The Royal Society’s embattled director of education resigned last night, days after causing uproar among scientists by appearing to endorse the teaching of creationism.
Michael Reiss, a biologist and ordained Church of England clergyman, agreed to step down from his position with the national academy of science after its officers decided that his comments had damaged its reputation.
His resignation comes after a campaign by senior Royal Society Fellows who were angered by Professor Reiss’s suggestion that science teachers should treat creationist beliefs “not as a misconception but as a world view”.
Sir Richard Roberts, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1993, described such views as outrageous, and organised a letter to the society’s president, Lord Rees of Ludlow, demanding that Professor Reiss be sacked. Phil Willis MP, the chairman of the Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, was due to meet Royal Society officers today to demand an explanation of Professor Reiss’s comments.
The Royal Society stood by the scientist initially, insisting that he had not departed from its official policy and that his remarks had been misinterpreted. Many senior figures, however, felt that Professor Reiss had been naive, at best, to make statements that could easily be seen to back teaching creationism as if it were science, and should not have done so while speaking in his Royal Society role.
The society said in a statement: “Some of Professor Michael Reiss’s recent comments, on the issue of creationism in schools, while speaking as the Royal Society’s director of education, were open to misinterpretation. While it was not his intention, this has led to damage to the society’s reputation. As a result, Professor Reiss and the Royal Society have agreed that, in the best interests of the society, he will step down immediately as director of education — a part-time post he held on secondment. He is to return, full-time, to his position as Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education.”
The resignation has divided scientists and administrators. While some welcomed the move, others felt that Professor Reiss had raised an important point and should have been supported. Lord Winston, Professor of Science and Society at Imperial College, London, who is not a Royal Society Fellow, said: “I fear that the Royal Society may have only diminished itself. This individual was arguing that we should engage with and address public misconceptions about science — something that the Royal Society should applaud.”
The Royal Society said that “creationism has no scientific basis and should not be part of the science curriculum. However, if a young person raises creationism in a science class, teachers should be in a position to explain why evolution is a sound scientific theory and why creationism is not, in any way, scientific.”
Chris Higgins, Vice-Chancellor of Durham University, said: “While I have no doubt that Michael Reiss’s comments have been misinterpreted by parts of the media, I think that the fact that he has generously stood down allows the Royal Society to clarify the robust position on this issue. There should be no room for doubt that creationism is completely unsupportable as a theory.”