65 Nobel Laureates.

But in recent years its activities have come under increasing scrutiny. Questions have been raised about the number of women Fellows (only 3.7% of the 1203 Fellows are female) and the election process (which has since been simplified). The latest perceived assault on its hallowed walls comes in the form the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, which is, at the Government’s behest, investigating whether this and other learned societies offer “good value for money”.

This apparent question mark over the provision of government funds has raised particular concerns for the Royal Society’s University Research Fellowship (URF) and Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship (DHF) schemes. These schemes provide “seed-corn funding for innovative, blue-skies research”, which, according to the Royal Society, is rarely available through other funding bodies. The DHF scheme has proved particularly attractive to women — although applications are also open to men. Currently over 50% of the Royal Society’s public funding goes to support 310 URFs and 37 DHFs. Despite the fact that the most recent spending review resulted in a smaller budget for the scheme (compared with 1999–2000), a recent report (Roberts Report, April 2002) recommended increasing the number of URFs. The Royal Society is calling for a return to previous funding levels and a progressive rise to allow for an increase in the number of URFs.

In a letter to a UK national newspaper (The Daily Telegraph, 19 July 2002), current and past recipients of URFs outline their worries about the future of the schemes. “We wish to highlight the hugely beneficial impact that this scheme has had on UK science in the last 20 years,” says the letter signed by Steven Howdle of the University of Nottingham and hundreds of others. The major advantage of the URF scheme is that it offers up to 10 years of support for recipients (Research Councils, which administer the bulk of government funding for science, generally offer no more than five years). The fellowships also offer flexibility for the recipient to work abroad and to pursue interdisciplinary research. The success of the scheme can be judged by the fact that despite the ‘brain drain’ of scientists leaving the UK and the profession, the majority of URF holders go onto long term positions in UK universities. “The Royal Society has come up with a world-class winning formula in these fellowships,” the letter continues, “selecting candidates for the excellence of their research potential and helping them build successful careers in industry and academia.” In the words of one current URF holder, “Why kill of something that is working so well?”

The Committee’s report, published on 1 August (and available at, appears to have heeded these concerns and is supportive of the scheme — even suggesting that the Research Councils should follow the Royal Society’s example. The Committee saves its criticism for the Royal Society’s “confusion” and “lack of awareness” of ethnicity issues, which it describes as a “head in the sand attitude”. More ‘family friendly’ features should be added to all research fellowships, says the Committee, to encourage more women to stay in science. The issue of funding is less clear for the moment, but at least the Royal Society’s winning formula for junior researchers seems destined to continue.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(02)00901-X