Since 1799, the Royal Institution of Great Britain has occupied a grand building in London’s Mayfair, surrounded today by luxury shops and private art galleries. For many years, the building was a central part of British science. Michael Faraday dazzled crowds there in the nineteenth century with pyrotechnic displays of chemistry.
In many respects, its address, 21 Albemarle Street, is the Royal Institution (RI) — hence the consternation in the United Kingdom and abroad when The Times newspaper last week reported that the RI building was up for sale. The news was no surprise. The RI has been on the financial ropes for years, lumbered with the costs of a misguided £22-million (US$35-million) refurbishment.
Richard Sykes, the RI’s current chairman, said last week that the charity was likely to be restructured. But the RI, whose property includes a remarkable collection of historic scientific equipment and documents, insists that it will continue its mission to educate and inform the public about science and will not fold.
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.
Happily, there remains a market for science events. People flock to informal venues and to the type of flamboyant entertainment pioneered by Faraday. Cafés Scientifiques have taken off in many countries, and thousands of people attend science festivals in the United Kingdom, elsewhere in Europe and in the United States.
With the future of the RI in severe doubt, those who care about science communication in Britain should take this opportunity to discuss publicly how the landscape should change. And if such efforts fail to be self-sustaining, the RI’s trustees should consider whom to favour with the charity’s collection of historic equipment and other resources.
Here is Nature’s brief guide to the runners and riders, should the RI withdraw from the race. The Royal Society does not have the corporate stomach or skills to take on a substantial increase in science communication and engagement activities. The British Science Association has appointed an ambitious new chief executive, and faces a tough challenge just to develop its annual public meeting into an event with national impact. The Wellcome Trust is strong in the crowded science-outreach field, at least in London, but is focused on biomedicine.
Alongside these, and with a lively pack of mass media, bloggers and tweeters snapping at its heels, the RI seems likely to emerge redundant, whatever happens to its lovely buildings. The institution best positioned to inherit its legacy is the Science Museum, which has invested well in showmanship and online facilities. It has yet to make its mark as a forum of national discussion, but has ambitions to do so. And its headquarters are always crowded with children and adults, and fun to visit, too.
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