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British Association


British Association

The British Science Association, formerly known as British Association for the Advancement of Science or the BA, (founded 1831) is a learned society with the object of promoting science, directing general attention to scientific matters, and facilitating interaction between scientific workers.



The Association was founded in 1831 and modelled on the German Gesellschaft Deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte.[1] The prime mover (who is regarded as the founder) was Reverend William Vernon Harcourt, following a suggestion by Sir David Brewster, who was disillusioned with the elitist and conservative attitude of the Royal Society. J. F. W. Johnston is also considered to be a founding member.[2] The first meeting was held in York (at the Yorkshire Museum) on Tuesday 27 September 1831 with various scientific papers being presented on the following days. It was chaired by Lord MiltonTemplate:Dn, President of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, and "upwards of 300 gentlemen" attended the meeting.[3] The Preston Mercury recorded that those gathered consisted of "persons of distinction from various parts of the kingdom, together with several of the gentry of Yorkshire and the members of philosopher societies in this country". The newspaper published the names of over a hundred of those attending and these included, amongst others, eighteen clergymen, eleven doctors, four knights, two Viscounts and one Lord.[4]

From that date onwards a meeting was held annually at a place chosen at a previous meeting. In 1832, for example, the meeting was held in Oxford, chaired by Reverend Dr William Buckland. By this stage the Association had four sections: Physics (including Mathematics and Mechanical Arts), Chemistry (including Mineralogy and Chemical Arts), Geology (including Geography) and Natural History.[5]

One of the most famous events linked to the Association Meeting was an exchange between Thomas Henry Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce in 1860 (see the 1860 Oxford evolution debate). Although it is often described as a "debate", the exchange occurred after the presentation of a paper by Prof Draper of New York, on the intellectual development of Europe with relation to Darwin's theory (one of a number of scientific papers presented during the week) and the subsequent discussion involved a number of other participants (although Wilberforce and Huxley were the most prominent).[6] Although a number of newspapers made passing references to the exchange,[7] it was not until later that it was accorded greater significance in the evolution debate.[8]

Ironically, perhaps the Association's most momentous influence on science was in 1878 when a committee of the Association recommended against constructing Charles Babbage's analytical engine.[9]

The Association was parodied by English novelist Charles Dickens as 'The Mudfog Society for the Advancement of Everything' in The Mudfog Papers (1837 – 38).

Perception of science in the UK

The Association's main aim is to improve the perception of science and scientists in the UK. Membership is open to all.

Yorkshireman Prof Sir George Porter, on becoming President in September 1985, was scathing against so-called 'soft sciences' such as psychology, and even economics (both part of the Association). He claimed that academics in these areas were far too eager to try to put unsubstantiated assertions into practice on the public and that undergraduates were often taught unsubstantiated assertions, as if they had been established by rigorous scientific method. He claimed this was damaging the public perception of science.

The following September he said that the general level of scientific understanding in Britain was lamentably low, with many senior politicians, religious leaders and controllers of the media scientifically uneducated. He said of Britain's education system that although it provides the finest education anywhere for the young man or woman who wants to be an academic scientist, it leaves the majority ignorant of the scientific world where they will live and work and it was the duty of scientists to drag kicking and screaming into the twenty first century those who have no taste for the subject. On science education in schools he said of all the many crises in education and science, perhaps the most serious is the disappearing species of the good teacher of physics, mathematics and to a lesser extent the other sciences and that if it is allowed to go much further, there will be no recovery for generations, comparing it to China's Cultural Revolution which he said produced a lost generation.

Sir Kenneth Durham, former Director of Research at Unilever, on becoming President in August 1987 followed on from Sir George Porter saying that science teachers needed extra pay to overcome the scarcity of mathematics and physics teachers in secondary schools, and that unless we deal with this as matter of urgency, the outlook for our manufacturing future is bleak. He regretted that headmasters and careers masters had for many years followed 'the cult of Oxbridge' because it carried more prestige to read Classics at Oxbridge and go into the Civil Service or banking, than to read engineering at, say, Salford, and go into manufacturing industry. He said that reporting of sciences gave good coverage to medical science, but that nevertheless, editors ought to be sensitive to developments in areas such as solid state physics, astro-physics, colloid science, molecular biology, transmission of stimuli along nerve fibres, and so on, and that newspaper editors were in danger of waiting for disasters before the scientific factors involved in the incidents were explained.

In September 2001 Sir William Stewart, as outgoing president, warned that universities faced 'dumbing down' and that we can deliver social inclusiveness, and the best universities, but not both from a limited amount of money. We run the risk of doing neither well. Universities are underfunded, and must not be seen simply as a substitute for National Service to keep youngsters off the dole queue. He also said scientists have to be careful and consider the full implications of what they are seeking to achieve. The problem with some clever people is that they find cleverer ways of being stupid.

In September 2003 Sir Peter Williams, the outgoing president, said that the world was facing a shortage of scientists because too many young people dropped the subject at an early age.

British Science Festival

The Association's major emphasis in recent decades has been on x-change- a lively informal roundup of the day's events where festival-goers can ask questions, debate and hear star speakers. The Festival has also been the home to protest and debate. In 1970 there were protestors over the use of science for weapons.

Science Communication Conference

The Association holds an annual Science Communication Conference, the largest in the UK, which addresses the key issues facing science communicators. Each year it brings together 350 delegates involved in public engagement; from science educators, science centre communicators, journalists, scientists and policy makers. In 2011, the theme of the conference was 'Online Engagement'. The 2012 Science Communication Conference will be held on 14–15 May at Kings Place, London with the theme 'Impact'.

National Science & Engineering Week

In addition to the Festival of Science, the British Science Association organises the UK National Science & Engineering Week, an opportunity for people of all ages to get involved in science, engineering and technology activities, originating as the National Week of Science, Engineering and Technology.

The Association also has a young people's programme, which seeks to involve school students in science beyond the school curriculum, and to encourage them to consider higher education and careers in science.

Name change

In 2009 the Association rebranded itself and now uses the trading name British Science Association' instead of the BA.[11] The new name is often abbreviated to BSA.

Presidents of the British Science Association

List of Annual Meetings

See also


External links

  • British Science Association
  • British Science Association: Our history
  • BHL Digitised Reports 1833-1937
  • Reports of the meetings 1877-90 are available on Gallica

Video clips

  • British Science Association YouTube channel

Template:Science and technology in the United Kingdom

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