President's address to the annual general meeting, 17 July 2008

Thu 17 Jul 2008


A year ago I spoke to you about work to clarify the Academy's priorities, strengthen its electoral procedures, and ensure that it contributes effectively to public debates that bear on the disciplines we exist to serve. A draft plan that articulates our priorities is before you today, so I will set that aside until the appropriate stage in our meeting. The work on electoral matters has been largely completed, and we can be confident that we have a process that is robust, visibly evidence-based and meets the demands of data protection legislation. Through the year we have also contributed to a range of public discussions that bear on the humanities and social sciences, of which again more shortly.

Today I would like to look ahead to some issues that I expect to arise for the Academy in the coming year. Not for the first time, the wider landscape that our disciplines inhabit is changing, and it may provide some context -possibly even some reassurance - if I begin with reminders of some landscapes our predecessors traversed.

1908 and 1958

At the AGM of 1908 the then President, Sir Maunde Thompson, Director of the British Museum, was particularly preoccupied about lack of government funding, because the Academy had no premises. The AGM was held in the Linnaean Society, and Sir Maunde had to report that the Academy's bid for funding had been unsuccessful. He took a robust view: '… one must not be discouraged by an occasional rebuff…And although a refusal, couched as it always is, in polite official language, might damp the ardour of the uninitiated, those who have had experience of the methods of public departments will not lose courage, but will take example from the unfortunate widow of the parable, and by much wearying at last attain the object in view'. I am not certain that I find that a cheering thought; but I note that the object in view was attained!

The academic highlights of 1908 also have a familiar ring. The first Schweich lectures in Biblical study were given, funded by an anonymous donation from 'a friend of the Secretary's'. Preparations were underway to mark the tercentenary of the birth of Milton, just as we are preparing for the quatercentenary, with a Milton conference in December. We are also preparing to take part in celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin next year, and the 150th of the publication of the Origin of Species.

And even at this early date the Academy was discussing how best to contribute to public debate. Sir Maunde asserted that the newly created Academy had 'a right to the position taken by the Academies of foreign countries who are recognised by their respective Governments as bodies whose advice and assistance can be sought in all matters appertaining to literary and scientific knowledge'. We are still active in these ways, as I shall shortly report to you.

Fifty years later in his presidential address of 1958, my predecessor, Sir George Clark, recalled that when he had been elected Fellow in the 1930s, the then President, Dr John Mackail, had spoken (as Sir George put it) 'in stately language' of 'the grave duty and high privileges which rest on the Academy', namely 'the maintenance of the standards of learning and guardianship of the continuity of civilization'. We would not use this idiom today, but we know what he had in mind, and the fundamentals do not change.

Nor do the immediate preoccupations change as much as one might imagine. Sir George drew attention to better, but still insecure funding. By 1958 Government had provided modest support for the Academy, but nothing for new developments. (In that year the Academy's turnover was £60k - about £1m in today's terms; our current turnover is over £20m; in 1958 grant-in-aid accounted for 83% of the total, while today it is 90% of the total.) Sir George pointed to recent changes in the 'mechanism of scholarship' and the way in which some scholars had come to be 'on terms of familiarity with calculating machines', a development others found disquieting. (Incidentally, ever-increasing familiarity with calculating machines will be catered for this year, as we introduce systems that allow for on-line grant applications and assessments.) Sir George also considered how the Academy could make its lectures more 'accessible to the world', perhaps by broadcasting or television: we are now considering podcasting as a further way to make the fruits of research in the humanities and social sciences of widely available.

Policy and Policy Reports

But not everything stays the same. We may still depend on government funding, but the demands we face change. In many ways the Academy has gained across recent years. Government funding for research has more than doubled in nominal terms over the last decade, and risen substantially in real terms. Some of this does not support a net gain to research volume, but is rather the effect of the Full Economic Costing regime (whose merits many doubt); some of it is net gain and enables us to do more to support work in our disciplines. The future of public research funding is of course uncertain, and we cannot assume sustained growth, indeed we cannot assume a steady state.

With funding comes accountability, and we are rightly concerned that it be intelligent accountability. The larger picture is rosy enough: it is widely accepted that UK research is outstanding, whatever measure you choose. Government usually cites a measure of quantity: with 1% of the world's population the UK produces 6% of the world's research; and other measures show that research in the humanities and social sciences flourishes here. However, while we may feel reassured by these broad brush indicators, there has been widespread concern in and beyond the Academy about the likely effects, foreseen or unforeseen, intended or not, of other metrics that might replace the research assessment system. Much of the untied funding that supports work in the humanities and social sciences in universities flows from the outcomes of the RAE. We need to be attentive to any risk of unintelligent forms of accountability, and any compromise of the dual support system of funding, which is based on the RAE.

The Academy has taken a keen interest in this debate, led by the incoming chair of the Research Committee, Professor Albert Weale, and we shall continue to do so. Our report Peer Review: The Challenges for the Humanities and Social Sciences was published last September, and recommended ways to strengthen peer review systems. While accepting that the Research Assessment Exercise has been imperfect, and that a less burdensome way of judging research quality is needed, the report concluded that we have no better alternative. Convincing criticisms of peer review are generally directed at deficiencies of practice, not at underlying principle. The report did not conclude that metrics are never useful, but noted their tendency to alter behaviour and argued that they should be used only with caution and to augment, rather than replace expert judgement.

Other policy work during the past year followed up the Academy's 2006 report on Copyright and Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences, which found that work in these disciplines was sometimes hindered by ways in which copyright law is being interpreted and applied. In the past year the Academy has built on this report, working in partnership with the Publishers' Association. The result, under the title Joint Guidelines on Copyright and Academic Research: Guidelines for researchers and publishers in the Humanities and Social Sciences, was published in April and is now on the Academy's website. We are particularly grateful to Professors John Kay and Hector MacQueen for leading this work.

Other policy work is underway. We look forward to the publication in September of the Academy's study, led by Sir Alan Wilson, on The Impact of Humanities and Social Science Research, which will report on ways in which research in the humanities and social sciences is used – or alternatively ignored! - by policy makers. Good research can and should support the formation of evidence-based policy - but unfortunately there is a lot of policy-based evidence around. Contributing to good policymaking is one way – but not the only way – in which research and expertise in the humanities and social science can have an 'impact'. 'Impact' may sound a substantial matter, but is often thought of in rather slippery ways: the Academy needs to ensure it is understood in a broadly based way, rather than in too narrowly an economic sense. We are grateful that the Minister for Science and Innovation, Dr Ian Pearson, who has responsibility for the Academy's funding, has agreed to launch this report.

Another study in progress, entitled Language Matters is being led by Dame Jinty Nelson. It is investigating the disturbing decline in foreign language study at school level and beyond, and the effects that this is having both on research capability and on wider economic and cultural life. I expect our concerns about the state of foreign language learning to be a major theme in the year ahead.

We owe a great deal to the many colleagues who have worked and are working of these reports, and I thank them warmly.


If I may, I will turn now to some internal matters that I think are likely to concern us a good deal in the coming year.

Fellows will remember that the Structures Review led by Professor Barry Supple looked at the ways by which we seek to elect into Fellowship those scholars in the humanities and social sciences whose achievement is most outstanding. Ensuring that we do so effectively has never been a simple matter. We have to be able to assure ourselves, and the world at large, that any concentration of Fellows in certain disciplines or certain universities, as well as any preponderance of male Fellows, reflects the current and past distribution of excellence. Judging how we are doing in this matter is not straightforward. It is well understood that we must not aim simply to mirror the distribution of active researchers in the UK: it is not the business of Academies to be representative in a simple statistical sense. Rather we take a range of measures to be sure that we do not overlook excellence, wherever it may be found.

Section Standing Committees are charged to look systematically for likely candidates across all institutions, as well as among private scholars. Their search procedures are supplemented by suggestions from Vice Chancellors and Heads of Institutions. Those candidates who are most promising are asked to supply CVs, allowing us to have confidence that our information about their achievements is accurate and up-to-date, and providing a basis for the necessary comparisons. Independent assessments by distinguished overseas scholars suggested by Sections provide additional evidence.

Later in the meeting we shall consider changes to the Academy's Bye-laws, including the remit for Fellowship Standing Committee, which currently has a rather narrow responsibility of considering 'the claims of candidates whose work does not clearly fall within the purview of any one Section'. There are often Fellowship and Structural matters that may need some preliminary consideration, which a committee with wider terms of reference could look into, with a view to formulating proposals that could be discussed by Sections and by Council and, if there is broad agreement, brought to AGM.

By way of illustration, let me mention a number of questions, large and small, and in no particular order, that have been raised by one or more Fellows, sometimes in Section meetings, which might be discussed initially by a Fellowship Standing Committee with wider responsibilities.

  • Why do we use the title 'Ordinary' Fellow? Is this a useful way to signal distinction? The charter does not mention 'Ordinary' Fellows, but only 'Fellows' and 'Corresponding Fellows'. Somehow the term 'Ordinary' has crept into the Bye-Laws. And do we elect a suitable number of 'Ordinary' Fellows each year?
  • Do we elect a suitable number of Corresponding Fellows? The Bye-Laws impose no limit, and the current convention of electing 10 a year, split between Humanities and Social Sciences, is merely a decision of Council. Is this something to revisit?
  • Does the number of Honorary Fellows, at present limited by the Bye-Laws to 20, need to be raised, in the light of longevity or other considerations? There are currently 18, and a further name has been put forward for consideration by this meeting.
  • Is our present approach to nominating for election to the Presidency, which requires considerable involvement of the current President, the right one? Or could it be improved?
  • Does the average age of Fellows raise any concerns? There are several issues here, and I mention some that have been brought to my attention:
    1. We have removed the bar on Fellows who are over 70 holding office, very properly, and the proposed tidying up of the Bye laws that is before us today formalises this decision. That deals with those of us who are or about to be the 'young old'. But I think we must recognise that most of us may eventually come to feel that we no longer wish to undertake Academy business, or even to receive copious mailings. Would it be useful to offer a clear route for standing down from the demands of active Fellowship at a chosen moment, while of course retaining Fellowship?
    2. More specific issues are of concern to Sections where the average age of Fellows is high. This is a knotty issue, but my perception is that it is becoming important for some Sections.
  • Finally there are issues about the number and range of Sections. Fellowship Standing Committee can currently consider candidates whose work clearly falls within the humanities or the social sciences but outwith any of our sections. It has difficulty in dealing with candidates who are strongly supported by more than one Section, so fall within one or more Sections, but repeatedly fail to attract majority support within any single Section. I have heard discussion of a range of questions, including:
    1. Do we need ways in which Sections can collaborate to nominate candidates? Is there a role for the Groups here?
    2. Does the current configuration of Sections cover the full range of research in the humanities and socials sciences? Or are certain types of research in the humanities and social sciences not seen as the responsibility of any Section?
    3. More broadly, do we need to add to the number of Sections or adjust the boundaries between Sections? There is nothing immutable about the current list of Sections, and indeed during the current year two Sections metamorphosed, Geography and Social Anthropology becoming Geography and Anthropology, and Medieval Studies: History and Literature becoming Medieval Studies.
    4. Two final issues. One is Senior Fellowship, which is now only a route to election (with aquantum of up to 3 elections per annum) rather than a category of Fellowship. Is there good reason to retain this distinctive route? The other is the policy of splitting elections evenly across the Humanities and the Social Sciences. Does the success of the policy in balancing disciplinary representation in the under 70 age group mean that it is now less needed? Or is it something that continues to stand us in good stead?

Building support for the Academy

In the early days of the Academy, which I mentioned at the start of this address, there was no public funding. Activities were supported through subscriptions, private endowments (mainly for lectures, many of which survive) and funding for projects. In the longer run, if the Academy is to be securely independent, and able to speak out fearlessly, untrammelled by considerations of policy and bureaucracy, it needs a broader base of funding. To achieve this we will have to move into fundraising, as is common now for universities and learned societies.

There are encouraging signs. This year the Academy benefited from a bequest from the estate of a Fellow, and several Fellows have converted their subscription post-age 70 into gift aid. We benefit from continuing support from the Leverhulme Foundation, the Cassell Trust, the Thank Offering to Britain Trust, and the Packard Humanities Institute, among others. I reported in my last letter to you promising negotiations with a major Foundation, which I believe may lead to a new Research Professorship scheme. We hope soon to announce a new prize in Psychology, externally funded. I can also report a generous anonymous donation to help build the Academy's capacity to raise funds. Council will be considering a detailed fundraising strategy in the autumn. Any Fellow who wishes to be involved, or who can help point to a source of support for the Academy's work, is invited to contact the Chief Executive and Secretary. We will I hope be able to identify many external supporters of the Academy, but I am convinced that the long-term financial health of the Academy lies ultimately in our own hands.


I finish with a very few parish notices since the detail has already been reported in the regular post Council letters. Fellows were awarded several major honours, elected to a range of overseas academies and won prestigious prizes. In particular Dame Rosalyn Higgins was awarded the Balzan Prize, Professor Peter Hennessy the Orwell prize, and Professor Charles Taylor the Kyoto prize (on top of the Templeton prize, which he won last year). Dame Rosalyn has set an inspiring example by channelling a proportion of her prize through the Academy for the support of younger scholars.


The success of the Academy depends to a great extent on the energetic contribution of time and expertise that it receives from its elected Officers, from members of Council and Committees, from Section chairs and members of standing committees, and from assessors of the ever growing number of applications. I hope Fellows will forgive me—perhaps they will even be thankful—that I shall not mention all by name but I would like to give special thanks those who are completing terms of office, and in particular to Professor Bob Bennett, who has just finished a marathon 7 years as chair of Research Committee, and is enjoying well earned walking in the high Alps today.

As all of us know, the Academy also owes a great deal to its dedicated and skilful staff, without whom we would instantly grind to a halt. It has been a strenuous year for all members of staff, and they have approached a period of change and considerable demands with real energy and professionalism. I thank them all.

Baroness O'Neill


Onora O'Neill

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