Science & Environment

Does the Royal Institution have a future?

The Royal Institution has been holding its annual Christmas lectures since 1825 Image copyright SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
Image caption The Royal Institution has been holding its annual Christmas lectures since 1825

The Royal Institution (RI) is to auction ninety of its most precious scientific tomes at Christies today in order to balance its financial books. The sale has led to concerns that the revered scientific body is selling off the family silver simply to stay in business.

The sale will include historic first editions by some of the country's leading scientists including Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.

This most revered of scientific bodies was founded in 1799 by a group of gentlemen scientists. Their aim was to create an organisation that would educate and inform the general public.

More than 200 years on has been in financial difficulties - and exists in a world where many other scientific bodies play a similar educational role. It raises the question: what is the RI now for?

It occupies one of the grandest buildings in London in the heart of Mayfair. It was home to some of the most famous scientists of the time including Michael Faraday. Its rooms resounded with scientific discourse and Faraday himself began the RI's now famous Christmas Lectures for young people.

Yet five years ago it underwent a financial crisis which led it to consider selling its premises in 2013. An anonymous donation of £4.4m spared the RI that humiliation. But it was still left with a £2m bank loan to pay off.

This it hopes to do by auctioning off some of the precious medical and natural history books from its historic library. The RI's management hopes the sale, along with leasing part of its building to the jewellers Cartier, will wipe out its debt by April next year.

That will mean that the RI can begin to fundraise and get itself back on track. But even during this dark period, the RI has more than doubled its membership to 5,000 and expanded its digital presence.

Its YouTube channel, which broadcasts its public lectures, has 170,000 subscribers and a worldwide audience of 14 million, according to Prof Gail Cardew, the RI's director of science and education.

Periphery

Another body with a distinguished history in promoting the public understanding of science is the British Science Association (BSA), which was founded in 1831. Like the RI, its role is to make Britain a more scientific nation. But despite the efforts of both bodies over such a long period, science remains at the periphery of the nation's culture.

Image copyright SPL
Image caption The Royal Institution as it was in 1840. Two years ago, its trustees were forced to consider selling this iconic building

The BSA's chief executive, Imran Khan, has decided it is time for a new approach, one that doesn't put science and scientists on a pedestal.

"That is asking for trouble," he says.

"For more people to be involved in science, we have to create a shared understanding of what science is. For instance, it's tempting to see science as fundamentally progressive, an inherently benevolent force.

"But we have to recognise that it can have a dark side as well. This isn't just an issue for scientists; the BSA believes that society as a whole should be able to bear some responsibility for how science is used."

Trust

He went on to say: "a reduction in trust can be beneficial for those involved. In medicine, decades of activism and the prevalence of health information online is forcing greater transparency and improvements in medical practice. Can this approach be extended to the rest of science? Could we have a citizenship that critically questions all of the UK's public institutions, including science?"

Since their inception the BSA and the RI realised that scientists needed the public's consent for scientists to conduct their research. That is more so now with £4.6bn of public money spent each year on science. Education has always been a large part of that. But in recent years there has been an increasing acknowledgement that dialogue is also needed.

Having the conversation

The former president of another revered scientific body, the Royal Society, has recently been talking about having more of a conversation with the public about how research funds are allocated. Sir Paul Nurse, who has recently stepped down from his role at the RS has said that while money should always be directed at the best science, societal concerns and economic priorities should be more of a factor.

It was for this reason he controversially recommended that a committee of ministers should oversee how public money on science is spent.

In many ways, the efforts of Britain's scientific bodies have been successful. There is more interest and engagement in science than there ever has been in the past. But that has brought with it questions, concerns and healthy scepticism.

Now many more organisations, such as the Science Museum and the Wellcome Trust, have boosted their public engagement activities. The appetite for scientific information from the public has never been greater. Stories from the BBC News website's science pages regularly feature as among the most read.

So the role of scientific bodies has if anything expanded since their inception. But now their discourse is with a wider public rather than a metropolitan elite. And their role now is to listen to the public as well as inform.

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