Save the RI – my two-pennies’ worth…

Detail of a lithograph of Michael Faraday delivering a Christmas lecture at the Royal Institution

Last night, Professor Jim Al- Khalili tweeted:

This is the latest support for the Royal Institution in response to the announcement that its historic building on Albemarle Street may need to be sold due to a dire financial situation.

Many have written excellent blogs about why they believe the Royal Institution’s building should be saved (I recommend that you read Jamie Gallagher’s superb blog on the subject). I initially resisted the urge to blog on the subject, but the Nature editorial that appeared on the Tuesday has pushed me to put in my two-pennies’ worth. In particular, the following passage:

In many ways, the RI is a victim of the trend it pioneered. When the charity started out in 1799, science itself was a novelty. What would now be deemed ‘science outreach’ was even more so. Albemarle Street became London’s first one-way street, to deal with the crowds that headed there. Now, nearly every university encourages its academics to push their research to the public, and science communication itself has become a career.

Perhaps more importantly, people who wish to be informed about a topic no longer need to sit in an uncomfortable seat and listen to a lecture by an éminence grise. While the RI resolutely championed this formal mode of engagement, the rest of the world has moved on. The vectors of knowledge are the Internet and mass media, not refined public meeting rooms. In its defence, the RI has made some attempt to modernize, but it is still known to most people as the place with the famous old (and very steep) lecture theatre.

I actually agree with some parts of this passage – however, I agree, as Professor Mark Miodownik, who gave the Christmas Lectures in 2010, wrote in the comments section that, the overall article “misses the point about the Royal Institution completely.”

So what do I agree with? I agree that the RI needs to rethink its role in the modern world, and, in particular, in the ever-growing and evolving science communication world. As with any historic institution change has been slow despite recent drives to modernise and diversify. However, the suggestion that the rest of the world has moved on from engaging the public with science through lectures is simply not true. Mark Miodownik continued in his comment to sum it up perfectly, “It is one of the very few places in the world where you get tingle at the back of your neck by sitting in a lecture theatre.

Like many, I have fond memories of going to a Christmas lecture with my school. Since then I have grown to fully appreciate the role that the Royal Institution, and the building in which it now resides, has played. It has not only shaped UK and international science, but it has been fundamental in shaping the world in which we live. The building holds equal status with Britain’s historic and cultural buildings and monuments, and should not be sold.

Once again, I borrow from Mark’s fantastic comment on the Nature editorial:

Science and engineering history were made in that actual place, it is not a museum. It is the real thing. However great the Science Museum is, it cannot compete on this intellectual terrain. The Royal Institution is one of the most significant places in the history of science. It’s part of our shared culture, our shared greatness, our shared heritage. If we lose the building, we lose part of ourselves, and I am sad that Nature doesnt get the importance of this.

These thoughts were echoed by many in the comments that followed, including by Professor Bruce Hood, who gave the Christmas Lectures in 2011.

So to sum up… I believe that the RI may need to evaluate the role it plays in modern science communication but the loss of Albemarle Street would be the loss of part of our cultural and intellectual heritage.

It’s sale, quite simply, cannot be permitted.

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