Royal Institution faces cash crisis

Overspend threatens to curtail science outreach activities.

The Royal Institution of Great Britain, once home to historical figures such as Michael Faraday and Lawrence Bragg, has survived since 1799 and is the world's oldest scientific research organization. But it now faces a financial crisis that could bring its 200-year reign to an end.

The institute offers a rare blend of research and outreach, says Richard Catlow, who headed its Davy Faraday Research Laboratory from 1998 to 2007. In the United Kingdom, it is well known for its annual Christmas lectures, a series of high-profile lectures aimed at the general public that are televised nationwide.

“Discussions about the role of the director of the Royal Institution are currently taking place. , ”

But it depends on fundraising and membership for money, and has faced financial difficulties in the past. In 2004 the institution ran up a deficit of £400,000 (US$650,000), according to a 2005 financial statement filed with the Charities Commission, which regulates charities in England and Wales. In 2006, its director, Susan Greenfield, a University of Oxford neuroscientist known for her high media profile, began a £22-million refurbishment of its headquarters in central London, intended to make it a more attractive venue to hire out for conferences and public events. To help pay for the work, the research staff was cut from 60 to just 15, drawing criticism from some scientists (see Nature 453, 568–569; 2008).

The project also ran behind schedule and over budget. Fundraising was hampered by the recession, and the institution was forced to dip into its endowment and other 'restricted funds'. By September 2008, it had spent £3.2 million designated for other activities, including the Christmas lecture programme, according to the latest financial statement to the Charities Commission, dated 29 September 2009.

Last week, The Guardian newspaper reported that Greenfield was being asked to take a pay cut — and reduce the scope of her role — to help make up for the shortfall. The institution declined to comment to Nature, saying only that "discussions about the role of the director of the Royal Institution are currently taking place between the board of trustees and the current director".

Chris Rofe, a former administrator at London's Science Museum and the Millennium Dome, was brought in this April to oversee fundraising and financial accountability. The Charities Commission audit acknowledged that a plan was in place to see the organization through to late 2011 and gradually repay the money spent from restricted funds. But it added: "By their very nature, there is a significant uncertainty as to whether these projections will be achieved."

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Brumfiel, G. Royal Institution faces cash crisis. Nature 462, 833 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/462833a

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