Is British science meritocratic?

I think UK science is pretty meritocratic, certainly few seem to care where you went to school or university. But there have been some alarming newspaper articles on some professions being dominated by those who went to private schools; for example 71% of judges were privately educated. They don’t report figures for science*. And at yesterday’s Open Day a parent of a prospective student asked a colleague and I about how much employers care about where a physics graduate does their degree. We both thought that most would judge an applicant mostly on their merits although the prestige of their university is not completely irrelevant.

So I wondered about how meritocratic UK science really is. As a scientist I should start with data, so I thought I would go to the top of science and another field, politics, and compare the universities the Presidents of the Royal Society went to, with those of the UK’s Prime Ministers. The Royal Society is the most prestigious body of scientists in the UK, so President of the Royal Society is I guess as high up as you can get in UK science. Anyway, the data is as follows. To keep things simple, I only compare those who went to English universities.

There have been nine Presidents of the Royal Society in my lifetime (1971-), of whom eight were educated at English universities. These eight did their undergraduate degrees at the following universities, in reverse chronological order: Birmingham, Cambridge, Imperial College, Cambridge, Cambridge, Leeds, Cambridge and Cambridge. So, the current President, Sir Paul Nurse, did his degree at Birmingham, his predecessor went to Cambridge, etc. Cambridge clearly wins this battle, with five alumni in the list of Royal Society Presidents, but the other three are scattered around three different universities.

There have been eight Prime Ministers in my lifetime, of whom five were educated at English universities. These five did their undergraduate degrees at the following universities, in reverse chronological order: Oxford, Oxford, Oxford, Oxford and Oxford. Incidentally, as both Cameron and Ed Miliband went to Oxford, I will need to wait until at least 2020 before there is any obvious risk of me living long enough to see a Prime Minister educated at a English university other than Oxford, I will be 49 then. I find it hard to believe that the top of UK politics either has been or is meritocratic, when it is possible to live almost a half century without a Prime Minister educated at any of the approximately 100 English universities other than Oxford.

It should be borne in mind that these Royal Society Presidents and Prime Ministers went to university a while ago. Heath and Hodgkin, the PM and Royal Society President when I was born both went to university in 1930s. In the 1930s I guess there were closer to 50 than 100 universities in England. So the data above perhaps tells us more about the UK over the last 80 years than it does about the UK today. But politics clearly has work to do, science less so but I think it would be a bit dumb to be complacent.

* Of course this implies that scientists are not important enough to be worth bothering about. Ah well.

One thought on “Is British science meritocratic?

  1. I think it’s a bit cheeky to talk about “UK Science” then ignore Scottish Universities. Besides which, since (off the top of my head, but I think it’s right) two prime ministers in your lifetime did not go to University at all — Callaghan and Major — yet climbed the greasy pole all the way to the top, you have the arguably (slightly) more meritocratic situation amongst PMs than scientists;

    PMs: Oxford (5), Edinburgh (1), no University education (2)
    Presidents of RS: Cambridge (5), Birmingham (1), Imperial (1), Leeds (1)

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