February 4, 2005
English professor Royal Society's first female president
Dr. Patricia Demers intends to reinvigorate society
by Geoff McMaster
Induction into the Royal Society of Canada is still considered the highest academic honour among scientists and scholars in the country. But the society has an image problem, says president-elect Dr. Patricia Demers. It's seen by some as an "elitist anachronism" and badly needs an extreme makeover to usher it into the 21st century.
The good news, however, is that some 95 per cent of its membership agrees, so the timing couldn't be better.
"What we want to do more than anything is make the society a vibrant, visible, vocal and acceptable component of Canadian scholarly, scientific activity," says Demers, who won't take the helm until next November but has already been fully involved in the society's reformulation under current president Gilles Paquet.
"We're planning to transform the academy structure so that it better represents the realities of the world in which we live."
Demers was elected the society's first woman president last November, joining only a handful of scholars from the West. Most of those have been from the University of Alberta, including the U of A's first president, Henry Marshall Tory in the 1940s and geologist Robert Folinsbee in the 1970s.
"When I was cleaning out my closet over the holidays, I came upon Tory's address to the society in 1941, and I think it's remarkable," said Demers. "He's the person who suggested the annual symposia as a way for science and literature or the arts to talk to one another."
Demers is also one of only a small number of humanists elected as president in the society's history. First inducted in 2000, she has spent two terms as honorary editor, has been a member of the executive and serves on the council of Academy 2 (arts and humanities).
"She is a Renaissance woman," said Paquet of Demers' appointment. "The fact that her work ranges all over - from children's literature to biblical hermeneutics to humanities research - means she is better able to appreciate the range of things we have from classics to nuclear physics."
Paquet also credits Demers with a capacity for "intellectual even-handedness," a strong knowledge of tri-council political machinations from having served as vice-president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and a "sympathy to change."
The Royal Society was founded in 1882 by the governor-general of the day, the Marquis of Lorne, to "promote learning and scholarship in the arts and sciences." It has traditionally elected to its membership those who have distinguished themselves nationally and internationally as scholars in the arts, humanities and sciences.
Today, however, its members recognize that the society needs to be "more representative of geographical regions, disciplinary diversity and interdisciplinary activity - the kind of hybridity that we notice in the academy today," says Demers.
First and foremost, Demers and her colleagues would like to see greater representation of artists among its membership, those who have long been neglected as valid contributors to learning and scholarship in Canada. There are currently only about 40 artists in a total membership of about 1,750. "We have to be much more flexible in understanding CVs from people who work in fields entirely different from our own."
In the works are some high-profile inductions next fall of some of Canada's greatest artists in fields such as film, music, painting, poetry and architecture. Although Demers would not divulge any names, she advises to think of who first comes to mind, and they'll probably be up for consideration. When the number of those inducted reaches "critical mass," said Paquet, in about two years, they will then be in a position to form a division of their own, inducting other outstanding artists.
The society's academy structure is also under heavy revision. The old system of three academies - one for francophone "letters et sciences humaines," another for English arts and humanities and a third for science - will be replaced by three new academies, all of them bilingual. The first will be devoted to arts and humanities, the second to social sciences, and the third will remain the academy of science (which transcends linguistic boundaries).
There may also be a name change coming, to reflect the society's Canadian identity, "so that we're not simply a colonial adjunct," said Demers, adding that it is important to remember that the society is not simply a group of honorees who "accept the post-nomial and walk away," she adds. Those who take fellowship seriously contribute to a number of society initiatives, from symposia on some of the most pressing public policy issues of the day, to fostering and promoting international research partnerships.
Demers will also continue tackling the long-standing problem of gender imbalance, which is slowly improving, she said. "When I look around the room at times at the AGM and see all the grey hair and beards, I do wonder if change is a possibility, but I also recognize within that cohort there is a palpable hunger for change."
Of some 1,740 members, only about 30 - 35 per cent are female, but there is now a subcommittee for the advancement of women, another to which Demers has devoted her time.
"And I must say, I'm really excited about the possibility of talking to and working with our incoming (U of A) president (Dr. Indira Samarasekera), who is a distinguished member of Academy 3."