Hail the Royal Society

A white building of Victorian architecture is visible against grey clouds. The current premises of the Royal Society in London. Credit: Kaihsu Tai/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

It’s an underappreciated form of our colonial hangover when a body like the Royal Society appoints its first Brazilian member since 1871 (on May 13) and almost everyone including the appointee talks about why the Society continues to be great instead of facing it with hard questions over why it didn’t elect Brazilian scientists into its ranks for 151 years and rejecting the deceptive honour of its admission. It’s a similar story with the Nobel Prizes: no women or no non-white persons win one for decades on end, so when the first exception appears on the scene, it’s because the prizes are great – not because the scientists were perfectly able to labour without the incentives presented by the prizes and certainly not because the prizes are an assertion of colonial power.

Why don’t the Royal Society or the Nobel Prizes – and for that matter any award-giving entity in India that coasts for decades without acknowledging the work of scientists of non-Brahmin caste denominations – suffer a reputational crisis when their prejudice is spotlighted by their own feeble and frequently meagre attempts to rectify it instead of enjoying a rhetoric suffused with praise for “doing the right thing”?

Prestige-awarding institutions like the Royal Society must be torn down as a rule of thumb – and we must simultaneously also strive to move past the idea that such institutions are necessary to move the needle in a world that will ultimately only perceive another reminder that prestige is relevant and valuable. This particular brand of iconoclasm is not easier to say and significantly more not-easier to do in our era of crises, when outspoken scientific consensus is a triply valuable thing and bodies like the Royal Society are seen as being necessary to birth, hold and present that consensus to the elite cadres of both science and society – the movers and shakers, as it were. “Hail the Nobel Prizes,” we say – “Raman has won a Nobel Prize” – “the state listens to Raman” – “let’s let Raman run a science institute” – “the institute is producing good work!” – “hail the Nobel Prizes,” we repeat. For example, the new Brazilian appointee to the Royal Society, climate scientist Carlos Nobre, told Reuters: “The Royal Society is giving international recognition to the risks that the Amazon faces. It’s an enormous risk that we could lose the greatest biodiversity and the biggest tropical forest on the planet.”

But from where I’m sitting, it’s easier to feel the weight of a history that precipitated the need for a Royal Society to return to the climate scientists of Brazil the self-evident relevance of their voices – as well as an elite institution piggybacking on the urgency of the defining crisis of the Anthropocene epoch to right a wrong that should, in fairness, have destroyed it long ago. Then again, I can’t fault Nobre himself because from his point of view he has acquired access to one more pedestal – one to which no other compatriot of his has access – from which to bring the world’s attention to the ruin of the Amazon. Or maybe I do, but not Nobre himself as much as the community of all scientists for not unionising (whether or not in the traditional sense) against the arbitrary selectivism of the Royal Society, et al.[1] and their campaigns of piecemeal restitution.

[1] It inherits the problems of everything from admission to well-funded science institutes to one’s ability to publish in ‘top’ journals to appointment in senior positions at research centres.