Opinion: Putting learned societies at the centre of the ‘policy community’

Posted on February 13, 2014   by William Burns/Nancy Mendoza

In our latest blog post, William Burns and Nancy Mendoza give us their thoughts on the importance of collaboration between learned societies. This post was originally published on the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) blog.


2013 marked the 30th anniversaries of the first significant number of AIDS cases reported in Britain, and the UK’s first scientific meeting on what was then a terrifying new disease.

In May 1983, Conway Hall in London’s Red Lion Square hosted the first national conference on AIDS in Britain. Organised by the Lesbian and Gay Switchboard, and supported by a grant from the Health Education Council, the event brought together gay men and a small group of scientists and medical doctors, all keen to gauge the emerging epidemic.

Virginia Berridge, the historian of medicine, writes that ‘there in embryo was part of the “policy community” which was to emerge around AIDS as a policy issue’.

It’s significant that Berridge puts policy community in inverted commas. A policy community is made by its participants – and the making of a policy community is the main task of any policy-minded organisation that wants to have an impact.

So, what might learned societies and others working within the policy sphere learn from the emergence of AIDS as a policy issue?

While the old adage ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ is undoubtedly important, history rarely supplies us with clear lessons. It would be ridiculous to try to derive a five point plan for a future policy strategy from the AIDS example. The 1980’s response came down to a combination of the frightening severity of the disease, the particular history of that time and the years preceding it, and the personalities of the individuals involved.

But what is abundantly clear is that the early scientific response relied in large part on getting together and doing something, rather than just talking about it or making recommendations to others.

Committed groups of patient activists, campaigning organisations, scientists, public health doctors, and policymakers formed rapidly in the early 1980’s. These groups contributed their expertise and networks of influence to a common goal. Individual scientists stood up and did something.

The response to AIDS has significance outside the field of health policy. While the story is of course marked by enormous personal tragedy, it is also optimistic. There is no doubt about the transformative effect of concerted scientific research on an international scale. Today the infection is not a death sentence in Britain, where the NHS supplies free of charge the latest drug treatments on the basis of clinical need.

AIDS is therefore unique in the recent history of science in the way it combined public health provision with science and activism. This co-operation may not always have been comfortable but worked to great effect and for the benefit of the public.

Learned societies should take note that it was the community that led the scientific response to AIDS, not the research councils, or the UK’s government departments and quangos. That is not to criticise the ‘official’ agencies, but to observe that they could not possibly carry the entire burden.

Presented with a second HIV, or other unexpected threat to our health and wellbeing, what would that ‘policy community’ look like? We would do well to anticipate this as we scan the horizon for upcoming issues.

Learned societies can supply the kind of calibrated, evidence-based and independent information that was sought in the early days of the AIDS crisis, and which remains vital to this day. Bringing together diverse groups is something that learned societies should also do well, acting as ‘boundary organisations’ that bridge the gaps and help build a community.

Most importantly, we have a well-educated and often well-connected membership. And unlike anyone else, scientists are armed with the laboratories and the technical knowledge to take direct action.

With the potential to coordinate, influence and enable, it is perhaps a moral imperative for learned societies to organise themselves around the problems that face their communities and the wider public. With major global challenges ahead, we must act now to ensure our networks are primed to mobilise and tackle the emerging issues associated with a changing planet and an increasing population.

William is Policy Officer for the Society for General Microbiology. Nancy is Communications Manager for the Society for Applied Microbiology.