Venerable institute gets a refit

Britain's Royal Institution reopens for business.

Credit: M. BROWN

The oldest independent research body in the world, Britain's Royal Institution, has been committed since 1799 to “diffusing science for the common purposes of life”. But some of the common purposes of life have changed in the past two centuries.

Visitors to the Royal Institution in London's Albemarle Street — which was once so besieged by carriages attending the popular scientific lectures that it was made the city's first one-way street — now require a more modern, broader variety of engagement, the Royal Institution's director believes. The palatial building, which has hosted exciting events such as the discovery of sodium and potassium by Humphrey Davy and electromagnetic induction by Michael Faraday, became run down and dilapidated over time.

So, time for a change. This week, after a £22-million (US$44-million) refurbishment, the building — part public venue, part research laboratory — reopened to acclaim. A two-year restoration project to preserve the historic fabric of the building has seen major changes to public access and facilities. A café, bar and a hologram of Faraday now greet visitors to an institution that once struggled to offer the public so much as a cup of tea.

The aim, according to director Susan Greenfield, “is to position the Royal Institution at the centre of twenty-first-century society, where science will take its proper place at the heart of all our lives”. Greenfield will retain her private apartment at the top of the building, a privilege of institution directors.

Credit: M. BROWN

The Royal Institution is perhaps best known for its Christmas lectures, annual science talks for children that were started by Faraday in 1826 and reach a worldwide audience. But the institution is in a rare position of combining public engagement in science with a tradition of world-class research that has seen the discovery of ten chemical elements and bagged 14 Nobel prizes. A new team will soon settle into the institution's Davy–Faraday Research Laboratory (DFRL), where scientists pioneered X-ray crystallography and the vacuum flask.

Greenfield, a neuroscientist who was appointed director in 1998, four years after becoming the first woman to deliver the Christmas lectures, has brought a new vision to the Royal Institution and increased the 'public engagement' operations. The constituency attending its events is now much wider than the academic and old-boys' networks of old. A lecture hall and cloakroom no longer suffice. The modern audience demands food, drink, entertainment and education from the same venue.

Architects at Terry Farrell and Partners have redesigned the building to meet these new needs. Walls have been knocked through to make way for a glass atrium and restaurant space. The museum sections of the basement have been refreshed to celebrate the institution's history and heritage. The Faraday lecture theatre, home to the Christmas lectures, is completely refurbished (see left). The venue can even be hired for weddings.

But although public access is improved, the number of scientists in the DFRL has been reduced from 60 to 15. When the site closed for renovation, the laboratory moved temporarily to University College London (UCL). In the intervening two years, the group, headed by Richard Catlow, became “increasingly dependent on UCL's facilities” and has chosen to remain at UCL, a decision that all parties describe as amicable.

But a former member of the laboratory, who wishes to remain anonymous, feels that the research group was increasingly squeezed out in favour of public engagement even before the refurbishments. He questions Greenfield's vision, and whether it was worth the institution selling its property assets to finance the changes. “Greenfield was right, the Royal Institution did need to change. But whether she was right about what it should change into is an open question that will be answered in the coming months,” he says. “The redevelopment has cost the entire £15-million property portfolio and the stakes are extremely high.”

“We want to show that scientists are human too. ”

Last month, Quentin Pankhurst, deputy director of the London Centre for Nanotechnology, was appointed Catlow's successor. As director of the DFRL he will oversee a team of 15 permanent staff, including three principal investigators as well as several PhD students and postdocs. “I want to create a highly interdisciplinary, close-knit unit here,” says Pankhurst, who will retain an affiliation with UCL, which is jointly financing the lab with the Royal Institution. Pankhurst's group will explore health-care biomagnetics, using nanoparticles attached to antibodies to locate and treat cancers — techniques that hark back to Faraday's electromagnetic-induction experiments in the early days.

The group will take up 750 square metres of lab space, roughly a third of that available. The rest will go to small start-up companies not affiliated with the DFRL.

Part of Pankhurst's lab will be on public view. “We want to show that scientists are human too,” he says. “The open lab won't be populated minute-by-minute, but visitors will see Mössbauer and X-ray techniques as and when the scientists use them.”

Pankhurst dismisses concerns that research will play second fiddle to outreach programmes. The Royal Institution's mission statement from 1799 compels it “to facilitate the general introduction of useful inventions and improvements; and to teach…the application of science for the common purposes of life”. According to Pankhurst: “These two aspects, which we might now call technology transfer and public engagement, have been and still are central tenets of the Royal Institution.”

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Brown, M. Venerable institute gets a refit. Nature 453, 568–569 (2008).

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