Friday, 18 April 2014
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A battle for the soul of science and technology

Imagine you travelled into London and found that the Houses of Parliament were now a set of restaurants with a pretty neat view over the river. On further enquiry you find out that the members of this institution worked out that their buildings were not fit for their purpose in the 21st century: too small, too expensive to maintain, too old fashioned, were some of the reasons given. You would be shocked, right? If not, read no further, what I have to say will not interest you.

The Royal Institution has played a pivotal role in science and engineering…blah blah blah you know what I am going to say: discovery of ten chemical elements, Nobel prizes galore etc.  It has also championed science and engineering in the public realm for 200 years, inspiring thousands to take up science and engineering as a career. Now it finds itself in financial difficulties and wants to sell the building. In doing so it will instantly solve its financial problems, release itself from the straight-jacket of a very old fashioned building in Mayfair, and the class and diversity associations that go with it.  But there’s a problem. The building has a soul.

When you stand in the lecture theatre at the very spot that Michael Faraday stood to demonstrate the electric dynamo to an amazed audience (the same dynamo that now delivers most of the electric power on the planet) hairs creep up on the back of your neck. When you speak to an audience in that space you don’t just say the words “we stand on the shoulders of giants”, you feel them in your bones. It is quite simply the most inspiring lecture theatre I have ever been in. I am not alone in feeling this. Ask pretty much anyone who has been there. Or ask 22 UK scientists and engineers who have given the Christmas Lectures there, as I did recently while organising a joint letter to The Times. David Attenborough agrees, John Sulston agrees, Richard Dawkins agrees, Colin Blakemore agrees, Susan Greenfield agrees. There is probably no other topic you could get agreement from this diverse but talented group.  Nevertheless on this one topic they are in complete agreement and with no arm twisting, we got the signatures in 24 hours. Why? I don’t know why. The building has soul is the only explanation I can give.

What do I mean by soul? I mean that it brings out something in you when you are there: your inner scientist, your inner engineer, speaks. The mysteries of the world seem to burn brightly there, just beyond reach, but somehow you are in good company. You feel part of a great lineage of scientists and engineers who tackled the impossible and made progress. It is not a museum, it is living part of history; and it gives you strength, it gives you ideas. In short it is inspiring.

That’s a unique feeling. I don’t get that anywhere else. 22 of the best scientists and engineers in the country have written to say they don’t get it anywhere else. Now that doesn’t mean that the Ri is better than other places to promote science and engineering, its just different. It has a different role. It’s one of  the most powerful links to our past than anywhere else.  That is not something you can buy or sell. But you can destroy it. That is what will happen if the Ri is sold to become fancy Mayfair flats.  Science and engineering will lose part of its soul. Britain will lose part of its ingenious past.

So what to do? I think the science and engineering companies of this country who are constantly saying they can’t recruit enough engineers and scientists need to get involved.  They want passion, the Ri has it in spades. They want inspiration, it has that too. Yes, there is lots of great science inspiration out there in the form of science cabarets, late nights, tv programmes etc.  But we need more. The Ri contributes a lot, especially in terms of the Christmas Lectures which are quoted by thousands of people as their inspiration for becoming scientists and engineers. The Ri could do a lot more, if it wasn’t in a financial hole. Having put up the money to save the building those companies who do so will have an important role in determining how it is used, and for who. Once the building is financially secure those companies can make sure that the whole science and engineering community is involved in creating this new vision for the place while preserving its soul and safeguarding it for future generations as a place of inspiration.

We urgently need companies with a stake in the health of UK science and engineering to get involved now before it is too late. Please do get in touch.

Mark Miodownik is professor of materials and society at UCL, and director of the Institute of Making. He delivered the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures in 2010.

Readers' comments (6)

  • We would be bonkers not to keep this home of science and engineering and keep the good things that go on inside it - in fact we should do more in it. A nation that has spent £10+ to save an oil painting must be able to do this. But it needs some hard-nosed selling. To manufacturing companies, certainly, but also to other interests, like tourism (Boris ?). After all, £20m would pay for an awful lot of science books for kids, or run a lot of after school science clubs.

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  • Boris w/b interested ... as a world renowned institution it has the history and recognition ...like the smithsonian in the states (imho). It needs funding as a centre of research and development.. like the east london techno hub. It just needs marketing ... BP ..Shell.. RTZ ..UBS.. Blackstone.. Wellcome Foundation.. Lord Sainsbury .. Bill and Melinda Gates .. these should be interested ..only good publicity could come out of supporting the RI

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  • Engineers and Scientist look forwards not back; it’s a building nothing more nothing less. Progress is all about change, if the building is not fit for today’s purpose then stop the sentimentality build a better one.

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  • I visited the Royal Institution archives recently (as an associate member) and saw Faraday's hand written and bound transcription of Humphrey Davy's lectures, that he presented to Davy to get his first job at the Institution.

    The building is only part of the story, there are plenty of materials to take on the road if the building is sold, not just to be shown in this country but all over the world perhaps. Faraday's inventions and ideas have helped to transform the world not just London.

    If millions of pounds were inappropriately spent to protect a loss making building and its misjudged refirbishment, we might in the process lose the essential lesson that Faraday's example can still teach us all today (especially in this time of financial hardship).

    If no other sustainable and viable business use can be found for the building by selling it to a new owner (I expect that there will be plenty of ideas on how this might be done) then there may be then a case for looking to other less loss making options which require benefactors or lottery money for support.

    (As to the importance of the main Lecture Theatre - I personally much prefer the Royal Institution 6 lecture short courses, to many of the single stand alone lectures now, and these can be run with smaller numbers of people at different premises and in other parts of the country as well. You get a much better chance to ask questions and think on the material that way.)

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  • @Ray Edwards- scientists and engineers constantly look back, look back at the work done previously to direct the work going forward. Otherwise we'd be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past and never progress anywhere. Besides, how scientists work is not related to this particular matter, we are discussing the maintenance for the nation of a renowned cultural and historical location.

    I agree with Mark's point that industry and business should be involved although I don't think it should be solely privately funded if possible. It should be a diverse set of sponsors too to reflect the breadth of science and engineering in the UK and prevent a perception that the Ri is being bank-rolled by a particular industry or company.

    More hear from Sam Tang seen on Periodic Videos on why she wants the Ri to be saved:

    http://attheinterface.wordpress.com/2013/01/24/why-21-albemarle-st-matters-a-personal-perspective/

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  • It may have history and 'ghosts' of persons and events past, but in essence it is just a building. Yes, history is important, but history is to be learnt from, not controlled by. Sell it, build a better home for the RI and move on.

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