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24.06.2010


The right kind of elitism



National academies can be pivotal in speaking up for


science, both to those in power and to the public.


Britain’s Royal Society is 350 years old this year, and its track


record is one worthy of celebration. It stands today as a relatively


successful model of what an independent national academy can


achieve, having made itself both highly regarded in the corridors


of power and prominent in public debates on major science-related


issues (see pages 1002 and 1009).


Such success cannot be taken for granted. In many parts of the


world, scientific academies either lack real independence from the


state (as in China) or else struggle to make themselves heard within


it (as in Italy). And even where academies have established an independent


voice — other notable examples include those in the United


States, the Netherlands and Sweden — they must still maintain the


difficult balance between taking stances that are full-throated enough


to make the news, yet not so rash as to tarnish their reputation for


impartiality.


As the Royal Society has demonstrated, however, scientific academies


able to navigate these treacherous waters can offer authoritative


input on contentious public-policy issues such as climate change, or


the regulation of human embryonic stem-cell research, and can thus


enrich public debate by ensuring that science is properly heard.


Sometimes that input will be articulated through technical reports,


such as those produced in large numbers by the US National Academy


of Sciences through its operating arm, the National Research


Council. Academies also exert influence through informal consultation


with government officials, and by influencing the selection of


their government’s scientific advisers.


But these traditional avenues are only part of what academies can


do to exert influence today. They can also issue more concise statements


for wider audiences. And they can proactively engage with


the public and the media in the same way that corporations and


environmental pressure groups do — by anticipating or responding


rapidly to events, and making sure that science’s voice is heard amid


the general cacophony.


The Royal Society has, in recent years, used this kind of engagement


to good effect. Academies that are seeking similar impact, such


as new and reconstituted ones in Africa and the Leopoldina, which


assumed the official status of Germany’s national academy only three


years ago, need to be similarly bold and outward-looking in their


approach.


Their memberships should note, however, that in order to have an


independent voice, at least some of their funding must come from


non-government sources. To exert influence, they must also carefully


nurture connections with people and institutions inside government


who genuinely want independent scientific input — and who can tell


the difference between such advice and propaganda. Without that


audience, no amount of earnest objectivity will establish a place for


a scientific academy inside the framework of a state.


And even successful academies need to keep an eye on their own


processes, and resist the opaqueness and cliquishness that can afflict


any self-appointed club. Ten years ago, for example, the US National


Academy of Sciences staunchly resisted what it now concedes were


positive advances in the transparency of its processes. And just recently


it has noticed that Asian-Americans, who have become ubiquitous in


American universities, are largely absent from its own ranks.


Academies can still have a crucial role in taking scientific truth to


the public, and to the heart of government. But to do so, they must


constantly strive to properly represent an increasingly diverse scientific


community. And they must adapt their processes and actions to


a political and media landscape that doesn’t sit still for 350 minutes,


never mind 350 years.



986



EDITORIALS NATURE|Vol 465|24 June 2010



© 2010 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved



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