Up to 60 new Fellows (FRS), honorary (HonFRS) and foreign members (ForMemRS) are elected annually in late April or early May, from a pool of around 700 proposed candidates each year. New Fellows can only be nominated by existing Fellows for one of the fellowships described below:
Every year, up to 52 new Fellows are elected from the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth of Nations which make up around 90% of the society. Each candidate is considered on their merits and can be proposed from any sector of the scientific community. Fellows are elected for life on the basis of excellence in science and are entitled to use the post-nominal letters FRS.
Every year, Fellows elect up to ten new Foreign Members. Like Fellows, Foreign Members are elected for life through peer review on the basis of excellence in science. As of 2016, there are around 165 Foreign Members, who are entitled to use the post-nominal ForMemRS.
The election of new fellows is announced annually in May, after their nomination and a period of peer-reviewed selection.
Each candidate for Fellowship or Foreign Membership is nominated by two Fellows of the Royal Society (a proposer and a seconder), who sign a certificate of proposal. Previously, nominations required at least five fellows to support each nomination by the proposer, which was criticised for supposedly establishing an old-boy network and elitist gentlemen's club. The certificate of election (see for example) includes a statement of the principal grounds on which the proposal is being made. There is no limit on the number of nominations made each year. In 2015, there were 654 candidates for election as Fellows and 106 candidates for Foreign Membership.
The Council of the Royal Society oversees the selection process and appoints 10 subject area committees, known as Sectional Committees, to recommend the strongest candidates for election to the Fellowship. The final list of up to 52 Fellowship candidates and up to 10 Foreign Membership candidates is confirmed by the Council in April and a secret ballot of Fellows is held at a meeting in May. A candidate is elected if he or she secures two-thirds of votes of those Fellows present and voting.
A maximum of 18 Fellowships can be allocated to candidates from Physical Sciences and Biological Sciences; and up to 10 from Applied Sciences, Human Sciences and Joint Physical and Biological Sciences. A further maximum of 6 can be ‘Honorary’, ‘General’ or ‘Royal’ Fellows. Nominations for Fellowship are peer reviewed by sectional committees, each with 15 members and a chair. Members of the 10 sectional committees change every 3 years to mitigate in-group bias, each group covers different specialist areas including:
New Fellows are admitted to the Society at a formal admissions day ceremony held annually in July, when they sign the Charter Book and the Obligation which reads:"We who have hereunto subscribed, do hereby promise, that we will endeavour to promote the good of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, and to pursue the ends for which the same was founded; that we will carry out, as far as we are able, those actions requested of us in the name of the Council; and that we will observe the Statutes and Standing Orders of the said Society. Provided that, whensoever any of us shall signify to the President under our hands, that we desire to withdraw from the Society, we shall be free from this Obligation for the future".
In addition to the main Fellowships of the Royal Society (FRS, ForMemRS & HonFRS), other fellowships are available which are applied for by individuals, rather than through election. Holders of these fellowships are known as Royal Society Research Fellows.
Royal Society Leverhulme Trust Senior Research Fellowships are for scientists who would benefit from a period of full-time research without teaching and administrative duties, supported by the Leverhulme Trust.
Newton Advanced Fellowships provide established international researchers with an opportunity to develop the research strengths and capabilities of their research group. Provided by the Newton Fund via the official development assistance
Industry Fellowships are for academic scientists who want to work on a collaborative project with industry and for scientists in industry who want to work on a collaborative project with an academic organisation.
Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships are for outstanding scientists in the UK at an early stage of their research career who require a flexible working pattern due to personal circumstances. These fellowships are named after Dorothy Hodgkin.