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!