A Time for Honours

The word “honour” provides a (tenuous) link between yesterday’s post and this one. After our recent preoccupation with the classification of honours for graduating students (i.e. first class, second class, and so on), today’s news included the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for 2013, which you can download in full here. To make up for the lack of recycling going on in Brighton these days because of the strike that started yesterday, I thought I’d recycle my thoughts from previous years.

The honours system must appear extremely curious to people from outside the United Kingdom. It certainly seems so to me. On the one hand, I am glad that the government has a mechanism for recognising the exceptional contributions made to society by certain individuals. Musicians, writers, sportsmen, entertainers and the like generally receive handsome financial rewards, of course, but that’s no reason to begrudge a medal or two in recognition of the special place they occupy in our cultural life.  It’s  good to see scientists recognized too, although they tend not to get noticed so much by the press.

The name that stood out for me in this year’s list is Professor Jim Hough, who gets an OBE. Jim is Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Glasgow, and his speciality is in the detection of gravitational waves.  Gravitational waves haven’t actually been detected yet, of course, but the experimental techniques designed to find them have increased their sensitivity by many orders of magnitude in recent years, Jim having played a large part in those improvements. I imagine he will be absolutely thrilled in February 2016, when gravitational waves are finally detected. Jim is also Chief Executive of the Scottish University Physics Alliance, which does so much to nurture Physics and Astronomy North of the Border.

Although I’m of course more than happy to see recognition given to such people, as I did  a couple of years ago I can’t resist stating my objections to the honours system again. One is that the list of recipients  of certain categories of award is overwhelmingly dominated by career civil servants, for whom an “honour”  goes automatically with a given rank. If an honour is considered an entitlement in this way then it is no honour at all, and in fact devalues those awards that are  given on merit to people outside the Civil Service. Civil servants get paid for doing their job, so they should have no more expectation of an additional reward than anyone else. There’s much more honour in a  student who earns a First Class degree than for a career civil servant who gets a knighthood.

Honours have relatively little monetary value on their own, of course so this is not question of financial corruption. An honour does, however, confer status and prestige on the recipient so what we have is a much more subtle form of sleaze. One wonders how many names listed in the current roll of honours are there because of political donations, for example.

I wouldn’t accept an honour myself, but that’s easy to say because I’m sure I’ll never be nominated for one; hopefully this post will dissuade anyone from even thinking of nominating me for a gong. However, I imagine that even people like me who are against the whole system are probably still tempted to accept such awards when offered, as they generate good publicity for one’s field, institution and colleagues.It’s a very personal decision and I have no criticism to make of people who think differently from me about whether to accept an honour.

One Response to “A Time for Honours”

  1. […] prescience is not only limited to politics, however. In my 2013 post about the Queen’s Birthday Honours List you will […]

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