In 1663, a group of savants formed a London club to discuss "useful knowledge." John Milton's "Areopagitica" was very much on the minds of those early scientists, for it warned that Puritan control of the press could turn into state control of thought. Dissent could get you killed in Restoration England, at sword's point if gentlemen took umbrage, or on the gallows if it traduced royal policy or Holy Writ. So they were mighty relieved when King Charles II agreed to join them, for, with such a patron, Fellows of the Royal Society would not fear for their necks or purses when speaking truth to power or questioning authority-at least not until today.
The Royal Society's view of the conflict between authority and evidence is made clear by its motto. Nullius in Verba is Latin shorthand for what Harry Truman meant when he said "I'm from Missouri. Show me." It's a notion the full quote from Horace-- Nullius addictus judicare in verba magestri expands into the gold standard of object- ivity: "Not compelled to swear to any master's words."
In political terms that translates into : don't let policy proceed from mere perceptions of authority. Abroad, the Royal Society shares the outrage of American scientists at pious politicians seeking to constrain stem cell research funding. But at home the Royal Society seems bent on stopping research at odds with the environmental agenda of the Labor Party.