Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Royal Institution: Is this Building for the future? (Pod Delusion Ep. 172)

Podcast: Download

Following on from a report in Pod Delusion Episode 171 as to why we should save the Royal Institution, following the story that it was to sell its home in Albemarle St, London, I wanted to present a case on why (primarily from a science communication point of view) we shouldn't - at least - not at any cost.

To get the full flavour of the arguments for and against, here is the advised reading list:
Here is the script (with a touch of advice from @kashfarooq)

On last week’s Pod Delusion, James interviewed Mary Perkins regarding her campaign to save 21 Albemarle Street, the home of the Royal Institution.

I should start by saying that I’m pretty sure the Ri and Albemarle Street will survive - together and intact. Many famous and eminent scientists who I love and respect are fighting for it and it feels odd for me not to be joining them & giving it my support.  

I listened with interest and attentively to Mary’s report but remain entirely unconvinced that saving the current residence of the RI is something I feel  I can support, and in the next few minutes I want to lay out my arguments.

Firstly, we need to separate the argument for saving the RI from the argument for saving its home in Mayfair. The RI’s strapline is “connecting people with the world of science”. A few hundred years ago it may well have been a necessity to have an open access institute where people could come and share their science and research, but today? Who was the last ground-breaking scientist who felt the need to go to Mayfair in London to communicate their ideas with the public - (think of how much of the UK demographic in terms of geography and socio-economics that excludes). Just to be clear, the main issue isn’t about saving the RI. In reality, it seems to me that most of the good work that the RI do could be done more efficiently in a purpose built location.

Here are main reasons that Mary put forward as to why the location needed to be kept:

Faraday Research Labs  - Having a research lab in the one of the most expensive areas in London is not essential. The quality of research would be no different in another part of London or elsewhere in the UK. That’s not to denigrate the awesome work that goes on there, just that if it didn’t happen at Albemarle Street, it would still happen.

The Christmas Lectures – These could be done from anywhere, surely if the RI was genuinely interested in communicating science to kids outside of London they would take it round various UK cities rather than continually hold it in the famous if uncomfortable Faraday Lecture Theatre in wst London.  Even if the RI moved to another location, there is no reason why the lecture theatre couldn’t be painstakingly moved too, for those who feel somewhat religious about it, as if the essence of Faraday is somehow with them in that holy place, in the Cathedral of Science.

Ri Channel – This is collection of online videos of previous Christmas Lectures and the like which by its very definition does not require a giant expensive event space in London. 

These are things that people know the RI for, but none of them rely on the building. Science isn’t the hot topic in the heart of Mayfair, but it is on blogs, tweets, papers and pub meet ups which are happening all over the country without a dusty institute at the helm…

The main proponents for keeping Albemarle St argue from a sense of history and historical scientific value, but I’m not convinced that its place in history alone is enough to warrant survival at any cost. Perhaps a comparison to Bletchley Park is apposite – it was in dire need of funding and came close to collapsing, but successfully negotiated funding from public and private purses, not only out of sense of historic entitlement, but by laying out clearly its plan for the future and its plan for survival.

Secondly, Is the Ri doing what it’s supposed to be doing? My answer is – I’m not sure. I have a PhD, as does my wife yet neither of us during all our combined 3 decades of science education and work life came across the Ri in any format except the Christmas Lectures.  Maybe a sample of 2 is not enough, but I have a hunch we’re not alone. From my experience, UK science hasn’t needed the Ri for decades  - the Ri has continued “to be” but this is all it seems to do. It exists purely with the aim of existing. As if because it can throw some famous names on the table, it has a right to survive at all costs.  It was a once world-renowned important scientific keystone, but how relevant is it today?  If the RI sold off its premises and closed itself down would there be a loss to UK science education? In my opinion, nothing that couldn’t be taken up elsewhere. The main jewel in the RI crown ,The Christmas Lectures, could easily continue without it.

Mary skipped over the finer details of why the RI suddenly finds itself selling off the family silver in order to survive. Baroness Susan Greenfield was director of the RI. You may remember her for having some ideas about 
 "the damage that the gadget-filled, pharmaceutically-enhanced 21st century is doing to our brains."
But ideas were all they were, as she refused to publish any evidence for her ideas, instead using her access to media to promote them and bypass scrutiny. This is completely at odds with the scientific method and how science works - demeans science to the level of untested ideas and uncritical relativism. This from a person who is supposed to be the head of an institute which claims to “connect people with the world of science”. (Have a listen to Episode 96 of the Pod Delusion for more of her antics). Any credible science promotion organisation should have been  embarrassed to have such an opposing force to robust scientific testing at its helm. I guess with Prince Charles as Vice-Patron, the RI has never insisted on their top brass being too on-message. 

Greenfield oversaw a refurbishment (with support of the governing council) of the RI home at cost of £22 million. The idea was to create an “event space” and “a fine dining experience”.  Nothing says inclusivity and the dissemination of science to the public like a fine dining event space in the middle of Mayfair.  As the downturn kicked in, the “event space” didn’t bring the expected cash, and the Ri is now saddled with £7m of debt and can’t currently pay its running costs. Albemarle Street doesn’t need rescuing because of underfunding, it needs it because of a failed renovation involving millions of pounds of charity money. 

So back to Mary’s Pod Delusion piece. She is asking us to sign a petition to get the government to bail out the RI for their risky financial project that went wrong so that it can continue to exist (nothing about the future, just to exist). Having spent the last number of years grumbling about bank bailouts, I would be a tremendous hypocrite to argue that it’s ok for the RI to be bailed out and not banks because science. More irritatingly, Albemarle Street is estimated at £60m – way more than their trifling £7m debts. They would still have a huge warchest to put towards actually engaging the public in science rather than maintaining a white elephant in the middle of London. Remember it’s a charity – value for money should be paramount out of respect to your donors.  Eminent Scientists like Bruce Hood have pressed the importance of inspiring buildings, a sense of history and places of science wonder which play a valuable part in the societal role of science, but ugly economics have to come in to play at some point.

Of course, I don’t want to see the RI fail or the site sold off, I want the RI to reinvent itself and for people to have the same awe and respect for the building as they did back during its heyday, but it can’t expect that of the public, it needs to do the graft and fulfil its desire of informing the public about science.

Mary asked us to help by joining the RI at a cost of £28 as associate member. Sure. Pay £28 so that the RI which burned through its own cash can continue to rent out space below cost and feed posh food to people in Mayfair under the guise of science communication? Ok so maybe that’s trolling a bit, but...

If you actually care about science communication to the public, rather than dewy-eyed history dressed up as scicomms, I’m willing to bet that pound for pound, your 28 quid would go a lot further if you donated it to the Pod Delusion. Last week’s show had a piece on upside down backbones in tetrapods and the ethics of cloning Neanderthals. One episode of the Pod Delusion introduced me to more novel scientific ideas than a lifetime of the RI. And it doesn’t have a holy building.

This is Dr*T, running for cover from angry scientists, for the Pod Delusion.

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