Friday, June 11, 2010


On November 28th 1660, a group of scientists came together in London to hear the young Christopher Wren give a lecture on astronomy. In the discussion that followed, a collective decision was made to form what became the cradle of scientific thought and discovery in the United Kingdom, namely the Royal Society.

Since then, similar societies have been set up in Scotland (the Royal Society of Edinburgh) and in Ireland (the Royal Irish Academy) which were formed to bring together the best scientists in both nations for the advancement and recognition of learning, as well as the promotion of excellence in scholarship and research.

Yet despite the fact that Wales produced world leadership in areas of science and technology that provided the foundation for the industrial revolution, there has never been a national academy in Wales. Indeed, this nation has been alone in the developed world as having no academy of scholars to support its academic, intellectual and civic life.

The absence of such an organisation has meant that the people, politicians, policymakers and businesses of Wales did not have access to well-researched, scholarly and objective advice on issues of key importance in the way that those in other countries do.

Fortunately, that is no longer the case and last month, the Learned Society for Wales was launched in Cardiff.

With sixty founding fellows, presided over by the redoubtable Sir John Cadogan, former head of the UK Research Councils, it is an organisation whose potential contribution to the Welsh nation could be immeasurable, especially as the absence of a learned society in Wales has reflected badly on the country's intellectual image.

It hopes to open a library, publish a journal, award research funding and even conduct research in its own right in areas that are of direct interest to Wales.

The creation of the Learned Society for Wales could not have come at more opportune time. Certainly, in its absence, the Welsh Assembly Government has taken over ten years to decide upon a Chief Scientist. Would it have prevaricated over the appointment of a post to guide science and technology, which is de rigueur in every other modern democratic institution, if the Society had been active?

As its first president noted at the launch, the Learning Society is not only a radical initiator of beneficial outcomes but also a force for inhibiting damaging decisions based only on belief. Indeed, Sir John Cadogan recognised that whilst the Society’s advice might well be ignored, at least its opinions will be there for all to see.

However, probably the most important aspect of the new body is to celebrate, recognise, safeguard and encourage excellence in every one of the scholarly disciplines and in the professions, industry and commerce, the Arts and Public Service.

Only when this is achieved, as Sir John noted in his own inimitable style, Wales should come to widely be seen, justifiably as a Small but Clever country, rather than as a political soundbite.

For Wales, the Learned Society can be a resource to revolutionise scholarly activity across the nation and potentially begin a renaissance in science and technology - the very aims of the first Royal Society over three and half centuries ago.

The fact that Wales has never had its own scholarly association does not detract from the fact that all of its founding fellows have great international distinction and have made their mark globally in their required field.

Indeed, the Learned Society is the perfect vehicle for tapping into the presence both inside and outside Wales of distinguished scientists and technologists of Welsh extraction or affiliation.

Given the absence of any similar organisation to take advantage of the talents of the Welsh diaspora, there is finally a conduit by which those who have left the country of their birth are able to further the ambitions of the Welsh nation.

Last month, the Minister for Education sparked a debate about the role of universities within a devolved Wales.

Whilst some will not agree with his views, I cannot but admire an individual who, unlike his predecessors, is ready to lift his head above the parapet and stimulate a proper debate about the future of Higher Education and its role in the Welsh economy and society.

Certainly, there needs to be a frank and open exchange of views between all sides on this matter. I can only hope that rather than quietly acquiescing to politicians, those leading our universities will finally realise that they need to lead the policy debate about the future of the sector, not follow. Indeed, the question is whether all the universities in the sector can finally come together to defend Higher Education and demand that government works alongside rather than against it or, worse still, ignoring it.

If government, academia and industry can work together as one in small countries such as Singapore, Sweden and Finland to develop some of the most competitive economies in the world, then why not here?

Whatever the leaders of Higher Education do over the next few months to respond to the political challenges, at least the Learned Society will be a formidable defender of Welsh scholarship, learning and research.

As Sir John Cadogan recently pointed out, “Wales has never had an independent champion for - and defender of - those very activities and functions which must surely underpin the notion of Welsh Cleverness. The Learned Society of Wales intends to fill that chasm”.

It may be three hundred fifty years late in arriving but I am confident that the Learned Society will more than make up for lost time in the very near future.