A 2010 report from the society urged the government to invest in science, education and innovation to fuel economic development. It generated much press. But the global economic downturn thrust a dagger to the heart of its most ambitious proposals.

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Yet doubt of a more genteel sort lingers even among members. A current society fellow, an evolutionary biologist of fine repute who asked not to be quoted by name, says he greatly enjoys the conversation at the society’s dinners (he fortifies himself for the rounds of wine and port by drinking a quart of milk beforehand). But ask if the organization has much effect on the intellectual battles that roil his discipline, and he shakes his head.

“I can’t say that the society is a great presence in my field,” he says. “It’s a challenge: How do you muck your way through and remain relevant?”

At the beginning, the question facing society fellows was more elemental: How to challenge a worldview in place for thousands of years?

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