A few thoughts about the RSA past and present - part 2 - RSA

A few thoughts about the RSA past and present - part 2


It is an appropriate day to offer more reflections gleaned from the official history of the RSA's first 200 years (1754-1954). For today we announce the elected and nominated membership of the new Fellowship Council, an innovation which will no doubt feature in future histories of the Society. 

Over the years the Society has had to adapt to survive and prosper. Today, the Fellowship Council is an integral part of our strategy to engage Fellows and to ensure that the work we undertake at John Adam Street provides support and inspiration for Fellows' initiatives. 

There have been major changes in the way the RSA works. In our first century the emphasis was on the use of prizes to incentivise inventions in areas ranging from drawing to safety at sea to crop rotation. As more specialist institutions developed (some as a consequence of the Society's work) and the costs of research and development increased, the awarding of prizes began to give way to a focus on initiatives and projects developed by the Society, most notable the 1851 Great Exhibition and vocational examinations. 

Then, as the Society moved in to the 20th century the emphasis moved onto the presentation, discussion and publication of learned papers, with the RSA attracting many of the most influential names in science and industrial innovation, including its Council chair in 1924 Guglielmo Marconi.

But despite the shifts of emphasis, the Society's history highlights the RSA's pragmatism in the ways it has sought to achieve progressive change. Six are discernible, some dominating during certain period but all as enduring aspects of the Society's method:

Inventor and innovator - the RSA as the originator and test bed for a new idea 

Sponsor - the RSA offering inducements and rewards for others to address key challenges

Thought leader - the RSA as platform for important issues 

Campaigner - the RSA pressing Government and others in authority to reform

Policy maker - the RSA - often through the use of expert Commissions - developing detailed policy proposals 

Partner - the RSA working with other organisations, often handing over its ideas to others to pursue

All these elements are present in the RSA's current activities. This flexibility of method is important. It avoids the pitfalls of being too reliant on one model as can be the way, for example, with think tanks that focus on influencing politicians or campaign groups that have constantly to spread doom and gloom to get media coverage, or even some social entrepreneurs who look for brand new answers rather than always having the patience to learn from the successes and failures of past pioneers.     

But just as pragmatism and flexibility has been an enduring strength of the Society the converse weakness has been a lack of clarity and focus.  Getting this right is crucial if the RSA is to move into another successful era. We must combine our independence and openness with a sharper focus on the core issue of enhancing human capability built on a clear foundation of ideas and values gleaned from ideas presented in lectures and the Journal, our own research and the practice of our Fellows.

There is no history of the last 50 years of the Society; a period which covers such developments as the expansion of the Fellowship, investment in the House as a commercial venue and a range of important research initiatives particularly in the areas of education and the environment. So one resolution I will bring back from my holiday is to see if we can commission a new history bringing us right up to the present.  Although, I am sure all Fellows will be relieved to hear I have no intention of seeking to emulate the performance of one of my esteemed predecessors, Sir Henry Truman Wood, who not only authored the first major history of the Society but was its chief officer for 38 years!

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