Notes and Records of the Royal Society


For more than three centuries, the Royal Society has played a notable part in the history of the British Empire and in the Commonwealth that succeeded it. In many ways, the history of the Royal Society itself reflects the history of Britain, its colonies, and its Dominions in the pursuit of natural knowledge. This paper considers leading features in the history of Anglo-Commonwealth relations, paying particular attention to people and events that, during the twentieth century, presented the Royal Society—and, by extension, British science—with choices that shape the Western world today.


In January this year, David Miliband, the British Foreign Secretary, told the General Assembly of the Inter-Academy Panel: ‘We have to think how science and diplomacy can work together. Scientific progress can achieve breakthroughs that diplomacy simply cannot match’.1 Miliband's speech launched a report from a conference in June 2009, hosted by the Royal Society in partnership with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and attended by almost 200 delegates from more than 20 countries.2

This was an important event both for the Royal Society and for the AAAS, which in July 2008 established a new Center for Science Diplomacy.3 One of its tasks was given fresh impetus in March 2010, when Her Majesty The Queen, for the first time in recent memory, devoted her Commonwealth Day message to the encouragement of science, and commended the Commonwealth Secretariat for focusing on the importance of scientific innovation in ‘uniting and building resilient partnerships and better societies’.4 The Government, too, showed its increasing interest in the diplomatic dimensions of science by the appointment in February 2009 of Professor David Clary FRS as Chief Scientific Adviser to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The Royal Society/AAAS report distinguished between ‘diplomacy for science’, as a mechanism for advancing scientific goals; ‘science in diplomacy’, as a means of informing diplomatic discussion; and ‘science for diplomacy’, as a means of forging consensus in areas where there is political division. This framework is also appropriate to an understanding of science in the Commonwealth, by the Commonwealth, and for the Commonwealth. The Royal Society describes itself as ‘the national academy of science of the UK and the Commonwealth’, so such issues have both historical and contemporary meaning.

The relevance of the Commonwealth to the Society is beyond dispute. During the twentieth century, the election of Commonwealth and overseas Fellows increased markedly. In 1900 there were 444 Fellows, of whom 16 (3%) lived in the Commonwealth and 3 (0.6%) lived in the USA. In 1951 there were 536 Fellows, of whom 45 (8.4%) lived in the Commonwealth and 10 (1.8%) lived in the USA—altogether about 10%. Today there are 1325 Fellows, of whom 156 (11%) live in the Commonwealth and 169 (12.7%) live in the USA—a total of 24%.5 That is, nearly one-quarter of the Fellowship now resides outside the UK, and although the American connection is of obvious significance, the Commonwealth dimension cannot be ignored—or taken for granted.

These features have been not so much matters of conscious design as the evolution of relationships that favoured the existence of the Royal Society—together with the interests of the British crown. Through the election of Fellows, the encouragement of exploration and research, and the promotion of international scientific activities, the Society has given direction and energy to a relationship that is both intellectual and political. If we speak of the Royal Society and the Commonwealth, we also speak of the relationships of Empire, conceptual and temporal; of centre–periphery rivalries, of metropolitan patronage, cultural authority and events that continue to shape the course of British history. Today, the leading topics of our time—including biodiversity and climate change—are giving the idea of ‘Commonwealth’ new relevance, while offering fresh opportunities to the Royal Society.6

Science and the ‘Commonwealth idea’

In the words of Thomas Sprat, its first historian, the Royal Society's mission had no geographical limits: rather, it looked ‘towards the settling of an universal, constant, and impartial survey of the whole of Creation’.7 The Royal Society was committed from the outset to Britain's overseas destiny, enriched by imperial trade and traffic in ideas. Its support for the voyages of James Cook in the eighteenth century and HMS Challenger in the nineteenth century reinforced this commitment, as did its election of men such as T. H. Huxley and Joseph Dalton Hooker, whose reputations drew on personal experience of imperial enterprise. Sir Michael Foster, Secretary of the Biological Sciences (1881–1903) and a strong Empire man, went out of his way to promote such interests.8

By the 1890s colonial networks and agents of exchange were flourishing on the imperial periphery, promoting local enterprise without compromising imperial loyalties.9 In Australia, each colony encouraged its own Royal Society, and across the Tasman Sea, settlers created a federal Institute of Science that later became the Royal Society of New Zealand.10 Inspired by the British Association and the AAAS (founded in 1848), the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science began in 1888, and the Indian Science Congress followed in 1914.

Science also won imperial recognition at home, with the establishment in 1887 of the Imperial Institute in South Kensington, in celebration of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. Science was given a place in imperial policy. Joseph Chamberlain told a Birmingham audience in 1898 that ‘[science] will do more for the world, more for the British Empire, than the man who adds a new province to the wide Dominions of the Queen’.11 At the Imperial Universities Conference of 1903, Lord Rosebery prophesied the second coming of an educated commonwealth, governed—if he had his way—by the University of London and the Royal Society.12

Whether the Royal Society should have a role in this brave new world was not immediately clear. True, by the 1890s, British scientists working in the tropics were routinely elected to the Fellowship.13 However, the Society's participation was not to be taken for granted. Its influence on the War Office, the Admiralty and the Home Office was proverbially discreet. From debates surrounding ‘public science’, the Society remained aloof.14 The imperial sympathies of Michael Foster (Biological Secretary 1881–1903) and Archibald Geike (1903–08), and the Physical Secretaryship of Lord Rayleigh (1885–96), failed to evoke a similar response in their successors. Between 1905 and 1914 the Society focused on European cooperation and educational matters closer to home.15 With the coming of war, however, this began to change.

Science and imperial coordination

The Record Supplement of the Royal Society states that the Great War had ‘little effect on the Society as an institution’,16 and the Record of 1940 scarcely mentions it. In fact, during the first week of August 1914 the Society turned itself into an agency of imperial scientific cooperation, just as it mobilized the Fellowship into War Committees on issues ranging from food to physiology. As scientists came from Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the Royal Society became their reference point—and for the most senior, the Royal Society Club became their meeting place.17 Just as the new Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) brought Dominion sister organizations together,18 so imperial relations were strengthened by Ernest Rutherford and W. H. Bragg, with their ties to New Zealand, Canada and Australia. These complemented the Royal Society's correspondence with the leadership of the new US National Research Council, beginning a ‘special relationship’ that has never ended. Overall, the Great War proved a memorable experience for ‘colonials’—not to say Americans—who were entertained as equals at Burlington House.19

In the interwar years, the Society retreated from its role as imperial catalyst, and although colonial scientists were regularly elected,20 Presidential Addresses seldom asserted the relevance of empire to science, or vice versa. At first sight this seems remarkable, given British interest in science directed at imperial development. However, this may be explained in part by the Society's overriding interest in regaining support for pure science against growing public pressure, accelerated by the war, for practical applications.21 Although British politicians, including Arthur Balfour, talked up science for industry and empire, and although some leading Fellows—such as Sir Thomas Holland, FRS—spoke up for imperial affairs, the Society showed little interest in applying science to economic growth. The Imperial Geophysical Survey and the Imperial Agricultural Bureaux were remarkable not least because they were driven by individuals—and colonial governments—with broader agendas.

If the Royal Society hesitated, however, the Dominions did not. In 1928 New Zealand set up a scientific liaison office in London,22 and in 1933 Dominion representatives to the Imperial Committee on Economic Consultation and Cooperation urged their governments to ask ‘what research activities should in future be carried out co-operatively’. This led in 1936 to the first ‘British Commonwealth Scientific Conference’—and the first to use the word ‘Commonwealth’ in its title.23 Two new agricultural bureaux were set up, bringing their number to 12. Although the Royal Society continued its focus on pure research, the coming of war in 1939 brought about a dramatic change in the way in which the Society saw itself and was seen by others.

The coming of war: the Royal Society and the Commonwealth

Shortly after the Munich crisis, the British Government established a Central Register of men and women holding professional scientific, technical or higher administrative qualifications. The Society volunteered to supervise the scientific section and to pay for its work. This was followed in September 1940 by Sir Henry Tizard's mission to Canada and the USA, in which the Society played a key role24 and which led, in 1941, to the establishment in Washington of the United Kingdom Scientific Mission (UKSM) and, later, the British Central Scientific Office. The Scientific Advisory Committee of the War Cabinet owed its existence to the Society's two Secretaries, A. C. G. (later Sir Alfred) Egerton and A. V. Hill, and its President, Sir William Bragg.25 The Society's contributions to the war effort were highlighted in Bragg's Presidential Address in November 1940.

A similar spirit infused imperial cooperation. In 1941 Canada and Australia followed New Zealand in setting up liaison offices in London, where they were eventually joined by South Africa and India. In 1942, to make the most of their presence in London, the Royal Society established a British Commonwealth Scientific Committee, with its President as chairman and Council officers as members. The committee met in the basement of Burlington House and in early April 1943 recommended that Commonwealth governments should have permanent representation in London. In 1944, the British Central Scientific Office was replaced by a British Commonwealth Scientific Office,26 of which the UKSM was the British member; this promoted the exchange of skills ‘previously unknown in international scientific relations’.27

The experience of cooperation deeply impressed the wartime generation of science counsellors, who saw no reason for it ever to end. As early as September 1941, Alexander King—who later went on to build science policy at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development—and Neville Wright, of the New Zealand High Commission, proposed that the Royal Society should convene a meeting of the four Dominions and India to consider ways and means of cooperation after the war. Their proposal was approved, and on 7 October 1941 the Royal Society held a preliminary meeting, attended by King, the secretaries of the British research councils, Dominion and Indian representatives, and Lord Hankey of the Prime Minister's Office. In 1944 the Society sent British scientists to Australia and Canada and, famously, A. V. Hill to India, a mission that would have far-ranging consequences for that country's first national science policy. To create a framework for such conversations, the Society asked the War Cabinet to convene an Empire Conference. Churchill agreed, and in February 1945 Alfred Egerton chaired the first planning meeting. With the end of the war in Europe in sight, the conference was scheduled for June 1946.

Postwar visions

The ‘Royal Society Empire Conference’ coincided with an optimistic moment when Britain looked to the Empire—now officially called the Commonwealth, and from 1949 no longer the British Commonwealth—for aid and support. In anticipation of a revitalized Empire, Britain sought cooperation in aviation, atomic energy and telecommunications. The war had exposed Britain's vulnerability. The Commonwealth might serve the mother country in peace, as it had in war.

The Royal Society could play a pivotal role in advising both British and Commonwealth governments. But how should Britain work with a ‘free association’ of more than 40 states, most of which were cast in a new category of ‘developing nations’? How were they to avoid conflict with the new United Nations agencies, especially in health and agriculture? How could Britain retain the wartime loyalty of the Dominions and colonies, and so keep them within Britain's sphere of influence?

These questions formed a leitmotif of the two-week conference in 1946. There were 76 delegates from the Empire, of whom 14 were Fellows; and 38 from the UK, of whom 35 were Fellows.28 Their stated objective was to meet ‘those who work in widely scattered situations on closely connected problems’.29 Set in a context of broad public endorsement, their meeting was an expression of wartime solidarity. The conference opened in the Senate House of the University of London, hosted by the Royal Society, The Times explained, because its ‘name inspires confidence in all that pertains to science’. Appropriately, it was chaired by the Royal Society's president, Sir Robert Robinson FRS, who had been a professor in Sydney during the Great War.

The conference was opened by King George VI, who welcomed recent applications of science—notably in weather forecasting, radar and aviation—and reminded everyone that the Empire was ‘a laboratory richly stored with materials’ with ‘a very wide range of terrestrial and climatic conditions’.30 The King registered the Royal Society's goal of making the ‘Empire an example to the world of what might be achieved by friendly intellectual intercourse’. This image aptly served Britain's purpose, while carefully avoiding stress on imperial defence.

The scientists' meeting was followed by a meeting of officials—representing the DSIR, the Medical Research Council, the Agricultural Research Council and their Dominion counterparts—who devised cooperative programmes in agriculture, medicine, nutrition, mapping and aerial exploration; in coastal and mineral reserves; in weights and measures, scientific information, land use and conservation; and developments in Africa.31 Above all, they stressed the need for more scientists.32

Overall, their work was impressive. There were recommendations for postgraduate studentships and intra-Commonwealth exchanges,33 and for a Commonwealth Scientific Liaison Office in each Dominion.34 A report on ‘Post-war needs of fundamental research after the war’ prophetically outlined Britain's agenda for genetics and microbiology.35

At this high-water mark of Empire, the Royal Society stood as the advocate of Commonwealth science. Three new Commonwealth institutes were formed, complementing the existing Commonwealth Agricultural Bureaux.36 In 1952 a Commonwealth Scientific Committee was established; in 1953 a Commonwealth Geological Liaison Office began mineral surveys; and in 1957 an agency for Commonwealth standards met for the first time in Delhi.37 In 1952 Australia hosted a second British Commonwealth Scientific Conference, the first to host scientists from Pakistan and Ceylon. In 1953, with funds from the Nuffield Foundation, the Royal Society began a bursary scheme to increase the circulation of scientists within the Commonwealth. The programme met with phenomenal success, and hundreds of young scientists benefited.38

The 1950s saw continuing cooperation. During his presidency (1945–50), Sir Robert Robinson revived the Rutherford Committee, which had slumbered since 1937, and by 1950 helped raise £100 000 for scholarships at Commonwealth universities. The first holder was an Australian, E. M. Gunnerson, who went to the Cavendish in Cambridge in 1953.39 The first Rutherford lecturer was Sir John Cockcroft, who visited New Zealand in 1952.40 In Australia the Royal Society became a role model for advocates of an Australian Academy of Science, whose first Fellows were elected from FFRS then resident in Australia. In 1953, Menzies secured a royal charter, which was presented in person by the Queen when she visited Canberra in 1954.41 In April 1956 the Academy adopted the Royal Society's statutes holus-bolus—regrettably, without securing a similar level of government funding.42

In 1957, science for the Commonwealth was given another push when the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' conference recommended periodic meetings of Commonwealth scientists—the first of which welcomed 35 delegates representing every member country except Malaya to discuss the civil uses of nuclear energy. At a second meeting in Canada the following year, it was decided to hold regular meetings of the heads of research organizations. This became the Commonwealth Scientific Committee, which first met officially in 1960.

The year 1960 saw the tercentenary of the Royal Society, and celebrations in London at which more than 50 overseas academies were represented. Kind words were said about the future of Commonwealth relations.43 Thanks to the Royal Society, more than 500 Commonwealth scientists had travelled to Britain, and 124 British scientists had visited Commonwealth countries. Following the Royal Society's example, the National Research Council of Canada had begun postgraduate awards to Commonwealth countries and had sent 40 Canadians overseas.44 Over the same period, Australia had accepted students from Asian Commonwealth countries under the Colombo Plan—between 1951 and 1958, at a cost of £3 million—beginning a rush that has never ended.

As a preferred model for new academies, a source of advice, a promoter of exchanges and expeditions, and a fount of honour, the Royal Society finished the 1950s with a strong record both in and for the Commonwealth. Fellowship elections acknowledged Commonwealth scientists who, by 1960, had won some 42 Nobel Prizes. At the same time, the Society began to struggle with structural and economic difficulties that were besetting the Commonwealth itself.45 Project coordination from London was expensive, and member states were setting their own priorities. International agencies and regional agreements offered options outside the Commonwealth framework.

Nonetheless, there were opportunities for the Royal Society to lead. There were certain fields—among them, climate change—in which international agencies were not yet active or feared to tread. But whether leadership should be left to governments, rather than to a national academy, increasingly conscious of its obligations to the British Treasury, was a question to which there was no simple answer. By the mid 1960s, the Royal Society's future in the Commonwealth was unclear.

Winds of change: the Royal Society conferences of 1967 and 1971

With such unresolved questions in mind, the Royal Society launched two further Commonwealth conferences—in 1967 and 1971. It is intriguing to see in both a response to Harold Macmillan's famous reference to ‘winds of change’ at the beginning of the 1960s. In 1965 Sir Harold Thompson FRS was elected Foreign Secretary, and P. M. S. Blackett was elected President. Both were deeply committed, as the Record has it, to ‘the improvement of international relations in science’.46 This objective was, in fact, the first of Blackett's famous ‘five aims’ for the Society—which were repeated in his last Anniversary Address in 1970, and were often recalled by his successors. Blackett and Thompson sought active engagement with the USSR, China, Europe and the USA, but both also shared a concern with the Commonwealth.47 In his Anniversary Address in 1968, Blackett reminisced about the Empire Conference of 1946 and asked why its precedent had not been followed up. With still-fresh memories of Britain's inglorious withdrawal from Aden, one answer at least was obvious: ‘decolonization’. As Blackett put it, ‘Britain, having cast off an empire, became somewhat introspective in the subsequent years and concentrated on its own problems.’48 The same, he believed, was true for the Royal Society.

Over the next five years the Society began to take up a more reforming posture, in some ways—and for some Fellows—drawing uncomfortably close to the policies of the Wilson Labour Government. In 1965, the Government established a Commonwealth Secretariat, and the Secretary of the Commonwealth Scientific Committee (CSC), set up in 1952, became its science adviser. The CSC was to provide information and advice to member countries. As colonies became independent, so its work increased. In few of its projects was the Royal Society directly concerned. However, under Blackett's leadership, the Society did take steps to strengthen its position in Commonwealth affairs. The first came in 1967, three years into the Wilson Government, when the Society hosted its first Conference of Commonwealth Scientists. The change in title—from science to scientists—was significant—the Society was not to serve post-colonial ambitions, but like-minded researchers.

Opened by Prince Philip and chaired by Blackett, the 1967 conference was held in April at Merton College, Oxford, and attended by 36 scientists from the UK and 44 from 24 Commonwealth countries. The Record is modest in saying that it focused on ‘a narrower front’, concerned with ‘making applied science more useful to developing countries’.49 In fact, its central theme was science and technology policy—a subject sufficiently encompassing for everyone, regardless of size, wealth or geography—and a discourse just then taking off as an academic discipline.50

In Blackett's words, ‘any body like the Royal Society which is actively concerned with scientific development in the poor, underdeveloped countries, should look beyond science to the whole problem of development’.51 True to his convictions, Blackett saw a major role for the Society in the planning of science. But if political conviction drove the agenda, practical concerns were uppermost with Sir Harold Thompson and Sir David Martin, the Executive Secretary, who led the 80 delegates in ‘frank discussions of the problems of aid’.52 The meeting took a critical look at the Ministry of Overseas Development, and broke ranks with the UN in supporting universities in ex-colonial Africa.

Blackett's plans for the Society met with mixed success. Above all, if the Australian delegates were right, the experience impressed everyone that, notwithstanding Britain's wish to preserve a leading role in Commonwealth science, the fissiparous interests of its members were pulling the organization apart.53 Perhaps in recognition of this fact, Blackett tried to revive Commonwealth cooperation—not by restating the principles of 1946 but by distinguishing between countries with active research programmes and countries needing aid. David Martin also sought to involve Australia and Canada in British decisions that might affect their national interests—including, for example, the establishment of the International Seismological Centre in Edinburgh.54 But most importantly, in 1970, Thompson invited the sister societies of Australia, Canada and New Zealand to London for an informal discussion of issues—including the supply of researchers; scientific mobility; cooperative projects in the Arctic and on the Great Barrier Reef; the role of the Commonwealth Scientific Committee, the International Council of Scientific Unions and UNESCO; and the ‘interface between the natural sciences and the social sciences and humanities’.55

The collegial ‘big four’ met on 26 and 27 January 1971—the last year of Thompson's Secretaryship, and the first in the Society's new rooms in Carlton House Terrace. Australia sent four delegates, namely G. M. Badger, Sir Frederick White FRS, A. L. G. Rees and R. N. Robertson FRS; New Zealand, three; and Canada, five (three of them Fellows). They met 20 Fellows from the UK. There were no press releases. In Blackett's view, a problem shared was a problem half-solved.

Thanks to his successor, Sir Alan Hodgkin, the conversation continued. In 1974, during his presidency, the Anglo-Australian telescope was inaugurated, bringing a happy end to 19 years of negotiation in which the Royal Society played a vital role.56 However, the 1970s saw few attempts to follow Blackett's lead. In a political atmosphere disturbed by crises in the Middle East, Britain's entry into Europe, and successive attempts to reframe British science policy, the Society largely withdrew from the position that Blackett, Thompson and Martin had advanced, and returned to policies that focused on support for the basic sciences in Britain. In 1978, under the presidency of Lord Todd (1975–80), the Society decided that foreign nationals living in Commonwealth countries were eligible for election as full Fellows, rather than as Foreign Members. The result was to expand the pool of talent from which the Society could select. Increasing numbers of Fellows were to be found among Commonwealth citizens living outside the UK, and especially in the USA, western Europe and Australasia. The members of the New Commonwealth were largely left behind.

Past and present

In retrospect, the two conferences of 1967 and 1971 signalled a turning point in the Society's role in Commonwealth affairs. During the next 20 years the Society was buffeted by shifts in the scientific and political landscape: the situation of scientists in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe; the growing scientific presence of Asia; changing policies for academic research; and ever-present competition from the USA. A move away from the Commonwealth reflected the changing priorities of Britain, especially during the Thatcher era, in which Commonwealth relations took a noticeable turn for the worse.

During the same period, administrative changes within the Royal Society—including the establishment of the Policy Studies Unit—neglected to explore possible roles that the Commonwealth might play. To this generalization there were a few exceptions. In 1980, in what seems like a gesture towards familial rapprochement, Lord Todd invited the President of the Australian Academy to meet representatives of the British research councils. Both countries acknowledged that, despite the success of the Anglo-Australian telescope and other projects, ‘scientific links between Australia and the UK had weakened or might do so’, and steps should be taken to remedy this.57 Britain found Australian advice useful in dealing with Asian countries, while Britain could offer Australia facilities in many fields. Each offered the other data on climate change in their respective hemispheres.

In Canberra, L. T. Evans, President of the Australian Academy, welcomed Todd's initiative, mischievously suggesting that ‘our traditional independence … would be viewed by the Royal Society as a real asset ….’.58 After negotiations that took the next four years (and were overtaken by a similar agreement with Canada), an Anglo-Australian exchange scheme began in 1985–86. The Royal Society was delighted—so much so that, when the Australian Government refused at first to fund its part, the Society said that it would fund the whole scheme unilaterally if necessary.59 Such were the costs of keeping the family together.

Perhaps the costs were too high. In 1986 and 1987 the Society issued its first corporate plans, laying down eight goals for the following decade. Among these, only one had reference to overseas academies or to the provision of scholarships for the developing world.60 Indeed, the corporate plan deplored the costs of dealing with countries overseas, and insisted on what it called ‘a moral requirement to balance the needs and demands of each partner’. In other words, Britain's needs were to be given priority.61

By the 1990s the extended family definitely came second to domestic issues. The turn from the Commonwealth compounded Britain's neglect of Commonwealth ties, made palpable by the infliction of overseas fees for Commonwealth students, the closure of the Commonwealth Institute in 1995 and the decision to let responsibility for science in the Third World Commonwealth rest with the UN and other international agencies. In 1994, Britain gave £400 million to the European Union's fund for Third World development, but only £10–15 million for Commonwealth cooperation.

The coming of the Blair Government in 1997 promised increased attention that did not materialize. In 2003 the closure of the Commonwealth Science Council, with which the Royal Society had such a long, if distant relationship, passed unremarked in its Council minutes. We may well ask whether its demise also signalled a failure to find a rationale for the Royal Society in and for the Commonwealth. So far—a decade into the twenty-first century—the question remains to be asked.


This paper has sketched the Royal Society's relationship with the ‘Commonwealth idea’ up to the close of the twentieth century. The history of the Society reflects the wider history of the British Empire and of the Commonwealth that succeeded it. The election of Fellows, the support of expeditions and projects, and the encouragement of exchanges have been central features of that history. So, too, has been the pursuit of science in the interest of the British Government.

The three conferences of 1946, 1967 and 1971 were benchmarks in the relationship between the Royal Society and the Commonwealth. The first of these was the last time that the Empire assembled as a whole, with Britain at the helm; the last was the first during which senior members met as a collegium, with the Royal Society merely primus inter pares. During the 1980s and 1990s the Society's retreat from Commonwealth affairs coincided with changing views of Britain's responsibilities abroad.

Today, the Royal Society no longer serves an Empire. But it does serve international science. And as Britain embarks upon a new phase of science diplomacy, I believe there is a case for widening the Society's role in the Commonwealth—home to 1.4 billion people, one-quarter of the world's population, living in 54 countries. The Commonwealth Secretariat currently presides over a fragile community, and a recent report by the Royal Commonwealth Society foresees the Commonwealth fading into irrelevance, overtaken by international groups such as the G20. However, obituaries may be premature. Despite its contradictions, the Commonwealth has proved to be a resilient club, and even countries outside the British sphere are queueing to join.62

In the future, global security and sustainability demand international cooperation. In Australia, the Academy of Science has stressed the need for a ‘strategic focus’ on cooperative action, an appeal echoed by Canada, New Zealand and India.63 This is the message of science diplomacy for the twenty-first century, and one to which the Commonwealth has much to contribute. The Royal Society acts as the UK's national academy of science, but it also inspires and draws upon the world's talent. This policy is in part an artefact of history, reflecting—as Rod Home has put it—‘a once widely-held view that the Empire was a single entity, the citizens of which were all “part of the family”’, and a time when the Empire offered British scientists the chance to work in remote regions and gave colonial scientists a chance to show their mettle.64 The Society profits greatly from these historical relationships. With the Society's history of science in the Commonwealth comes the prospect of a new frontier for science diplomacy that will guide science for the Commonwealth.

Some 350 years ago the Royal Society fashioned itself into an agency of reform, dedicated to the pursuit of natural knowledge across a commonwealth of learning. Today the narrative has changed. But the task remains the same. The Royal Society will serve its history well if, in this anniversary year, it revisits its foundations and recalls Bacon's vision for science in its global role—to achieve ‘the effecting of all things possible, for the relief of man's estate’.


I wish to thank Dr Peter Collins and the staff of the Royal Society, and the staffs of the Australian Academy of Science, the Royal Society of Canada, the Royal Society of New Zealand, the Academy of Science of South Africa, and the Indian National Science Academy, as well as Ms Hiliary McEwan of the Library of the Commonwealth Secretariat and Dr Mihaela Smith of CPTM, Ltd, for responding to my requests for information. For reasons of space, much of their material could not be included in this paper, but will, I hope, feature in a future study.



1 David Miliband, ‘A call for convergence: science and diplomacy in the modern age’, Inter-Academy General Assembly, London, 12 January 2010. See

2 Science Policy Centre, The Royal Society, New frontiers in science diplomacy (The Royal Society, London, 2010).

3 See American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Center for Science Diplomacy, 2008–2009: Inaugural year in review (AAAS, Washington DC, 15 July 2009). I am grateful to Dr Tom Wang for information concerning the AAAS.

4 Commonwealth Secretariat, ‘A message from Her Majesty The Queen’, March 2010. See

5 I am grateful to Mr Peter O'Rourke of the Royal Society staff for these figures.

6 A major history of Commonwealth science, of which this paper forms a part, is currently underway.

7 Thomas Sprat, History of the Royal Society for the Improvement of Useful Knowledge (J. Martin, London, 1667), at pp. 1–2, cited in Margery Purver, The Royal Society: concept and creation (Routledge, London, 1967), at p. 75.

8 See Gerald Geison, Michael Foster and the Cambridge School of Physiology; the scientific enterprise in late-Victorian society (Princeton University Press, 1978).

9 Roy MacLeod (ed.), The Commonwealth of science: ANZAAS and the scientific enterprise in Australasia, 1888–1988 (Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1988). On the work of Professor J. L. Simonsen and Professor P. S. MacMahon for the Indian Science Congress, see Deepak Kumar, Science and the Raj: a study of British India (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006).

10 The history of science in New Zealand has been extensively documented. For an introduction, see Charles Fleming, Science, settlers and scholars: centennial history of the Royal Society of New Zealand (Royal Society of New Zealand, Wellington, 1986).

11 Quoted in Robert V. Kubicek, The administration of imperialism: Joseph Chamberlain at the Colonial Office (Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 1969), at p. 143.

12 See ‘Imperial Universities Congress’, Science36 (19 July), 77–78 (1912).

13 See G. B. Masefield, A short history of agriculture in the British Colonies (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1950); idem, A history of the Colonial Agricultural Service (Oxford University Press, 1972).

14 Rod Home, ‘The Royal Society and the Empire: the Colonial and Commonwealth Fellowship, part 2. After 1847’, Notes Rec. R. Soc. 57, 47–84 (2001).

15 Peter Alter, ‘The Royal Society and the International Association of Academies 1897–1919’, Notes Rec. R. Soc. 34, 241–264 (1980).

16 John S. Rowlinson and Norman H. Robinson, Record of the Royal Society, supplement to the fourth edition, 1940–1989 (The Royal Society, London, 1992), at p. 1.

17 Canada was styled the first Dominion in 1867, followed by Australia in 1901, New Zealand in 1907, South Africa in 1910, and India in 1922.

18 Guy Gresford, ‘Some random notes on official science collaboration between Commonwealth countries’, manuscript dated November 1986, by courtesy of the author.

19 Roy MacLeod, ‘The scientists go to war: revisiting precept and practice, 1914–1919’, J. War Cult. Stud.2 (1), 37–51 (2009).

20 Contemporary changes in the eligibility of Commonwealth citizens living in different countries are well explained in Home, op. cit. (note 14), at pp. 61–64.

21 See MacLeod, ‘Science for imperial efficiency: reflections on the British Science Guild, 1905–1936’, Publ. Understanding Sci.3 (1), 155–194 (1994).

22 Australia appointed its first liaison officer to the British Cabinet Office in 1924. See N. K. Meaney, Australia and the world (Longmans, Melbourne, 1985), at p. 340.

23 Report of the Proceedings of the British Commonwealth Scientific Conference, 1936, Cmd. 5341 (HMSO, London, 1937); Sir David Chadwick, ‘Dissemination of scientific information among research workers and departments’, in Report of the Royal Society Empire Scientific Conference, 1946, vol. 1, p. 760 (The Royal Society, London, 1948).

24 See Ronald Clark, Tizard (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1965); David Zimmerman, Top secret exchange: the Tizard mission and the scientific war (McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal, 1996; Alan Sutton, Stroud, 1996).

25 John Jenkin, William and Lawrence Bragg, father and son: the most extraordinary collaboration in science (Oxford University Press, 2007).

26 Alexander King, ‘International relations in science’, in Report of the Royal Society Empire Scientific Conference, 1946, vol. 1, pp. 118–120 (The Royal Society, London, 1948).

27 Ibid., 120.

28 Rowlinson and Robinson, op. cit. (note 16), at p. 6.

29 ‘Science and the Empire’, The Times (1 March), 5 (1946).

30 ‘Science and the Empire: conference opened by the King’, The Times (18 June), 2 (1946).

31 Duke of Edinburgh, ‘Scientific cooperation within the British Commonwealth’, Nature183, 425–429 (1959), at p. 426.

32 Plans for improving the ‘circulation’ of scientists came with plans for giving them travelling allowances free of tax—tagged by The Times as showing that ‘science and optimism are not incompatible’. ‘Science and the Empire’, The Times (9 July), 5 (1946).

33 ‘The Non-Official Worker’, ‘Science and the Empire: a London HQ’, The Times (6 March), 5 (1946).

34 W. B. Mann, ‘Academic co-operation in the British Empire’, in Report of the Royal Society Empire Scientific Conference, 1946, vol. 2, pp. 25–82 (The Royal Society, London, 1948); Sir David Rivett, ‘Methods for improving the interchange of scientists throughout the Empire, including a discussion of the future of the Scientific Liaison Officers’, idem., vol. 2, pp. 83–91.

35 ‘Post war needs of fundamental research’, in Report of the Royal Society Empire Conference, vol. 2, pp. 425–428 (The Royal Society, London, 1948).

36 These were the Commonwealth Institute of Entomology at the British Museum of Natural History, the Commonwealth Mycological Institute at Kew, and the Commonwealth Institute of Biological Control at Ottawa. The Agricultural Bureaux were animal breeding and genetics in Edinburgh, animal health at Weybridge, animal nutrition at Aberdeen, dairy science and technology at Reading, forestry at Oxford, helminthology at St Albans, horticulture and plantation crops at East Malling, pastures and field crops at Hurley, plant breeding and genetics at Cambridge, and soils at Rothamsted.

37 Duke of Edinburgh, op. cit. (note 31), at p. 425.

38 The Royal Society Commonwealth Bursaries Scheme: a survey of twenty-five years operation, 1954–1978 (The Royal Society, London, 1978), at p. 2.

39 E. M. Gunnerson was appointed on 1 October 1952 to the Royal Society's Mond Laboratory in Cambridge, where he worked on diamagnetic susceptibility at low temperatures. The next Rutherford Scholars (1953) were A. E. Litherland, who worked at the Canadian Atomic Energy establishment at Chalk River, Ontario, and B. J. Robinson, who worked at the Cavendish Laboratory. I am indebted to Dr Peter Collins for this information.

40 Rowlinson and Robinson, op. cit. (note 16), at p. 9.

41 For Fellows of the Academy, the prefix ‘Royal’ was rejected, and the letters ‘FAA’ (rather than FRAAS) were adopted. Frank Fenner (ed.), The Australian Academy of Science: the first fifty years (Australian Academy of Science, Canberra, 2005), at pp. 9–12.

42 In 2003, the government grant to the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) was $1.5 million; the Royal Society Parliamentary Grant-in-Aid was equivalent to $68.3 million. Fenner (ed.), op. cit. (note 41), at pp. 9 and 64.

43 Rowlandson and Robinson, op. cit. (note 16), at p. 10.

44 Duke of Edinburgh, op. cit. (note 31), at p. 425.

45 Rowlandson and Robinson, op. cit. (note 16), at p. 13.

46 Ibid., at p. 16.

47 A new International Relations Committee extended research fellowships to western Europe, and Nuffield exchange fellowships to former colonies were increased (becoming the Developing Countries Fellowships in 1984).

48 P. M. S. Blackett, ‘Anniversary Address, 30 November 1968’, Proc. R. Soc. B171, 387–399 (1969), at pp. 392–393.

49 Rowlandson and Robinson, op. cit. (note 16), at p. 15.

50 Five main topics were aired: the establishment of national science councils, the improvement of technical assistance, the creation of new universities, the circulation of experts, and the provision of scientific literature and equipment. AAS, HF/1/17/1/46 Press Release, Royal Society Conference of Commonwealth Scientists, 7–11 April 1967.

51 Blackett, op. cit. (note 48), at p. 396.

52 Royal Society Archives, Thompson Papers, HWT 6/5. B 49; HWT 21/3/2 B 316-326; HWT 21/1 B 309.

53 Archives of the Australian Academy of Science (AAS), AM 10/67, A. L. G. Rees, ‘Points of agreed significance arising out of Conference’, 26 April 1967.

54 AAS, RL 23, Martin to Executive Secretary, AAS, 14 September 1970.

55 AAS, RL 23, Thompson to R. N. Robertson, 7 August 1970.

56 In 1965 the UK and Australian governments agreed to finance the project. Rowlandson and Robinson, op. cit. (note 16), at p. 25.

57 AAS, GS/R.1.1.1. H. A. W. Southon to A. J. Birch, 19 July 1983.

58 AAS, C 46/80, Lloyd Evans, Report to Council, June 1980.

59 AAS, GS/R1.1.1. H. A. W. Southon to A. J. Birch, 19 July 1983.

60 Royal Society, The Royal Society Corporate Plan: a strategy for the Royal Society, 1986–1996 (The Royal Society, London, 1986).

61 Similar ‘priority links’ were established for western Europe, and then for Australia, Canada, Japan and China. Royal Society, op. cit. (note 16), at p. 20; Royal Society, The Royal Society Corporate Plan, 1987: A strategy for the Royal Society, 1987–97 (The Royal Society, London, 1987), at p. 22. However, the Sotiety's 10-year plan for the 1990s specifically included the Commonwealth under ‘regional priorities’, and drew attention to the need to ‘encourage contact’ with younger scientists and with Commonwealth academies, using its agreement with India as a model. See The Royal Society: the next ten years (The Royal Society, London, 1990), at p. 14.

62 And not only in the anglophone world. See Angelique Chrisafis, ‘Welcome to France: home of sun, sea, sand, polygamy and the Indian Ocean’, The Guardian (26 March), 19 (2009). See also the work of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, created in 1970, whose motto is ‘égalité, complémentarité, solidarité (

63 Australian Academy of Science, 'Internationalisation of Australian Science: position paper’ (Australian Academy of Science, Canberra, 2010). I am indebted to Nancy Pritchard of the AAS for this reference.

64 Home, op. cit. (note 14), at p. 64.