Archive for Queen’s Birthday Honours List

A Time for Honours

Posted in Education, Politics, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on June 15, 2013 by telescoper

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. He 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.

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Honours and Admissions

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , on June 18, 2012 by telescoper

Time for a quick comment on the Queen Birthday Honours List for 2012 which, if you’re interested, you can download in full here.

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.

First of all, therefore, let me congratulate space scientist, and occasional commenter on this blog, Professor Monica Grady on her award of a CBE. I also couldn’t resist commenting on the award of a knighthood to the Chair of the Science and Technology Facilities Council

..Professor Michael Sterling, who has turned round the Science and Technology Facilities Council

according to the official government announcement; the emphasis is mine. The phrase “turned around” is an interestingly frank way of putting it, and a refreshing admission from a very high level  that STFC was in disarray under its previous management.

Although I’m happy to see recognition given to such people, as I did last year on this occasion I can’t resist stating my objections to the honours system for the record. 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.

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. 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. Fortunately, having less than a cat in hell’s chance of being nominated, I’m never going to be tempted in that way!

The Value of Honour

Posted in Politics with tags , , , on June 11, 2011 by telescoper

Big news this morning was the release of the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for 2011 which, if you’re interested, you can download in full here. The awards that made the headlines were a knighthood for Bruce Forsyth and gongs for England cricket stars  Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook. A smattering of academics (including an astrophysicist and a particle physicist) were also among those to get invitations to  Buckingham Palace in order to receive honours of various sorts from Her Majesty.

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.

On the other hand, there are several things about the system that make me extremely uncomfortable. 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.

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 perversion.

Worse still is the dishing out of gongs to political cronies, washed-up ministers, and various sorts of government hangers-on. An example of the latter is the knighthood awarded to Steve Smith, Chair of Universities UK, who stated, apparently without humorous intent,

Normally the UUK president gets a knighthood in the summer after they finish, so I was expecting it – in the sense that you ever expect these things – in July next year.

I read this as meaning

Usually the UUK president is rewarded for being a spineless government lackey after they’ve finished, but I’ve been such a brilliant spineless government lackey I’m getting my reward early.

Although the honours system has opened up a little bit over the last decade or so, to me it remains a sinister institution that attempts to legitimise the self-serving nature of its patronage by throwing the odd bone to individuals outside the establishment. I don’t intend any disrespect to the individuals who have earned their knighthoods, MBEs, OBEs, CBEs or whatnot. I just think they’re being rewarded with tainted currency.

And that’s even before you take into account the award of a knighthood to the loathsome homophobic spiv Brian Souter. Well, I mean. Does anyone really think it’s an honour to be in the same club as him? I find it deeply offensive that he could  have been considered an appropriate person to be on the list. If you feel the way I do, please sign the petition here.

There. I’ve said it. Bang goes my knighthood.