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A right Royal cock-up. Prince Andrew elected to the Royal Society

May 3rd, 2013 · 26 Comments

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Today the Royal Society elected Andrew, Duke of York, as a “Royal Fellow”. Well, to be exact. 11% of them did. The numbers, which the Society has not made public, were as follows (as fraction of the electorate, 1300 Fellows)

Yes                                  147     (11%)
No                                   24        (2%)
Blank ballot                       1       (0.08%)
Failed to vote              1128      (87%)

Hardly resounding support, then.

When I heard that the Society’s Council had nominated the Duke of York, I was sufficiently outraged to write a piece along the lines below. I was thinking about breaking the rules and going public with it before the election. I’m not particularly republican, but I do think that the Royal family still have too much influence on politics (as well as pernicious social effects).

On Monday 8th April I discussed the matter with the president, Paul Nurse. He was charm itself, but he didn’t explain what the advantages to the society were, and he didn’t agree to my proposal to mail my views to all Fellows. It seems odd that fellows have no way to communicate with each other , but that is how it is. But he did agree to set up an internal web site where Fellows could discuss the nomination in private. Most of them didn’t bother, but those who did were unanimous in supporting my views, apart from three members of Council, which had nominated him. Some people think that it is better to not to air disagreements in public. I don’t agree. I think it should be known that few people voted for this move. So here is what I wrote,

A curious fellow

The Royal Society has, on the whole, some pretty bright Fellows.  It’s been around for 360 years and that, no doubt, is why it also has some quaintly archaic customs.  One of them is the election of “Royal Fellows”.  They are described as “Members of the Society by virtue of royal blood”, though ‘royal blood’ is a curiously unscientific idea.

The Royal Society was founded in 1660, and was granted a royal charter by Charles 2nd.  The Society was a manifestation of the age of enlightenment.  It might be seen as a harmless eccentricity that one of the present royal fellows said that he was rather proud to have been accused of being an enemy of the enlightenment.  That, of course, was the Prince of Wales (known affectionately in the blogosphere as the Quacktitioner Royal).

The Royal Society was founded to advocate the idea that observation was what mattered, not deference to authority.  The exception to that seems to be deference to “royal blood”.

But I believe it is taking deference too far to elect Prince Andrew.  Not believing in science is one thing.  Accusations of bribery and corruption in the sales of arms to dictators are quite another.  From the leak of US diplomatic cables in 2010 we know, through cables from the US Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, some unsavoury facts.  During discussions of bribery in Kyrgyzstan and the investigation into the Al-Yamamah arms deal, the Duke “railed at British anti-corruption investigators, who had had the "idiocy" of almost scuttling the Al-Yamama deal with Saudi Arabia”. He was talking about kickbacks to a senior Saudi royal had allegedly received in exchange for a huge arms contract with BAE Systems.  The cable went on "He then went on to ‘these (expletive) journalists, especially from the National [sic] Guardian, who poke their noses everywhere’ and (presumably) make it harder for British businessmen to do business. The crowd practically clapped!".  There could hardly be stronger evidence that bribery to sell arms had the approval of the Duke of York. The affair was hushed up when Tony Blair’s government shut down the investigation into the affair by the Serious Fraud Office, but the head of the SFO said that the decision to stop the investigation may have damaged "the reputation of the UK as a place which is determined to stamp out corruption". The USA was less squeamish.  A judge said that BAE’s conduct involved "deception, duplicity and knowing violations of law, I think it’s fair to say, on an enormous scale".   This is what the Duke of York was so eager to hide from the eyes of “these (expletive) journalists”.

Earlier in 2010 it was discovered that the billionaire son-in-law of Kazakhstan’s President paid the Duke of York’s representatives £15m via offshore companies, for the Duke’s mansion, Sunninghill Park. That was investigated by prosecutors  in Italy and Switzerland.

It doesn’t end there.  In 2011 the Duke of York got yet more bad press after revelation of his close friendship with Jeffrey Epstein, who was convicted in Florida for soliciting an underage girl for prostitution.  In July 2011, the Duke’s role as a trade representative was ended.

As recently as 2012, the Duke was criticised for his close friendship with the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, who is regarded as one of the most brutal and corrupt rulers in the world.  By this time, Prince Andrew had He lost the support of even the most Royalist newspapers.

A record like that makes the Duke of York an unsuitable person to be a member of any club, never mind election as a fellow of the Royal Society. 

There is one section of society which regards scientists as amoral automatons, willing to shut their eyes to wrongdoing if it is in their own interest to do so. I have met very few such people, but the election of Prince Andrew can only reinforce that view.

The citation sent to me by the Royal Society mentioned none of his unsavoury history.  It referred only to the ‘benefits’ that election would have for the Society. What exactly these benefits are has never been explained. They seem to amount to chairing a few meetings and dinners. Many of us would prefer not to have dinner with him. The nomination was a good example of that prime scientific crime, cherry-picking the evidence.

The proposal was accompanied by a ballot form. The form had a single box, labelled “I support the election of HRH the Duke of York KG GCVO as a Royal Fellow of the Royal Society”.

That’s the sort of ballot form used for senior posts in the Royal Society.  It would be popular in Kazakhstan or Saudi Arabia.

Here is the ballot form that I returned [download pdf]


5 May 2013. The Sunday Times was on to this story quickly, and it was on their front page.

sunday times

The story [download pdf] quotes past president Robert May, and Peter Lawrence (prof of Molecular Biology, LMB, Cambridge) who supported my views.

5 May 2013. I had the best laugh for years when I read the post by James Wilsdon who is now professor of science and democracy at the University of Sussex, but was previously director of science policy at the Royal Society, so he has had an inside view. His post makes mine look gentle.

"But now, Prince Andrew has been invited into the Royal Society’s ranks. And a fair number of his fellow Fellows aren’t happy. First off the blocks was David Colquhoun, UCL’s most famous pipe-smoking pharmacologist, who on Friday launched a full-frontal attack on his blog on what he called a “right Royal cock-up”. And today, the story has hit the front pages of the Sunday Times, with even the society’s former president, Bob May, reportedly “dismayed” over Andrew’s election. "

"Controversy surrounding his role as a UK trade envoy, and his equally unsavoury association with a convicted US sex offender led to him resigning his role as “Airmiles Andy” in July 2011. Ministers and senior officials within the Foreign Office privately breathed a sigh of relief.

It was around this time that Prince Andrew started popping up more regularly at Royal Society events, offering to chair meetings and lend his support. (I was still working there at the time as director of science policy). The sensible response would have been to steer well clear, but as I witnessed at first hand, for such an incredibly clever bunch of people, elected themselves on merit (the very antithesis of hereditary royal privilege) many fellows of the Royal Society were susceptible to feudal levels of swooning at the merest flash of royal ermine. The centrepiece of its 350th anniversary celebrations in 2010 was an orgy of obsequiousness at the Festival Hall, with no fewer than seven Royals and 2000 guests in attendance to see Prince William receive his Royal Fellowship (no doubt for his outstanding services to art history, geography and steering helicopters)."

"Full credit to David Colquhoun for shining a light into one of the darker recesses of the scientific establishment. Of course, defenders of the decision will point out that this is the “Royal” Society, and a bit of old-fashioned bowing and scraping is part of its unique British charm. But there are plenty of equally prestigious institutions with a rich royal history that have modernised those networks of patronage, and aren’t spending the 21st century with their heads rammed quite so firmly up the Windsor arse. Nullius in verba, old chaps, nullius in verba…"


As we say in the blogosphere, ROFL.

The Guardian had a lot of coverage too. James Wilsdons piece appeared also in Guardian blogs: Royal society row over election of Prince Andrew as fellow. There is also a piece on the same topic by Peter Walker, “Royal Society scientists angered by Prince Andrew’s election as fellow“.

6 May 2013. There is an account in the Daily Mail by Nick Fagge. I won’t link to it because it is a shameless cut and paste job from the Sunday Times, with several mistakes added. The Mail at its worst.

The Independent asked for an op-ed column from me on Sunday. It appeared the next day. Mostly it was a shortened version of this blog, with the links removed (I wish they wouldn’t do that). But I did get in a comment that I often make in private.

“Certainly monarchs in recent times have shown little interest in science. If I wanted a tip for the winner of the 14.30 at Newmarket, I’d ask a royal. For most other questions, I wouldn’t.”

indy 1


The Independent also carried a piece by Kate Morris on the same topic.

The Times had an interesting piece, by Hannah Devlin. They quote James Wilsdon

“James Wilsdon, Professor of Science and Democracy at the University of Sussex and formerly head of policy at the Royal Society, described the appointment on Twitter as “needless establishment toadying”. “Plenty of institutions with a royal history that aren’t spending the 21st century with their heads lodged quite so firmly up the Windsor a***,” he tweeted yesterday.”


“Richard Horton, editor of the medical journal The Lancet said that the decision to “grovel to royal patronage” was an “embarrassment for science” and “symptomatic of Britain’s corrupt honours system”.”

The Financial Times had a short report too.

International coverage

The story quickly went international. Stories appeared in the Gulf Times, the Economic Times, the Statesman (India), the Kashmir Times, the Indian Express

USA News Online reproduced both the Guardian article and James Wilsdon’s feisty piece in the Guardian.

7 May 2013

There is a report today in Paris MatchAndrew trop Royal pour la Royal Society

8 May 2013.

Alice Thomson writes in the Times "One more reform for the Queen: her family. She needs to streamline ‘the Firm’, especially when the Royal Society treats a minor royal with absurd deference".

Here are a few quotations.

"Yet the Fellows (or rather 11 per cent of these illustrious academics) have elected the grand young Duke of York to their number, a man who may have many hidden talents but who paddles at the shallower end of the intellectual pool."

"it seems extraordinary that they have elected a minor member of the Royal Family who once piloted helicopters and knows more about golf than genomes.

The RS is obviously royal as well as a society but they already have Prince Philip, the Prince of Wales, the Princess Royal and Prince William. Any more and they will start looking like the Sandringham Christmas shoot. They stopped electing prime ministers after Margaret Thatcher but seem incapable of excluding the fourth in line to the throne.

This makes the Fellows appear antiquated and obsequious; but the bigger problem is what to do with these minor Royals."

"But his tenure as special trade envoy has not been a success. He managed to turn the fairytale of the Princess and the Pea into the nightmare of the Prince and the Paedophile when he befriended the sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. "

"No 10 increasingly don’t know what to do with him. “No one knows whether to bow, shake his hand or quietly slip out of the room when he arrives,” says one minister. The Queen tried to make amends by bestowing on him the Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order, which allows him to wear a red, white and blue sash. "

"The Royal Society was set up as a manifestation of the age of enlightenment. Nearly 360 years later, we should be enlightened enough to enjoy our constitutional monarchy — but we should not be bowing and scraping to the minor players in the Royal Family. They should have retired from the national stage long ago."

This all seems very sensible to me. Incidentally, Alice Thomson is great-granddaughter of the famous physicist, J. J. Thomson, who was president of the Royal Society from 1915 to 1920.

10 May 2013 The affair has even reached Have I Got News for You. Here is the clip.

The Daily Mirror also weighed in, in fine tabloid style

Cack Andy-ed

The Royal Society, Britain’s top scientists’ club, has elected Prince Andrew a member.

Why? Nobody would ever accuse the Duke of York of being an intellectual. He’s as dim as a Toc H lamp.

The ballot paper permitted only a “Yes” vote, and 90% of members declined to back him.

A right royal farce. Only really clever people could make such common fools of themselves. 

The nation’s best brains should stop tugging their forelock and drop “royal” from their title.

The royals don’t know a ­hypotenuse from a hyphen. Why not just call it The Science Society?

An interview on Voice of Russia Listen here

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Tags: Duke of York · Prince Andrew · Royal fellows · Royal Society

26 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Dr Aust // May 3, 2013 at 13:31


    Probably about the same percentage of the total membership that votes in the elections for people to be officers or Council members of the learned societies, then.

  • 2 pal@mrc-lmb.cam.ac.uk // May 3, 2013 at 14:55

    I only heard yesterday that this election had occurred, for some reason i never received the list or didnt study the whole list as someone else sent me it. Mea Culpa, as i had no idea and i should have
    paid attention. anyway i was outraged about this.  Demeaning and embarrassing, will support you to decide might be done to change these antique practices. I don’t mind the monarch being in,
    they even have very nice illuminated pages in the book, but Prince Andrew!

  • 3 thompsonja // May 3, 2013 at 15:03

    I think it is simply wrong to continue appointing “Royal” Fellows. 

  • 4 FrankO // May 3, 2013 at 15:18

    Oh good grief.  But it is the ROYAL Society.  The confusion with patronage from the royal family is built into the title and, therefore, inevitable.  For some reason, learned societies seem to rejoice in the ‘Royal’ title: just look at all the Royal Colleges of whatever.  Those organizations that don’t have a royal college (biology, for example) often make efforts to form one.  Perhaps the Royal Society would like to rethink its own name?

    Involving actual members of royalty in the affairs of the Royal Society doesn’t seem particularly surprising on the face of it.  To me the silence of 87% of the membership tells its own story (assuming voting was a simple, on-line business).  The designation ‘Royal Fellow’ seems to carry its own, built-in caveat that this individual is there as a result of inbreeding, not intellect.

  • 5 A right Royal cock-up. Prince Andrew elected to the Royal Society | SecularNews.Org // May 3, 2013 at 16:08

    […] By David Colquhoun […]

  • 6 David Colquhoun // May 3, 2013 at 21:42

    The name “Royal Society”originates from a time long before their was anything that resembled democracy, and long before the idea of a constitutional monarchy.  In those days, royal patronage was essential, and when one considers how novel enlightenment ideas were at the time, it was remarkable.

    What’s more puzzling is why these archaic practices have persisted into the 21st century (or indeed why they persisted  into the 20th century). One reason is the effects of having Royal fellows was not sufficiently harmful that anyone bothered to change the rules.  

    A less meritorious reason is there are undoubtedly a number of senior people who not going to rock the boat in case it imperils their chances of getting knighthoods or peerages. 

    Knight starvation is a pernicious phenomenon.

  • 7 David Colquhoun // May 3, 2013 at 22:07

    I saw tonight on Twitter something that sums up my feelings beautifully.


    “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed.  Everything else is public relations”  George Orwell

  • 8 Fanis // May 4, 2013 at 03:15

    Dear David,

    Thank you for the revelations and your opposition within the society. 

    I offer here a definition of “blue blood” found at http://www.urbandictionary.com:

    Translated from the old Spanish phrase “sangre azul”, blue blood derives from the Medieval belief in Europe (among other places) that the blood of the royalty and nobility was blue; since the royal family and aristocrats were wealthy and powerful enough to pay commoners to labor in the fields for them, their skin was translucent and pale enough for their blue veins to stand out.

    This contrasts with the thick skin some of the commoners in position of power have acquired… but certainly not through hand-labor :)

  • 9 I’ve got your missing links right here (4 May 2013) – Phenomena: Not Exactly Rocket Science // May 4, 2013 at 16:01

    […] right Royal cock-up: Prince Andrew elected to the Royal […]

  • 10 CrewsControl // May 5, 2013 at 11:15

    *On Monday 8th April I discussed the matter with the
    president, Paul Nurse. He was charm itself, but he didn’t explain what the advantages to the society were, and he didn’t agree to my proposal to mail my views to all Fellows.

    Just because we are over a decade into the twenty-first century doesn’t mean that the rules of Ruritania don’t apply anymore. If you buy into a system, as Sir Paul clearly has, where the great and the good are drawn into the embrace of the establishment then objecting to the Head of State’s son joining her boffin’s club seems rather churlish.  Eighty-seven per cent of your colleagues seem to accept the inevitability of this state of affairs and succumbed to indifference.

    Sir Paul has entered the hallowed halls populated by luminaries such as Sir Brucie, Sir Cliff and latterly Mr Fred Goodwin,  and was bound to be deaf to your entreaties.

    Once Sir Paul bent the knee before the monarch his room for manoeuvre in objecting to Prince Andy, assuming he held any such notion, was gone.

    You are, of course, to be congratulated for trying the impossible and inevitably failing.

  • 11 News of the Nation » Royal society row over election of Prince Andrew as fellow // May 5, 2013 at 14:02

    […] pharmacologist, who on Friday launched a full-frontal attack on his blog on what he called a “right Royal cock-up”. And today, the story has hit the front pages of the Sunday Times, with even the society’s […]

  • 12 retward // May 5, 2013 at 16:37

    It is clear that you don’t consider Prince Andrew to be fit to be a Royal Fellow, and you are, of course, entitled to your point of view. However, your complaint about the election procedure is surprising. Perhaps you could describe how the election of Bill Bryson as an Honorary Fellow was different? Wasn’t he the only candidate to be an Honorary Fellow, and didn’t only a small proportion of FRSs vote for him?

  • 13 David Colquhoun // May 5, 2013 at 19:30

    @retward.  That’s a very easy question to answer.  Bill Bryson was elected as an Honorary Fellow.  The job description is

    “Honorary Fellowship is intended for those who have given distinguished service to the cause of science, or who have brought great benefits to science, but who do not have the scientific achievements of the kind required of those who could be elected as Fellows or Foreign Members

    Bryson fits the description very well, as do others elected this way, like Melvyn Bragg and David Attenborough.

    Prince Andrew, in complete contrast, was elected only because he has “royal blood”.  Bill Bryson is not in the least contentious, whereas Andrew is highly contentious. I see no comparison between the two cases.
  • 14 Royal Society scientists angered by Prince Andrew’s election as fellow | Read The USA News Online // May 6, 2013 at 01:47

    […] dissent emerged later that day on the personal blog of David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology at University College London and a Royal Society fellow since 1985. […]

  • 15 Royal society row over election of Prince Andrew as fellow | Read The USA News Online // May 6, 2013 at 01:47

    […] pharmacologist, who on Friday launched a full-frontal attack on his blog on what he called a “right Royal cock-up”. And today, the story has hit the front pages of the Sunday Times, with even the society’s […]

  • 16 News of the week, May 6th, 2013 » Oxbridge Biotech // May 6, 2013 at 06:53

    […] by Prince Andrew’s election as a fellow and say that ‘royal fellows’ should be phased out. David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology as University College London and royal fellow since 1985 said he thought […]

  • 17 Lee Turnpenny // May 6, 2013 at 09:42

    Any ‘damage’ has been done here by the 1128 (87%) who ‘Failed to vote’. It renders it farcical, akin to the Police and Crime Commissioner Elections last year, which only drew a ‘significant minority’ of voters (but still higher than this – and there wasn’t even a ‘manifesto’ to bother considering here). Surely such a high number of Fellows would not be apathetic about this appointment? Would they? It might be interesting to learn how these voting figures compare to those of other elections.

  • 18 JohnC // May 6, 2013 at 10:59


    It’s clear the points you have made regarding Prince Andrew’s personality and background, as well as your anti-royalist views, which you are completely entitled to.

    However, the ‘hardly resounding support’ with regards to percentages is significantly more, percentage wise, than you or any other fellow has been elected by. How are you in a position to criticise this? 


  • 19 David Colquhoun // May 6, 2013 at 19:32

    @Lee Turnpenny

    I  was certainly disappointed by the small number of people who bothered to vote.  One  reason, I suspect, is that most fellows are much more interested in doing science than they are in the business of the Society.  I’d be very interested to know how many of the emails were trashed without being read, or at least being read as far as the bit that mentioned Prince Andrew.

  • 20 David Colquhoun // May 6, 2013 at 19:57


    Actually if you read what I said, I think you will find that there are no anti-royalist views expressed.  That was deliberate: your objection shows more about your own prejudices than about mine.  

    There are certainly objections to the Duke of York’s behaviour but I would have similar objections even if he hadn’t been a royal. 

    I do think that the whole idea of having Royal Fellows is outdated and should be dropped.  I see nothing anti-royalist in that view.  It’s merely that I can’t see that they contribute anything worth while to the Society.

    Your point about votes isn’t quite right either.  Candidates are scrutinised by one of ten sectional committees, which consist of experts in the areas (you can sit on a sectional committee for only three years, so turnover is quick).  They have the very hard task of selecting four people from 60 or so candidates.  External  references are sought for a the most promising ones.  The names of the top three or four go forward, and they are usually rubber-stamped by Council.  The sectional committees certainly vote for candidates.  The process is not perfect, but it is more sensible than have a vote of all Fellows, if only because if the huge range of fields of work.    This, by the way, is all public knowledge

  • 21 JohnC // May 6, 2013 at 20:03

    *David, many thanks for your reply. If you read my comment it is regarding your actually regarding the vote, not the scrutiny process. As you well know, the actual voting in part happens with a show of hands; this is the equivalent to the Duke of York’s voting percentages that you refer to, and this is the time at which you are made a fellow. Apple for apple, he was voted in by a larger portion of the fellowship than you were, was he not?

  • 22 David Colquhoun // May 6, 2013 at 20:46


    I don’t understand what point you are trying to make.  Ordinary candidates are voted for my the members of the sectional committees, not by the whole fellowship, so there are no comparable numbers for the fraction of people who vote. Normally everyone on a sectional committee casts a vote.  In contrast, Royal fellows are selected directly by Council.  The process is entirely different.

  • 23 Alex May // May 7, 2013 at 16:53

    Thanks for sharing this.

    Such a low turnout – and especially for a postal ballot. Why is there apparently not a requirement for a minimum number of voters (cf. quorate meetings)?

    The ballot paper instructs the voter to print a copy and post it back to a non-independent individual. Sorry if I’ve missed something, but how do we even know that the 147 ‘yes’ votes came from 147 individuals? What’s to stop someone casting multiple postal votes?

    4.    According to the ballot paper, it’s also possible to vote via email – but to the same, non-independent individual. Although such an arrangement should preclude someone casting multiple electronic votes, doesn’t it necessitate voters disclosing their identity?

  • 24 David Colquhoun // May 8, 2013 at 19:41

    @Alex May

    No there is no quorum for the elections (as in parliamentary elections).

    I expect it would be possible to vote several times, but I very much doubt whether people would bother. I suspect that the 147 yes votes were from people who thought is was a fait accompli and returned the form with very little thought.  There is no means of knowing whether the 1128 people who didn’t return a ballot form did do as an active act of abstention, or because they didn’t read the mail, or because they had more interesting things to do.  I think it would be very interesting to know, but there is no easy way to find out.

  • 25 Measuring scientific coverage of @Wikipedia: Fellows of the Wiki Society Index 2013 | O'Really? // May 14, 2013 at 05:53

    […] this month confusingly-named “Royal Society” announced their new fellows for 2013. The society is made up of […]

  • 26 The election of Prince Andrew to the Royal Society. What Fellows think. // May 25, 2013 at 23:02

    […] recent post, A right royal cock-up, got a lot more press attention than I’d expected. Perhaps I should have realised that the […]

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