Long Live the Royal Institution of Great Britain!

Francis Sedgemore, Friday 25 January 2013 at 16:57 UTC

Mismanaged since time immemorial, and sabotaged by a director who for her manifold sins was defenestrated, leading to a potentially expensive legal settlement, the Royal Institution of Great Britain (Ri) is in trouble once again. Massive debts have left the trustees with no option but to put the swanky Mayfair HQ at 21 Albemarle Street up for sale with a price tag of £60m.

Cue massed wailing and gnashing of teeth across the land from science luminaries, a petition calling on government to buy the Regency building “for the nation”, and indignant letters to newspaper editors from the chattering classes of London.

A few brave souls have stuck their heads above the parapet to call for calm and question the demand for taxpayers’ money to be thrown at the Ri. The institution can survive, they say, but it has to move with the times. Given that the Ri is a century or more behind the times, it must do considerably more than keep up, but I tend to agree with the sentiments expressed in testy tones by scientist and Guardian blogger Martin Robbins, and more level-headedly by Liberal Democrat peer and former parliamentary science committee chairman Phil Willis.

I care very much about the Ri’s history, but its legacy is not dependent on a central London building that for many years has been haemorrhaging cash. This fact seems to be lost on those demanding that something be done. Take, for example, the comments following an editorial in Nature which quite reasonably calls on the Ri to “evolve”….

“If we lose the building we lose part of ourselves,…”

“…certain things are sacred. The RI is one of them.”

Another commenter, Bruce Hood, who delivered the Ri Christmas lectures in 2011, referred to a feature article in Nature on the importance of rituals and sacred values in shaping human evolution. Indeed, but ritual and magic exists and can only survive in a state of social and cultural flux.

Hood wrote that selling 21 Albemarle Street would be…

“…tantamount to extinguishing Faraday’s candle forever.”

How silly. As someone who regularly passes Michael Faraday’s hut on Trinity Buoy Wharf, I can tell you that all it would take to extinguish his candle is a little puff of wind. And the gruff old Sandemanian would then relight his taper without giving it a second thought.

Nothing is set in stone, and the narrative changes from generation to generation, all the time adapting to circumstance. The philosophical falsehoods of logical positivism have clearly affected the ability of some people in the scientific community to think clearly, and that long after the errant ideas lost their intellectual credibility.

Someone else mentioned the millions shelled out to rescue a Titian painting from export. I was a little miffed with that move, but I shall be even less pleased if we bail out the Ri. I just hope that its trustees can salvage something from the mess. If the Ri really is more than just a building, it will survive the loss of 21 Albemarle Street, iconic though the building be.

The Ri is not dependent on its Mayfair address, and it doesn’t even need to remain in London. There are plenty of places in the British Isles that could host a 21st century Royal Institution, and there are many examples of innovative UK science outreach projects from which it could learn.

The venerable old BBC recently moved much of its programme making from London to Salford near Manchester. It certainly wasn’t the end of the world for the Beeb, although the sound energy in the whinging at the time, if harnessed and converted into electricity, would have met the needs of a small market town far distant from Regency London.

Public lectures hosted by the Ri are a very good thing, but few living outside London are likely to visit Albemarle Street. Echoing Willis, our drive as science communicators should be the further development of regional centres of excellence.

If the Ri must stay in London, for whatever reason, it could surely find a home in the Olympic Park in Stratford. There is plenty of space there, with easy road access and public transport options.

Legacy and sustainability, I really think that.

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