A battle for the soul of science and technology


The Royal Institution may have to sell its historic Mayfair base to solve its financial problems, but Mark Miodownik, a former Christmas Lecturer, believes that will rob science and technology, deprive the UK of a vital part of its heritage and miss an opportunity to reform the Ri to mee the challenges of the 21st century.

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.