What can you tell me about the Royal Institution? First, it is an ineluctable part of the alphabet soup that is British science in its pomp. British Association? British Science Association? Royal Society? As science journalist Tom Wilkie once said, you need to know these things. Royal Association? Never heard of it. British Academy? Yes. Royal Academy? No, that one’s for artists.
OK, the Royal Institution – of Great Britain, to give it its full and glorious title. There are four things you might want to know. It was set up in 1799 and got its Royal Charter a year later. It has given house room to many top scientists (Davy, Faraday, Porter). It occupies a lovely edifice in central London, handy for the poshest of posh shops. And they do those great Christmas lectures, although these now appear on higher-numbered TV channels than of yore.
So what is it? In principle, the RI is a place for science in central London. Hard to argue with that as a mission. It does terrific events, and those I have worked on have been facilitated by great staff. But as someone active in this world, it is a not-many-times-a-year event for me to be there. I tend to slope along to something at the Royal Society, Wellcome, the Science Museum, a university, or some specific learned society far more often. (The Dana Centre is a story for another day.) The RI is in a competitive business and has an unimpressive market share.
In a bid to buy itself a future, the RI has invested in the facilities it needs to fulfil its Victorian role as a venue for the scientific salon in the 21st century. This has cost money and the RI is millions of pounds below water. This is a poor show for a body whose lecture theatre was depicted on banknotes till recently.
To the management, the solution is dead easy. Although I was once told that the RI building was held on the balance sheet at a stupidly low price because it can never be sold, nothing is for ever. The West End of London does not have property price recessions, and the building may now be worth £60 million. So the RI could sell it and move, maybe joining some body with a similar mission. Or it might be feasible to sell it and lease it back. But while it is easy to imagine moneybags organisations in roughly this business (Gates?), the RI may not be cool enough for cutting-edge new moneymakers and the organisations they fund.
Either way, the idea of a sale has produced a rare fluttering among UK science’s equivalent of the retired colonels. There have been comparisons with the destruction of the plays of Sophocles, disproving all that nonsense about the two cultures. Oh, and with Taliban monument-destruction, a stupid and insulting analogy. There is much talk of “saving” the RI, but far less about “getting the RI £60 million so it can take control of its future.”
My own take on this is that if the RI is so fragile that it cannot exist in a new setting, we should let it go. After 215 years, its values and ethos ought to be tough enough to manage a move.
In practice, it is predictable that some middle way will be found. Maybe the scientists who still work there will move to University College or some other venue, allowing the traditionalists to fume and the space to be used more sensibly. But if the RI carries on as it is, it will at some point become a forced seller of its building in less favourable circumstances than prevail today. The RI trustees and management know this and should be applauded for facing up to their responsibilities. In the past, their predecessors have fluffed ideas such as a rationalisation with the British Science Association. Let’s hope more incisive thinking prevails this time.