6-9 Carlton House Terrace
London, SW1Y 5AG
Telephone: (+44 207) 451-2500
Fax: (+44 207) 451-2691
Web site: http://www.royalsociety.org
Sales: $110 million (2017 est.)
NAICS: 813920 Professional Organizations
Based in London, the President, Council, and Fellows of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, better known as the Royal Society, is the world's oldest continuously operating scientific academy. Its members include some of the world's most prominent scientists. The Royal Society promotes scientific research and international collaboration through policy work and scientific meetings and events. Among its publishing activities are Proceedings, a biological research journal, and Philosophical Transactions, the oldest continuously published scientific journal in the world. At the local level, the society funds research fellowships and grants and awards science book prizes as part of a public engagement program. It further supports the United Kingdom's scientific community with mentoring and training programs. The Royal Society also serves as a scientific adviser to the British government and receives an annual subsidy for its work. From the funds received from government grants and donations, the society distributes about £42 million in grants each year to support its mission of scientific development. The Royal Society is governed by a council that consists of 20 to 24 fellows and led by a president and four officers, who serve five-year terms. Each year, the Royal Society elects as many as 52 fellows and up to 10 foreign members.
The Royal Society dates its origins to November 28, 1660, when following a lecture given at Gresham College in London by the 28-year-old astronomer Christopher Wren the dozen physicians and natural philosophers in attendance decided to form a group and meet weekly to share experiments and discuss scientific issues. These first members of what would become the Royal Society were followers of Sir Francis Bacon, who championed the concept of testing ideas through experiments. In July 1662 the founders obtained a royal charter at a cost of £35.1. The following year the society paid another £53.7.8 for a second charter, in which the constitution and the group's intricate organization were more fully presented. A council of 21 members, elected annually by secret ballot, was established. The group also became known as the Royal Society for Improving Natural Knowledge.
The advancement o all human knowledge at weekly demonstrations and discussion sessions proved impractical, and over time the focus of the Royal Society shifted from the direct performance of science to serving as a forum where research outcomes could be presented, discussed, and evaluated. As a result, the Royal Society evolved into a body of importance to the international scientific body, rather than merely serving as a different kind of London gentlemen's club.
Playing a key role in the Royal Society's growing reputation was Sir Isaac Newton. In 1687 the society published Newton's groundbreaking Principia Mathematica, in which the actions of gravity were described. In 1703 Newton was elected president of the Royal Society, a position he held until his death at the age of 84 in 1727. During his tenure, the concept of inoculation was introduced in the pages of Philosophical Transactions. The organization also moved from rented space at Gresham College to new accommodations in 1710.
Although fellows were not especially dutiful in paying their subscriptions, which resulted in a mounting deficit, the Royal Society was able to attract outside funding. A bequest from Sir Godfrey Copley funded the Copley Medal. Established in 1736, it became Britain's oldest scientific honor and preceded the Nobel Prize by more than 150 years. Other notable events in the 18th century included a paper presented to the society by Benjamin Franklin on his experiments related to lightning and electricity; the sponsorship of James Cook's 1768–71 trip to the South Pacific to observe the transit of Venus, one of the rarest predictable astronomical events; the publication of Gilbert White's letters on ornithology in 1784; and William Herschel's report in 1781 regarding his discovery of Uranus. Four years later Herschel's sister, Caroline Herschel, became the first woman to be published in Philosophical Transactions, when she presented her discovery of a new comet.
During the early 1800s the Royal Society lost some of its luster, given that a large number of its members were amateurs rather than contributing scientists. A Charters Committee was formed during the 1830s to restore the society's reputation by limiting the number of fellows that could be elected each year to 15. Moreover, selection would be based on scientific achievements. By becoming more exclusive in its membership, the Royal Society regained stature, which was further enhanced in 1851, when it began receiving an annual government grant-in-aid of £1,000. As a result, the society was finally placed on firm financial footing. The government also stepped in to provide new facilities. In 1873 the Royal Society moved into the East Wing of the refurbished Burlington House. In 1876 the British government increased its annual grant to £4,000.
Another noteworthy event during the latter half of the 19th century was the awarding of the Copley Medal to Charles Darwin in 1864. Curiously, the citation made no mention of On the Origin of Species, Darwin's seminal work, which was perhaps as controversial as it was monumental. At the behest of the Royal Society, William Ramsey also discovered five trace atmospheric gases during the 1890s.
Shortly before the end of the war in 1945, the Royal Society elected its first women fellows: the biochemist Marjory Stephenson and the crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale. Over the next half century, however, the number of women fellows remained miniscule. Even so, the society provided support to Dorothy Hodgkin and her x-ray crystallography work on penicillin and vitamin B12. In 1964 she became Britain's first female Nobel Prize–winning scientist.
During the postwar years the Royal Society became connected with another new discovery. In 1953 it published a paper by Francis Crick and James Watson that detailed the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, a discovery that would have a profound impact on medicine and the emerging field of biotechnology. Two years later the society made a contribution to another new field of study by establishing a research base in Antarctica that during the 1980s would detect erosion in the atmosphere's ozone layer, triggering concerns about global warming and leading to research in climate science.
On other fronts during the postwar era, the Royal Society moved to the Carlton House Terrace in 1967. The property was owned by the Crown Estate, property holdings of the British monarch, and leased to the organization. The famed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking was elected a fellow in 1974. (He would be presented with the Copley Medal in 2006.) In 1983 the society introduced University Fellowships, which became the primary grants program, to identify and support promising British scientists.
Starting in 1999 and continuing through 2003, the Royal Society's Carlton House premises underwent extensive renovations. The new century also brought pressure from the British government for the Royal Society to live up to its policy of equal opportunity. Of the 1,216 fellows at the end of 2001, only 42 were women, and 62 percent of them were based in London, Cambridge, or Oxford. To help increase the percentage of women fellows, the Royal Society altered its nomination rules so that a candidate only had to be nominated by two fellows instead of six, thus expanding the pool of women candidates from a wider geographic footprint. Over the next dozen years the number of women fellows increased to 133. Improving minority representation was another matter of concern.
With support from the Kavli Foundation, the Royal Society paid £6.5 million to acquire a building in Buckinghamshire, north of London, in 2009. After renovations, it opened the following year as the Kavli Royal Society International Centre and served as a venue for local events. The Royal Society also celebrated its 350th anniversary in 2010, marking the occasion with traveling exhibits that appeared at museums across the United Kingdom and a festival of science and arts at London's Southbank Centre.
In December 2010 the geneticist Sir Paul Nurse, the 2001 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, became the Royal Society's 62nd president. Among his goals was to foster the ability of junior researchers to open their own laboratories and thus reduce competition for limited research funds. Additionally, he hoped to extend the exit strategies for trained scientists to include the fields of finance and politics. In this way, their influence could be felt more broadly across society. He also promoted the importance of science. Soon after taking the helm, he presented the BBC television documentary Science under Attack, which examined the problem of rising skepticism toward science. Additionally on his agenda was encouraging more women to become involved in science and help redress the male-female imbalance of the society. His tenure lasted until 2015, when he was succeeded as president by the structural biologist Venki Ramakrishnan. That same year the Royal Society celebrated the 350th anniversary of Philosophical Transactions.
Awards; Grants; Journals; Kavli Royal Society International Centre; Library.
American Association for the Advancement of Science; French Academy of Sciences.
Bostanci, Adam. “Parliament Takes Aim at Royal Society.” Science, February 15, 2002, 1212.
Brooks, Michael. “Master of the Cell.” News Statesman, June 6, 2011.
Bryson, Bill, ed. Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery, and the Genius of the Royal Society. New York: William Morrow, 2010.
“The Establishment of Science; The Royal Society.” Economist, January 9, 2010, 34.
Hunter, Michael. “The Great Experiment: The Royal Society Was Founded in 1660 to Promote Scientific Research.” History Today, November 2010.
“Royal Treatment: The Royal Society Celebrates 350 Years and a New President.” American Scientist, September–October 2010, 384.