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A recent post, A right royal cock-up, got a lot more press attention than I’d expected. Perhaps I should have realised that the mainstream media are fascinated with anything that involves royalty. Here is my last word on that topic.

My reasons for writing about it had very little to do with royalty. I was elected to the Royal Society in 1985 and I’ve tolerated the odd voting forms, and the election of Royal Fellows, in silence for the last 27 years. What made me speak out this time was almost entirely to do with Andrew’s record of dubious behaviour. For me, it was a moral question, not a question of royalty per se.

The election of Prince Andrew (as a "Royal Fellow", not on scientific grounds) attracted 171 votes and 1128 non-responders. I was curious to know why so many people failed to vote. I was also curious about the statement made to the Sunday Times

"David’s [Colquhoun] views about our royal connections are very much in a minority"

Since I don’t recall being asked, I’m baffled about what data (if any) on which that statement was based. There was only one way to find out. To ask. The following email was sent at around 5 pm on Friday 17 May.

Subject: A very quick question about the election of Royal Fellows

In the light of the recent publicity surrounding the “election” of Prince Andrew as a Royal Fellow, I thought that, because so few people voted, it would be interesting to know the views of all fellows on this tradition.  This mail is being sent to the 1197 fellows whose email address is given in the Year Book.

All you need to do is to hit reply and put YES or NO next to the following two questions. Only the total numbers are interesting. I promise not to reveal how anyone voted.

 1) Do you think that the time has come to discontinue the tradition of electing Royal Fellows?

 2) Do you think the election of Prince Andrew, in particular, has harmed the reputation of the Royal Society?

NB  These questions do not refer to the monarch as patron (but if you have an opinion about that. please say so).

Best regards

David Colquhoun

The intention was to word it as neutrally as possible. Few people expressed an opinion about the monarch as patron. I see no harm in continuing that tradition myself.

What happened?

First, the Year Book is out of date. 106 emails bounced, several were "out of office", and a few recipients had died. So about 1080 emails should have arrived. I have no way of knowing how many were opened and read.

After one week, 324 replies had arrived, almost twice as many as the 171 votes cast in the original ballot. A couple of responses were surprisingly abusive. More were supportive. Most made no comment. 70% of those mailed didn’t respond. The 30% return rate is certainly a flaw, tnough not as big a flaw as the 13% return rate in the orginal poll,

Perhaps 30% isn’t so surprising. A weekly newsletter goes out to all UCL staff, and it has interesting information, though a bit too PR-like for my taste. But I’m told that 50% of emails sent out are never even opened, never mind read.

The results were as follows.

Of 302 who answered question 1, 131 (43%) said YES

Of 284 who answered question 2, 151 (53%) said YES

It was noticeable that those who work outside the UK were distinctly more likely to say NO. Perhaps they are unaware of the extensive press coverage about Andrew in the UK? 54 answers were received from people with .edu addresses, 32% yes for question 1, and 38% yes on question 2. If these are excluded on the grounds that they are unlikely to be aware of the problems, the results are

Of 248 who answered question 1, 114 (46%) said YES

Of 239 who answered question 2, 134 (56%) said YES

It might also be relevant almost half the fellows are 70 years old or older and 80% of fellows are 60 or older. That’s not surprising because very few people are elected at younger than 40, many are much older, and once in, you are in for life.

What can we conclude?

(1) 70% of those mailed have little interest in the politics of the RS, and there is no way to know whether they even opened my mail,

(2) Roughly half of those who expressed an opinion agreed with me


(3) it is not true that "David’s [Colquhoun] views about our royal connections are very much in a minority".

It seems to me that these numbers provide a good case for the RS Council to consider whether or not it is a good idea to continue to nominate Royal Fellows.

One more thing

The Sunday Times was also told

"The Duke of York is beloved by the tabloids but he has always had a robust defence in these issues . . . I think David is quite wrong to raise that"

It is most certainly not true that Andrew’s reputation is bad only in tabloid newspapers.

Try this leader in the Times (March 2011) “Undiplomatic Envoy. Prince Andrew’s friendship with a convicted US financier is an embarrassment. He should resign as a trade envoy“. [pdf]There are many more reports like that in the Times.

The most royalist of Conservative broadsheets, the Daily Telegraph, broke the story of abuse of aircraft and published Timeline: the Duke of York’s questionable friends. And the Telegraph’s chief reporter wrote "Sack the Duke of York as trade envoy, says former ambassador". And in 2012, the Telegraph wrote "Money laundering probe puts spotlight on the £15 million sale of the Duke of York’s home"

In March 2011, Channel 4 News wrote “Prince Andrew: ‘Cheerleader in chief for the arms industry

The Guardian has been critical since 2004. And of course it was the Guardian who published  the cables  that revealed Andrew’s curious attitude to bribery in arms deals.

These are not tabloids. The fact that every newspaper has written this sort of thing is what caused me to worry that his election would not go down well with the public. One of the most alarming aspects of the affair was the comments left by readers on the various newspaper articles. They did not give the impression that the public was as impressed by the Royal Society as its fellows tend to be. That is bad for everyone because the society does much good work, in funding science (in particular the excellent University Research Fellowships which give young scientists five years of independence).


I do sometimes wonder about the value of prizes and honours. My attitude to them is very much like that of one of my great scientific heroes, Richard Feynman. Watch this.


26 May 2013 The Sunday Times was onto the story quickly again, with a short piece. The cartoon isn’t totally appropriate (for me) since I’ve said repeatedly that it is Andrew’s morals that worry me, far more than his royalty.

st 260513

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9 Responses to The election of Prince Andrew to the Royal Society. What Fellows think.

  • Felix says:

    ” I’ve tolerated the odd voting forms, and the election of Royal Fellows, in silence for the last 27 years.”

    He may be a bad choice, but thing thing that I thought was outrageous was the voting from on which it is impossible to vote against. You’re okay with that?

  • The voting form was a silly tradition that’s been round for a long time,  There was a way to vote no, by spoiling the form, but I suspect that a lot of people didn’t know about it. But I haven’t fussed too much about that because Council has already agreed to change it.  I hope my intervention speeded up that process a bit.

  • CrewsControl says:

    *70% of those mailed didn’t respond.

    Nothing is more conducive to peace of mind than not having any opinion at all.

    Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799)

  • @CrewsControl   Haha, very true.  This episode has not been at all good for my peace of mind.

    I was disappointed at first to get only a 30% response. But  it is almost twice as big as the original poll, so if mine is invalidated by the  low response then so, a fortiori, is the original poll.  But the most amazing thing is the information that half the recipients never even open the UCL Newsletter email.  That makes 30% look quite good for a mass email  from someone that most recipients would never have heard of.  

    Perhaps it’s a case of too much email and too little time. It may also not help that 48% of fellows are 70 or older.  When I referred one to my original blog, I was told that it was the first time in his life that he’d read a blog.

  • niko123456 says:

    A 30% response rate is very good. 

    A 30% open rate is also typically quite good.

    If you were the minister of a local church congregation, emailing your flock (to put the engagement level in perspective), you’d only expect about a 40% open rate on average. 


    UCL Newsletter – you have to put things into perspective – the data isn’t accurate at all. an ‘open’ occurs when a recipient downloads a small, unique, image embedded in an email. 

    but when all things come out in the wash, a 30% response rate (yes, factoring in the age and demographic, but also including things like the ‘personalised’ nature of yuor email and the fact that you ASKED for a response) is quite respectable. 

    I work in email marketing. 

  • Andrew Suggitt says:

    *I think you’re doing yourself down on response rate. These researchers found a mean response rate of 35.7% for surveys of organisations.

  • John D says:

    It seems to me that the outcome of the poll is broadly clear, namely that if asked explicitly, in any statistically significant random sample of FRS’s a larger number would consider that “Royal Fellows” are at best anachronistic.

    Continuing respect for the Royal Society, and thus the continuation of its influence and effect on the sustenance of excellence in UK science, relies on the perceived quality, impartiality and rationality of its Fellowship. To have a patron who is “Head of State” in a constitutional, and democratic (is it always?), monarchy such as ours makes quite some sense. To have the option to elect anyone, from Prince(ess) and politician to Pauper via Duk(ch)e(ss), Diplomat, Chancellor and Commoner, whom the Society deems to have contributed in important ways to UK science, seems to make as much sense nowadays as no doubt it did in the mid 1600s when the Royal Society was founded. The way forward is surely therefore clear.

  • Dr Aust says:

    *I love the idea that the only way to vote ‘No’ in the Royal Society elections was to spoil the ballot paper. I have a vision of grumpy Fellows doodling on the forms, perhaps writing out theorems with deliberate mistakes in them. Or drawing cartoons, perhaps?

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