Of principles, presidents and pretense … the descent of the Royal Society

Nullius in verba is the motto of the London (U.K.) Royal Society which as the history page of their website notes in a sidebar:

Nullius in verba “roughly translates as ‘take nobody’s word for it’. It is an expression of the determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment.”

On this same history page, one learns that the full-name of The Royal Society (RS), which celebrated its 350th anniversary last year, is ‘The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge’. It says nothing about advocacy; and strangely enough, nullius in verba is nowhere to be found anywhere else on the RS website – except a lonely fragment thereof:

‘In Verba’ – the Science Policy Centre’s blog – provides updates about our work on providing scientific advice to policymakers.

The RS “Science Policy Centre” claims to provide:

independent, timely and authoritative scientific advice to UK, European and international decision makers.

We champion the contribution that science and innovation can make to economic prosperity, quality of life and environmental sustainability and we are a hub for debate about science, society and public policy [emphasis added -hro]

That’s certainly a tall order isn’t it?! One might ask: how did this noble organization venture so far from its chartered roots of ‘withstanding the domination of authority‘ to one with an acquired mandate of providing ‘authoritative scientific advice’?

The answer to this question lies in a very timely and well-written report, from the U.K.’s Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), entitled Nullius in Verba – On the Word of No One: The Royal Society and Climate Change (or Nullius in Verba, for short).

This report was written by Andrew Montford, author of the increasingly influential The Hockey Stick Illusion, as well as the GWPF’s 2010 critique of The Climategate Inquiries – and the more recent self-published Conspiracy in Green, an exposé of the collusion by “environmentalists and BBC journalists [in the subversion of] the corporation’s output, [and the exclusion of] global warming sceptics from the airwaves”.

As Dr. Richard Lindzen notes in his Foreword to Nullius in Verba:

Andrew Montford provides a straightforward and unembellished chronology of the perversion not only of The Royal Society but of science itself, wherein the legitimate role of science as a powerful mode of inquiry is replaced by the pretence of science to a position of political authority.


[T]here are certain peculiarities of The Royal Society’s behavior that are perhaps worth noting. The presidents involved with this issue ([Robert] May, [Martin] Rees and [current President, Paul] Nurse) are all profoundly ignorant of climate science. Their alleged authority stems from their positions in the RS rather than from scientific expertise. [emphasis added -hro]

And as Montford notes in his introductory summary:

For 300 years after its foundation, the Royal Society adopted a position of aloofness from political debates, refusing to become embroiled in the controversies of the day. This position was encapsulated in the Society’s journal, The Philosophical Transactions, which carried a notice that ‘It is neither necessary nor desirable for the Society to give an official ruling on scientific issues, for these are settled far more conclusively in the laboratory than in the committee room’. In the 1960s, the society began to become increasingly involved at the interface of science and political policymaking.
Immense damage has been done to the reputation of the Society by its last three presidents. While the fellows’ rebellion has improved matters considerably, the continuing desire of the Society’s leadership to engage in political controversies represents a serious ongoing risk to the Society’s reputation and an abandonment of its principles. [emphasis added -hro]

If you are new to the “climate wars” (as I still consider myself to be, even after more than two years on the battlefield), Montford’s chronology provides considerable context and background which, although specific to the RS, is echoed in the pre- (and post-) Climategate activities of other high profile and supposedly “independent” organizations.

As one who has spent many years in the non-profit (and primarily) government-funded sector, I know from experience that change does not often happen unless driven from the top (and is frequently suggested by senior staff, rather than by the membership or even the senior voluntary leadership). Government funding provides an additional wrinkle: he who pays the lion’s share to the piper usually calls the tune. Here’s how the RS describes its funding sources:

The Royal Society has a variety of funding sources in order to ensure its independence.

  • 68.2% from Parliamentary Grant for specific projects and programmes.
  • 13.1% from companies and trusts.
  • 9.5% from trading (e.g. journal sales, venue hire).
  • 8.1% from investments and endowments.
  • 0.8% from other public bodies.
  • 0.3% from membership contributions from Fellows.

Seems to me that the only “independence” that is being ensured is that of the President and upper echelons from the Fellows, as Montford confirms (p. 37):

In the 50 years since Lord Adrian warned of the dangers that a flood of government money represented to the Royal Society, all of his worst fears have come true. Despite repeated claims that the Society is independent of government, the reality is rather different. Although the fellows still have to pay subscriptions to the Society, the total raised in this way is dwarfed by sums routed through the Society by government […] [emphasis added -hro]

But … nullius in verba (least of all mine!)… read the whole report. At 40 pages, it is not a long read, but it is a very enlightening – and alarming – read.

UPDATE: 02/10/2012 01:36 PM PST Post has been amended to reflect new link to Nullius in verba report (http://www.thegwpf.org/images/stories/gwpf-reports/montford-royal_society.pdf)

4 thoughts on “Of principles, presidents and pretense … the descent of the Royal Society

  1. ‘In Verba’ – the Science Policy Centre’s blog – provides updates about our work on providing scientific advice to policymakers.

    Sometimes you would not even read about it, not even in Orwell.

    The Science Policy Centre was the first big break with the past noted by Montford, when in 2001 the Society moved from shunning political controversy to take on ‘the character of an advocacy group.’ And so what is its blog called? nullius in verba.

    Save the heraldry, at no place can you find this motto on the website, except here with the negation removed.

    In 1984 the precept on the barn wall were changed so that some animals were “more equal” than others. ‘More’ does not quite negate equal, and therein lies the joke. But there is no joke here. ‘Take nobody’s word for it’ has becomes ‘Take our word for it’ — and we are not talking the word of Fellows here, as most of the posts are by professional policy advisors. With a scarcity of comment boxes, I think they are trying to tell us something about the advancement of authoritative knowledge.

    • Save the heraldry, at no place can you find this motto on the website, except here with the negation removed

      And you don’t even find the heraldry in too many places on the site. As I had mentioned in my post, the only place I saw any sign of it was on their “history” page!

      But they definitely seem poised to jump on the “sustainable development” bandwagon; viz their role as “co-host” of the “Planet Under Pressure 2012” confab scheduled for the end of this month:


      As far as I can tell, this conference has nothing whatsoever to do with science – and everything to do with “advocacy” … in particular, it is yet another gathering of voices rehearsing and being primed to sing the same tune at Rio+20.

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