This question is motivated by the recent controversy in our sister academy, the Swedish Academy. I addressed this topic during annual meeting of The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Here is my response.
An academy is a group of experts. Membership is based on specific qualifications – knowledge and expertise. But the academy works within a context; the Royal Academy of Sciences’ decisions must resonate with the national and international research community. And the Academy’s working methods must enjoy the trust of the Swedish public, for if they do not have confidence in us, we will be speaking to deaf ears.
The cornerstones of our work, such as with the Nobel Prize, are:
a) Complete independence – which also includes total confidentiality regarding our work with the Prize. The Academy must be free of influence, whether from universities, lobby groups or the government.
b) Strict rules on conflicts of interest, which are followed meticulously. No special interests may creep in.
c) Periods of office that entail a turnover of members in our committees. No one can dominate a prize committee for decades. My own position is also for a fixed period of time, although my Swedish title is literally translated as Permanent Secretary.
d) Regular reviews and updates to our rules and regulations. Our original bylaws from 1739 are, in many ways, impressive, but they do not function as statutes in the modern world. They have been revised repeatedly and those to which we are now subject were established by the Government of Sweden in 2006. We are already working to review certain aspects of them.
The Royal Academy of Sciences has the important tasks to give science a voice in the public debate, and to provide a factual basis for policymakers, opinion leaders and the general public. Another, highly prioritised task, is to reward outstanding contributions to science. The Royal Academy of Sciences awards some of the world’s most prestigious science prizes, with the Nobel Prizes at the forefront. We are aware that our commitment requires the trust of the Swedish public and the international research community, and we want to keep that trust in the future. Our independence must therefore always be paired with integrity. This is facilitated by our rules and regulations and by reviewing and revising them, we help each other to observe them. You can trust the Royal Academy of Sciences.
Göran K. Hansson