The Royal Institution of Great Britain is under threat. Or rather, the home of the Royal Institution is under threat. At 3pm on Friday Roger Highfield wrote a tweet that sent many in the science world into a panic: “End of an era. The wonderful, historic Royal Institution is up for sale”. Rumours and demands for more information echoed out but there were few answers to be had. Chairman of the Royal Institution, Sir Richard Sykes later released a statement confirming that the RI would be looking for a new partnership and would be exploring the possibility of selling off all or part of their Grade I listed home.
To understand what this means to science and to individuals we have to understand what the RI and its building mean. The Royal institution of Great Britain was founded in 1799 and gained its royal charter the following year. So while Napoleon rose to power; as the Rosetta stone was uncovered; a group of Britain’s leading scientists were coming together to set up an Institution for “diffusing knowledge for the common purposes of life” a phrase still found in their charter today.
There was something unique to the place even then. They had some radical ideas. They decided that education was not just for the societal elite but for everyone. They wanted to throw their doors open and educate every man, woman and child. A lovely anecdote floated in science communication says that the RI was the home of the science rebels. A place for those seen as a little too daring or risqué for the other established society to gather. It worked.
The RI quickly became a hub for not only great science but a place of public spectacle and curiosity. The Institution has been home to the discovery of no less than 10 elements and 14 Nobel prizes have been awarded to individuals associated with it. Word of the great feats at the RI caught the public imagination. Indeed the events proved so popular that the Street which houses the iconic building, Albemarle Street, was turned into London’s first one way street to ease congestion caused by traffic on lecture days.
No mention of the RI is complete without mention of its biggest public success- the Christmas lectures. Established in 1825 by Michael Faraday these were designed for the scientific education of young minds, a rare project indeed in the 1800s. The success and importance of these lectures cannot be underestimated. I still remember my first ever Christmas lecture in 1998 by Nancy Rothwell. The lectures have been nationally broadcast since 1966 giving children everywhere the chance to see the wonder that is science. To see it come alive and to see the passion and the drive of the leaders in the field. In comparison to the schools scientific curriculum in the 60s this must have seen like another world. These all too place in the iconic Faraday lecture theatre. It is a great horse shoe normally furnished in the centre solely by a large, old, valuable and familiar desk.
So what went wrong? They have a difficult task. The RI is a charity and it has always reached for the most ambitious of goals and sought to bring all things science to as many and as possible. In 2005 massive refurbishment got underway. It aimed to great a stylish multipurpose space and to restore sections of the building to its former glory. Unfortunately the gamble didn’t pay off. The bookings failed to arrive. The bad economic climate lead to heavy losses and the RI was forced to sell off some of its assets. It also led to the debacle that was the sacking of the director Susan Greenfield.
Now we are faced with the loss of this site which is of national importance. But why should we care? I’m not a sentimental guy. I have binned all my baby shoes that my mother saved to show me. Report cards and prizes from school are long since gone. If it no longer serves a purpose I will get rid of it and not mourn the loss. Yet a large part of me wants the RI saved and kept the way it is.
The RI has a glorious past. It is a beautiful building with an atmosphere created by the history which still resonates in the halls of the place. For me the building's heart is the Faraday Lecture Theatre, home of the Christmas lectures. As a boy I watched it on TV longing to be in the audience. As an adolescent I sat in the audience and longed to hold the stage, as an adult I even managed realize this dream when I was in the UK final of Famelab. The horseshoe lecture theater has stood through the years, listening to the likes of Michael Faraday, H. G. Wells, Marie Curie and David Attenbourgh. Could we stand the loss of this? Would the Queen still hold the same mystique if she worked out of a large warehouse in the docklands? Could we turn 10 Downing Street into a hotel for celebrities and move the PM into more modest offices? Things just wouldn’t be the same.
History is all well and good but history alone is not enough. The modern RI has proved itself worthy of saving. Minus their financial crisis the RI is alive and well. One can admonish HMV or Blockbuster for not moving with the times and thus going the way of the dinosaurs but we cannot fault the RI on this front. One of the most impressive achievements in recent years was the launch of the Ri Channel. This brings together a staggering volume of material all free to watch. This includes previous Christmas lectures; demonstrations and discussions as well as material collected from around the world. The institution also holds well over 100 events a year and continues their mission to make science for everyone. In fact they welcome anyone to become a member- there is no nomination or qualification requirements.
The Christmas lectures also continue their success. The December screenings brought the highest viewing figures of all the digital channels, the second lecture attracting in the region of 750,000 viewers. This year also saw the lectures being particularly interactive, during the BBC 4 screenings they quickly became top trending subjects on twitter. The lectures were brought to life as the lecturer, the institution and the production team tweeted and chatted along with the show. The quality of the lectures are always assured and 8 previous Christmas lectures are to be found in the ‘The Times Eureka Top 100 most important contemporary figures in British Science’ .
Some may think that the RI is now purely a body for engaging the public with science but even this is not the case. The RI still houses the world’s oldest independent working laboratory. Headed up by Prof Quentin Pankhurst the group of physicists, chemists and engineers continue to publish respected work particularly in the field of nanotechnology.
The fully refurbished building itself stands testament to its continued drive forward. I was surprised and delighted to find charging stations for electric cars lined outside the front doors.
The RI’s journey is far from over. True it faces uncertain times but after enduring over 200 years it has developed a devoted and fanatical fanbase. In the worst case the RI may have to swing its cloth bag over its shoulder and look for a new home. Wherever that may be I have no doubt that its spirit will endure. Hopefully it will not come to this and we will continue with the proud traditions started by Faraday and friends in the hallowed halls so long ago. I hope another 200 years the leading scientist of the day will be setting up a somewhat silly but scientifically accurate demonstration to the delight of children across the country.
Meetings are taking place; the sparks of campaigns are being fostered. All may not be lost but there are uncertain times ahead. This beautiful icon of science, history and education may yet be saved. Only time will tell.
Jamie Gallagher Jan 2013