Pope Benedict XVI has appointed Swiss microbiologist Werner Arber as the new president of the Vatican's scientific advisory body, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Arber, a Protestant, becomes the first non-Catholic to head the organization, which has roots dating back to the early 17th century. He succeeds Italian physicist Nicola Cabibbo, who died in August last year.
The academy is designed to keep the church up to date with the latest scientific advances and so help it avoid making the kind of errors that brought it into conflict with science in the past. Set up in its present form by Pope Pius XI in 1936, it consists of 80 distinguished scientists, both men and women, who have a variety of religious affiliations or are nonreligious and who include a significant number of Nobel Prize winners.
Arber, 81, of the University of Basel shared the Nobel Prize in 1978 for his discovery of restriction enzymes, proteins that cut genes into fragments and whose understanding could help combat hereditary diseases and cancer. He has been a member of the academy for 30 years, the last 15 of which have seen him serving on the body's council. He says he doesn't intend to make many changes to the running of the organization, maintaining that it succeeds in influencing the pope's views on science. He believes that the academy is most effective when its members get together to discuss the big scientific questions that most interest the Vatican, particularly in cosmology and biological evolution, noting that the church no longer adheres to a literalist interpretation of the biblical creation story. "I think that the church has views which are consistent with scientific knowledge," he says.
However, Arber admits that there are certain "taboo" topics for which the academy neither holds debates nor gives advice to the church. These include abortion and contraception. But he maintains that such topics are relatively few in number and points out that the pope has recently sought advice on one fairly delicate subject: the definition of death, or whether death should be defined in terms of what happens to the brain or to the heart.
Astrophysicist Martin Rees, a member of the academy and until recently president of the Royal Society in the U.K., describes Arber as "a very distinguished scientist and very suited to the role." He says that the academy has been effective in the past, particularly in providing advice to the pope on nuclear disarmament, but believes that it has lost its edge in recent years. "It has become less active in political and social issues," he says. "It could be more effective and better engage nonreligious members if its excellent scientific meetings weren't unduly influenced by the church and clerics."