Membership has its privileges

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McGill Reporter
October 24, 2002 - Volume 35 Number 04
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Ursula Franklin on the RSC

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Membership has its privileges

Margaret Atwood is a member. So is Roberta Bondar. McGill economist Reuven Brenner joined in 1999, and incoming Principal Heather Munro Blum is a special fellow. The name of the club? The Royal Society of Canada, a.k.a Canadian Academy of the Sciences and Humanities.

Photo Niky Kamran, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Royal Society of Canada member
PHOTO: Owen Egan

"The Royal Society of Canada was founded in 1882, and it was modelled after the Royal Society of London, which is a science academy, and the Institut de France, which is an umbrella for many academies in science, politics, and art. The Royal Society of Canada is a umbrella for all endeavours in scholarship," said Lawrence Mysak, who is a professor in the department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences and a member of the RSC.

He is also a past-president of the Academy of Science (Academy III), one of three academies that comprise the Royal Society of Canada. The others are L'academie des lettres et des sciences humaines (Academy I), and the Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences (Academy II). The 1500 members of these societies represent some of the most distinguished academics and researchers in their fields.

This isn't the kind of club one joins by filling out a form, or owning the right set of golf clubs. Royal Society members are all nominated by three people, two of which must be current members of the society. Each academy confirms their own members -- nominees aren't approved until 75% of the academy's membership gives the thumbs up.

"In the academy of science we typically consider 250 to 300 nominations per year, so we accept maybe one in ten. It's quite a rigorous procedure," explained Mysak

Of course, it isn't only academics -- or even Canadians -- who get the nod. The society recognizes contributions to scholarship of a wide range of people. Special Fellows are nominated for their indirect contributions to academia.

McGill currently has 103 members in the Royal Society. This year there are four new members from McGill: James Finch, Department of Mining, Metals and Materials Engineering Hans Hofman, Earth and Planetary Sciences, Philip Branton, Department of Biochemistry and Niky Kamran, Department of Mathematics and Statistics.

Kamran is delighted to be made a member of the society.

"I was deeply honoured -- it's a sign of recognition, and a tremendous encouragement. I'm obviously pleased," he said.

Kamran's main work is on wave propagation. Along with his collaborators in Germany and the U.S., he studies the long-term behaviour of electromagnetic and gravitational waves and how they are affected by the geometry of black holes. Although he deals strictly with mathematical models, his enthusiasm for his work makes it sound like poetry.

"It's beautiful, its fundamental -- it involves a rich mixture of mathematics, and you can't always guess what the answer will be," he said. "The geometric properties, are simple to formulate but incredibly complex to analyze -- this is a muse that you cannot resist."

Kamran will be explaining his work to his new colleagues -- and interested members of the public, on October 25 in the Redpath Museum. Museum director -- and Royal Society member -- Graham Bell explains that the event is designed to keep the society's members up to date on each other.

"It's not like a professional society, where your specialization keeps you in contact through annual conferences. Being much broader, its more difficult to keep people together," he explained.

A member since 1995, Bell said that the society has gone some distance in recent years from being "a bit too honorific" to actively seeking a more productive role in Canadian society. He explained that in other countries, national academies are used by their governments as policy consultants -- something that doesn't happen enough in Canada. The scope of its scholarship might make keeping its members in touch difficult, but the Royal Society offers expertise that strictly science-based national academies can not.

"Since the Royal Society is broader, it's able to encompass a diversity of disciplines, not only from a scientific viewpoint but a number of other fields as well."

The society is also involved in international issues. Marc Angenot -- James McGill professor of French -- is the secretary of Academy I. He is also the chair of the RSC's committee on Freedom of Scholarship and Science, which communicates with governments who have imprisoned or otherwise harassed scholars in their country.

"They feel compelled, by our putting pressure on them through our embassies and their embassies here, to respond to these issues," he said. Currently, his committee is working on the case of Said Ibrahim, a sociologist in Egypt that has been imprisoned for his work on Christian minorities and women in that country.

"He accepted a grant from an American institution, that was his mistake," said Angenot wryly.

Ratna Ghosh, dean of education, is a member of Academy II. She relishes the opportunity to meet with other academics through the society's conferences, and also through its international collaborations -- like the fiftieth anniversary of Cuba's national academy.

"It was an interesting event, where you get to meet the best scholars from all over the world. It's a great institution for networking," she said.

Ghosh pointed out that of the half dozen or so members of the RSC that are in education, two --herself and Janet Donald -- are from McGill. Although that's a favourable ratio, it does speak to a trend in the nominating process in academies that are heavily weighted towards classical disciplines.

"When you don't have people in your field it's difficult to get elected, because your peers are electing you -- so when people are in economics or in political science, they're not going to easily recognize people who are in an interdisciplinary field like education," she said.

To that end, she said that she goes out of her way to nominate other potential members, something that Graham Bell and Lawrence Mysak would approve.

"Once you're elected it's your responsibility to nominate others. The story I like to tell is that Margaret Atwood is a member of the Royal Society, and she was actually nominated by someone from the academy of science," said Mysak. "It can't be done bureaucratically, it's really done by the spirit of the fellows themselves."

On the other hand, Bell believes that McGill -- which currently lags far behind University of Toronto and University of British Columbia in Royal Society Members -- should do more to encourage nominations of University faculty.

"It's traditionally not had a big role at McGill -- there's never been a concerted attempt to put forward candidates," he said, pointing to the University of Toronto as a possible model.

"There they have a committee whose job it is to channel nominations."

One person who does not need to be convinced of the society's worth is Marc Fortin. The Plant Science professor recently served on the RSC's expert panel on the future of food biotechnology. Although not a member, Fortin is a fan of the society's approach.

"It was an extraordinary experience to be able to discuss the best science in the world, with some of the best scientists in Canada from very different fields, and very different disciplines -- it created a dynamic that was unique," he said.

Fortin was most impressed by the thoroughness with which the Society ensured the intellectual independence of the panel. In addition to screening members for conflict of interest, the body that requests the study -- in this case, the federal government --has no say about the personnel or the procedures of the panel.

Although Fortin spent 14 months on the panel -- he estimates he worked the equivalent of three months full-time -- he sounds positively itching to return.

"As an intellectual exercise, as a contribution to the country it was a phenomenal experience. Outstanding scientists, complete independence, a blank mandate -- what else can an academic person ask for? This is heaven!"

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