Article - Issue 9, August 2001

Science, engineering and society

Sir Robert May AC PRS

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On the Holborn Viaduct, which spans the valley where once the river Fleet ran free to the Thames, are four statues representing the pillars of Victorian society: Agriculture, Commerce, Arts and Science. Each holds an object symbolic of her activity. So, at this high flood of Victorian prosperity and confidence, what icon does Science hold? Watt’s governor!

This is, I think, a powerful message for our time, when scientists, engineers and technologists are all edgier both about how favourably society regards them and about the interplay among themselves. William George Armstrong FRS – scientist (who made fundamental contributions to the emerging understanding of electromagnetism), engineer (whose Cragside was the first private house to use electricity) and technologist (whose industrial empire dominated Tyneside) – would surely have been puzzled if asked to write about the different roles of, and relations between, the UK’s academies of science and of engineering. Ours is, however, both a more complex and (perhaps strangely) a less confident age, and I welcome the chance to write on this topic.

I believe the similarities between the two academies are more interesting and important than the differences. Both aim to represent – indeed, to evangelise – the highest standards of enquiry into how the natural world works and into applications of that knowledge for the common good. For the Royal Society, the focus is primarily on basic knowledge in all its forms, embracing medicine and engineering as aspects of the biological and physical sciences, respectively. Applications of such fundamental knowledge are also recognised, although to a lesser degree. By contrast, The Royal Academy of Engineering deals evenly with the broad spectrum of engineering, from fundamental advances through generic development to industrial application. But the overlap remains properly wide: individuals who are Fellows of both academies constitute 8.9% of the Royal Society and 9.4% of The Royal Academy of Engineering.

Both academies have, from their inception, also been much engaged in what today we would call ‘science and society’. Inevitably the expression of this engagement has changed hugely during the seismic shifts society itself has seen over the past century and more. But today both academies – sometimes separately, sometimes together (as in our recent and influential joint study on Nuclear Energy: The Future Climate) – are increasingly playing a useful part in discussions about how to seize the opportunities offered by scientific advances, whilst recognising the ethical, safety and other worries which can arise.

For both academies the trick for the future is to play a larger role in illuminating such controversial public issues, without compromising the dispassionate focus on scientific facts and frank acknowledgement of uncertainty which is our distinctive strength.

Above all, both academies need to be active in conveying to young people, from primary school onward, a sense of the pleasures and excitements of science and engineering. Too often these days science is misrepresented as boring facts and definitions – the ‘science’ of trivia quizzes – rather than as a way of understanding how the world works, in all its complexity and wonder. And engineering is too often misrepresented as narrow technical specialisation (sometimes so subservient to a trendy designer that the bridge ends up resembling a rollercoaster), rather than what it is: understanding harnessed to make daily life better (and more fun, from PC games to Formula 1).

In short, our two academies are, I think, embarked on an interesting voyage which in some ways carries them back closer to their origins. The aim is to continue to articulate and exemplify the highest standards of science and engineering, while at the same time becoming much more active in all kinds of public discussions.

Science on the Holborn Viaduct. Watt’s governor is an early example of feedback control, used to regulate the power produced by steam engines. The governor is connected by a belt to the flywheel so that the balls spin outwards when the engine is working. If the engine gains excessive speed, centrifugal force pushes the balls further out and this drives a mechanism to close the steam supply valve. Conversely, if the engine is lagging the balls fall inwards and more steam is admitted to the machine.

Lord May of Oxford AC PRS

President, The Royal Society

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