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What now for the Royal Institution?

Tom Feilden | 09:58 UK time, Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Baroness Greenfield

So the members of the Royal Institution - or at least 81% of the 650 present at last night's meeting - have voted in favour of the Council, and against a proposal that would have lead to the reinstatement of Baroness Susan Greenfield as Director.

On the face of it, a ringing endorsement for the RI's chairman, Adrian de Ferranti. In a statement issued shortly after the meeting the Council said:

"We are delighted with the result and extremely pleased the members have given their support to the Council and staff. Now we can focus on bringing back the much-needed financial stability and strong scientific leadership that this great institution deserves."

The RI's need for financial stability is acute. During her 12 years at the helm Baroness Greenfield oversaw a £22 million renovation of the institution's 18th century Mayfair headquarters - complete with restaurant and bar - which was largely funded by selling off its property portfolio.

The results may look spectacular, but the restaurant and bar have failed to draw in the crowds, and the facelift - which included the refurbishment of the Director's grace-and-favour flat - has saddled one of the country's oldest and most distinguished scientific institution's with a crippling £2million operating deficit.

But it's the solution the RI came up with - to abolish the role of Director, and make Baroness Greenfield redundant - that has caused all the trouble, culminating in last night's vote.

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One former trustee, now chairwoman of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, Professor Lisa Jardine, said the RI had effectively decapitated itself.

"The institution has always had a high-profile scientist as its director. To get rid of the post suggests it has decided to commit suicide."

The decision to move forward without such a charismatic figurehead at the helm is a gamble. With rival institutions like the Royal Society, the Wellcome Trust and even the Science Museum all vying promote and popularise the field, the competition to lead British science into the 21st century is intense.

It has to be said that if aliens landed in central London tomorrow and demanded to be taken to our scientific leaders, it's unlikely that they would be lead up Albemarle street to the impressive Georgian façade of the Royal Institution.

The argument will continue over whether Baroness Greenfield's attempt to turn the RI into a "Groucho club" for science was misguided, but it's hard to see what role the institution can carve out for itself without a charismatic, high-profile scientist - a Humphry Davy or Michael Faraday - to provide the "strong scientific leadership" the Council claims it deserves.


  • Comment number 1.

    This was actually covered in the debate last night during the Special General Meeting at which I was present. Prof Peter Day (a former Director) suggested that the Royal Institution recruit a leading scientist in a similar role to other organisations, for example as a Vice President. This was accepted by the Chairman and is likely to be implemented in some form.


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