President’s speech – AGM, 19 May 2021

“I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak to you all at the end of my first year as President. First, I would like to reiterate the Society’s warm welcome to all of our new Fellows, and of course to Professor Carby and Sir Michael as our new Honorary Fellows.

“This has, of course, been an extraordinary year. At the time of our last AGM, we had been in lockdown for two months and were only just beginning to understand the full ramifications of the Covid-19 pandemic. Now we are only too aware of its impact on human lives, on physical and mental wellbeing, on our society and our economy. I know that many of you here today will have seen its negative consequences for higher education and research, too.

“However, I also want to recognise the extraordinary resilience and innovation shown by so many in our communities of learning. Scientists have modelled the pandemic and produced the vaccines we need to survive it; healthcare professionals have cared for millions in very difficult circumstances; educators have risen to the challenge of supporting learning in our schools and universities; social scientists have helped us understand the impact on families and communities; and writers, artists, broadcasters and performers have all responded in new and engaging ways.

“In a wider sense, Covid-19 and its consequences have raised everyone’s awareness of the importance of research, and of investing in and supporting our experts. This makes the work of an organisation like the Learned Society of Wales, with our nearly 600 Fellows spanning a huge range of disciplines, all the more relevant.

“And during this past year, the Society has not just survived but thrived. As you have already heard today, our events have attracted record numbers of participants; our Medals have received more nominations than ever before; and we have established a new network for early career researchers. I want to recognise the extraordinary efforts of our talented staff team, who have managed the transition to home-working and virtual activities with great success – and also the Fellows who contribute in such varied ways to our events, policy work and activities. I am very grateful to you all.

“In addition to the activities mentioned earlier by Sarah and Martin, I’d like to highlight two further initiatives which illustrate the breadth of the Society’s work.

“Last summer, with schools shut and pupils studying at home, we launched a Lockdown Learner Challenge. This asked GCSE and A level students, who would otherwise be sitting their exams, to create an ‘explainer’ on a topic they would be studying in future. We received a fantastic range of entries from across Wales, and we awarded prizes for a rap about nitrogen and a plain language explanation of the intricacies of quantum theory. The winners were: for the Year 11 GCSE prize – Grazia Obuzor, Hawthorn High School; and for the Year 13 A level prize – Daniel Hunt, Bryn Celynnog School. By coincidence, both schools are in the Pontypridd area.

“Secondly, we have continued to work with colleagues in the Bevan Commission on One Health, an approach that recognises the interconnectedness of human, animal and ecosystem health. The pandemic, of course, has served to really highlight the importance of this area of work. After organising a high-level expert group meeting in the previous Society year, we were pleased to see the Chief Medical Officer recognise the potential of One Health in his annual report. Our next step will be to issue a joint statement on One Health this autumn.

“All of this work is underpinned by the guidance of our Council, which is the Society’s board of trustees and therefore responsible for the governance and effective running of our charity. Members of Council – and indeed our governance committees, scrutiny committees and medal committees – contribute a great deal of time and expertise to the Society each year.

“I would particularly like to thank those who are completing their terms on Council this year: our Treasurer, Keith Smith; John Jones; and David Boucher, who was our previous Vice-President for Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.

“Having been President for a year, it has been a privilege to work alongside my fellow Council members. I’ve also had the opportunity to take stock of the Society’s work, our Fellowship and the great potential for our future growth.

“One area the Council is focussing on at the moment is the inclusion and representation of the diversity of our learning communities. This applies to our Fellowship, our decision-making bodies, and our outward-facing activities.

“I’m happy to tell you that when we met to discuss these matters before Christmas, Council warmly endorsed continued Society action on these matters. We agreed to make a renewed commitment to equality and diversity, encapsulated in a new vision statement. The statement is not just words – we also plan to take some actions. In particular, we are about to launch a consultation both within and outside the Fellowship, encouraging an open discussion of how the Society is currently viewed and what more we can do to include under-represented groups. In fact, before I conclude this speech, Martin will share in the chat a link to our brand new survey – please do take a few minutes after the AGM to complete it.

“Our initial focus will be on the gender balance of the Fellowship, and we hope to increase nominations of women from a recent average of 30% up towards 50%. To achieve this, we are reviewing our election guidance and assessment processes. For the first time, we are also organising openly accessible information sessions for potential Fellowship nominees, including one for women only. We also hope to reach a 50/50 balance of women and men across our governance committees, by the end of the next Society year.

“Next, we will be gathering more data about other characteristics of our Fellowship, such as ethnicity, so that we can address any other areas of under-representation. I would ask each of you, as Fellows, to play your part – by encouraging your colleagues to attend one of our information sessions or take part in our consultation, or simply by completing an equalities monitoring questionnaire when requested. And if you feel you would add to the diversity of experiences on our Council or committees, please do apply to join at the next available opportunity. All these actions help us to continue to develop our Society of as an inclusive, progressive national academy.

“As we all know, and as has been further highlighted by the pandemic, Wales remains economically under-developed in comparison to parts of the UK and Europe. Brexit followed by Covid presents us with many challenges, so it is pleasing to hear of the importance of the ‘levelling up’ agenda in Westminster. We await with eagerness further details of the schemes we hope to see. This includes funding for research and development, within both higher education and the private sector.

“And of course, Wales and the rest of the world faces an ongoing climate crisis, which increasingly requires swift and radical innovation across many disciplines. During the year ahead, we will be organising a series of events and activities tied in with the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow.

“We’ll also convene key conversations on the future of research and innovation, build on our burgeoning network of early career researchers, and support collaborative, inter-disciplinary networks in Wales Studies.

“Strong partnerships are, of course, vital to our success. I would like to thank all of the universities in Wales for the generous financial contributions they make to our work. I’m very grateful that they have maintained their support of the Society throughout this challenging year. And I’m delighted that during the past year, we were able to launch the Celtic Academies Alliance with our friends at the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Royal Irish Academy. This lends our nations a stronger collective voice at UK level, in continuing discussions about research funding, industrial policy, and intra-governmental relations in the UK and Ireland.

“We will move forward into the next year with a renewed sense of purpose, and in that spirit, we will be refreshing the Society’s strategy over the coming months. I look forward to working with Fellows, and with Martin as Chief Executive, to lead this process of renewal. We are keen to hear your ideas as we consider where we want our national academy to be in 5, 10 or even 20 years’ time. As we demonstrated in our Wales and the World conferences and Trwy Brism Iaith symposium, our nation has many distinctive assets that give us the potential to succeed globally. The question is how we make the most of those assets for the benefit of both Wales. I am confident that our Society, and our Fellowship, is well placed to make a tremendous contribution to this challenge.”