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Stem cells and experimentation on human embryos


Internal politics at The Royal Society
Aaron Klug Scientist
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In terms of role of the President, George Porter, who was my predecessor but one, did not have his own secretary. He told me he had to fight to get his own secretary because his secretary was actually the secretary of the Executive Secretary who was a paid official. Who was like a Civil Servant. The attitude of the senior staff of the Society was like civil servants. The President and the Officers were like Ministers, they came and went, and provided no continuity. So they regarded themselves as the keepers and the... of the protocol of the Society, and they organised the meetings and organised the procedures, but George Porter managed to get his own secretary. Michael Atiyah, he was my immediate predecessor, inherited his own secretary, and he helped loosen up things a bit. But when I came, the Executive Secretary, I found that he opened all my letters, read them and passed them on before they came to me, you see, which is what a high Civil Servant would do. Of course, the letters come addressed, sometimes they were personal, sometimes they were scientific, often they were cranky, people still trying to prove Fermat's last theorem, or there was a whole collection which was, Einstein is wrong. So I was asked what I do with these letters. They said, 'Well, we keep them. We have a whole filing cabinet called cranks. And we don't throw anything away just in case they turn out to be right, because some people like to lodge their...' It's a way of lodging something at the Royal Society.

I think I... I must say I didn't honour it always. When I saw something that looked totally cranky, I didn't pass it on. But I found that they also wrote letters, on occasion it was very useful for the Executive Secretary... you see, the Executive Secretary is paid, and he's called the Account Holder, so the Treasury regard him as the important person, as he controls... actually he doesn't control, but he keeps the money. Council decides how it's spent and so on. So he's quite a powerful figure and he corresponds to something like an Under Secretary of the Ministry. He's quite well paid, and indeed they'd... up till then they'd all come from the Civil Service. He'd been in the Cabinet Office for many years, and he... so I gradually... and so then when I came to write my first report on my... this was a performance report at the end of each year. All the staff have an appraisal. He came to me and said, 'Do you want me to write Enid's appraisal'? I said, 'No, I'll write it.' 'Oh', he said, 'I thought you'd want me to do it.' So I said, 'But she's my secretary'. 'I see her every day', he said. He was trying to say, 'She's part of my office, you see'. She's part of my office, and she's just loaned to me, that was the attitude. Gradually this changed and indeed the Assistant Executive Secretary told Liebe... because I was clearly proving a little bit difficult, I had been used to the LMB and places like that. Peter Cooper said to Liebe, look we don't want the President to be active, we want a figurehead here, you see. Well, this was ludicrous by now, because by now we'd got pretty well involved in science policy, and had been for some years, and indeed Lord Todd appointed a staff member, the very first of his kind, and he was several Presidents back, just one member of staff to deal with science policy. They'd never had that before. The policy, such as it was, was made on the hoof. And Michael Atiyah had increased the number of people dealing with science policy and global issues, and I actually strengthened our science policy group, because this was becoming more and more important.

Born in Lithuania, Aaron Klug (1926-2018) was a British chemist and biophysicist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1982 for developments in electron microscopy and his work on complexes of nucleic acids and proteins. He studied crystallography at the University of Cape Town before moving to England, completing his doctorate in 1953 at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1981, he was awarded the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University. His long and influential career led to a knighthood in 1988. He was also elected President of the Royal Society, and served there from 1995-2000.

Listeners: Ken Holmes John Finch

Kenneth Holmes was born in London in 1934 and attended schools in Chiswick. He obtained his BA at St Johns College, Cambridge. He obtained his PhD at Birkbeck College, London working on the structure of tobacco mosaic virus with Rosalind Franklin and Aaron Klug. After a post-doc at Childrens' Hospital, Boston, where he started to work on muscle structure, he joined to the newly opened Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge where he stayed for six years. He worked with Aaron Klug on virus structure and with Hugh Huxley on muscle. He then moved to Heidelberg to open the Department of Biophysics at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research where he remained as director until his retirement. During this time he completed the structure of tobacco mosaic virus and solved the structures of a number of protein molecules including the structure of the muscle protein actin and the actin filament. Recently he has worked on the molecular mechanism of muscle contraction. He also initiated the use of synchrotron radiation as a source for X-ray diffraction and founded the EMBL outstation at DESY Hamburg. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1981 and is a member of a number of scientific academies.

John Finch is a retired member of staff of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK. He began research as a PhD student of Rosalind Franklin's at Birkbeck College, London in 1955 studying the structure of small viruses by x-ray diffraction. He came to Cambridge as part of Aaron Klug's team in 1962 and has continued with the structural study of viruses and other nucleoproteins such as chromatin, using both x-rays and electron microscopy.

Tags: The Royal Society, George Porter, Michael Atiyah, Peter Cooper

Duration: 4 minutes, 24 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008