There’s some confusion at the reception of the Science Museum in London. ‘Chris Rapley?’ shrugs the woman at the desk, ‘there’s no Chris Rapley here.’ She’s wrong. There is. And while he might not have been in his post long enough to find his way into the staff telephone book, the museum’s outspoken new director has already had time to think up some ambitious plans for one of the capital’s most important attractions.
Prof Rapley, who has joined the museum after 10 successful years heading the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), is well aware of what an inspiration the museum has been for generations of engineers and scientists. ‘I’ve been amazed at how many scientists have said to me “do you know how important the science museum was to me becoming a scientist?” That’s a great accolade. It’s one of the places where you can come and realise that science and technology are actually quite fun.’
Heading an institution that means so much to people is a big challenge. The museum cannot stand still but a formula that has stood the test of time so well is tinkered with at peril. The previous director, Dr Lindsay Sharp, quit the post in 2005 after heavy criticism for his attempts to modernise.
Rapley admits it is a balancing act. The first part of his job is ‘to sustain, nurture and display the amazing collection of objects that we’ve got’. Key to this is a bid for £50m of Lottery funding to open up the 90 per cent of the museum’s collection that is in storage. If successful, the museum has bold plans to put on display its treasure trove stored in hangars at RAF Wroughton in Wiltshire.
Beyond this, Rapley believes the museum has an important role to play in cutting through the spin, self-interest and obfuscation that surround today’s big scientific issues. His views echo those of his friend Al Gore who, in his current book The Assault on Reason, argues that worldwide democracy is at risk because people have lost the capacity to have a rational logical debate.
Driven by these concerns, Rapley hopes to develop a series of new galleries dedicated to climate change, the energy crisis, GM crops, and stem cell research. ‘I want people to recognise us as a place that you can come to, to understand and make sense of the modern world,’ he said. ‘For example, climate change is a very pressing and topical subject. And as we’ve seen there’s huge confusion out there about what’s right, what’s wrong, what are we going to have to do. How much is this going to hurt the economy? It’s very difficult for people to make sense of it all.’
Pointing to a debate he recently witnessed between a proponent that climate change is the result of human activity and a sceptic, he said: ‘The arguments can quickly become so technical that people who haven’t read 10,000 different scientific papers on the subject are just left helpless.’
Add to this the vested interests and nay-sayers who make up what Rapley scathingly calls the ‘denial sector’ and the subject becomes even more confused.
Rapley’s vision is hugely ambitious and will, he said, require tens of millions of pounds of new funding and sponsorship. But rather than being daunted he’s excited and enthusiastic about the task that lies ahead.
‘We see this as a huge opportunity for the museum to offer people an unthreatening, authoritative, unbiased, plain-speaking account of some of these big issues to help them work their own conclusions about what the evidence is for and against any particular proposition. And deeper than that we would like to help them be able to discern when they’re being misled and when they’re not.’
One way he hopes to do this is by giving visitors an insight into where scientific knowledge comes from, by celebrating the work of the unsung heroes whose grass-roots research is eventually synthesised into bold scientific statements such as ‘climate change is real’. ‘People should be able to peer down through all these layers and begin to understand how it all fits together,’ said Rapley.
Rapley himself is a ‘big picture’ person. After a physics degree from Oxford University his varied scientific career has included a stint working on rockets at University College London, a year studying radio astronomy at Jodrell Bank and the 10 years at BAS.
He claims all this has given him a keen understanding of cross disciplinary science that is far from the norm: ‘Most scientists get channelled by the career process into a narrower and narrower piece of the scientific frontier. I really saw the value of dipping into different bits of the scientific field and then making a living out of making the connections between them. That’s the important stuff: how you connect together bits of knowledge to make the sum greater than the parts.’
Another tool in the fight to bring knowledge and understanding to the masses is technology, said Rapley. And the museum’s popular (and newly revamped) launchpad gallery, which uses interactive exhibits to teach children about physics, is an example of what he’d like to see more of. ‘Our task is to be the most admired museum in the world. That means we use every means at our disposal to give people a fantastic experience. We must be able to do better than just simply stick a little typed label on things.’ He is, for instance, interested in introducing a system that will give visitors tailored information about exhibits through their mobile phones.
Two of the new interactive exhibits that will soon be on view in the museum’s revamped Launchpad gallery
Whatever technologies are embraced, they must endure. ‘It’s amazing how quickly technology can age,’ said Rapley. ‘Even if it’s working, if it looks a bit old fashioned it creates a bad image — so we’ve got to think this through carefully.’
The other thing about technology is that it costs more money than the museum can afford. The initial capital cost and even higher operational cost of technically complex exhibits will require a huge injection of cash and commitment and Rapley is keen to forge relationships with new industrial partners.
‘There are companies spending millions of pounds developing new products, which may have a mapping on to what we want to do, and there are companies that are imagining what the world will be like in five, 10, 15 years time in order to plan the products that they will persuade us we want.
‘If they’re investing that money and we can think of a way you can translate that investment into something that works for us, there’s a double benefit.’
Rapley believes technical innovation also creates an opportunity to return to the museum’s past: ‘When I was a kid I think there was more science in the science museum than there is now. I remember one exhibit where you could press a little pump and sniff a whole range of different chemicals. The Health and Safety Executive certainly wouldn’t allow that any more. It does seem to me as if we’ve lost something and we need to think how we can get them back.’
By using such methods to inspire and engage children with science Rapley believes the museum could play a vital role in reversing a worrying trend. ‘The number of kids attracted to science and technology has been reducing and I am worried as a physicist. I’m not sure that what is taught as physics these days is what I would really recognise as physics because a lot of the mathematics has been stripped out and dumped in applied maths. Physics without maths isn’t physics because the thrill of doing physics is to calculate something and work it out.’
Without a constant stream of young people entering quantitive engineering and science who, he asked, is going to calculate whether or not a bridge is going to collapse? ‘One keeps hearing horror stories of the demographic bulge of engineers who will be retiring soon and haven’t been replaced. If that’s true, we’re increasingly dependent on people immigrating and providing us with those skills. But how long will that last for?
‘Exciting things are happening in the developing world and there will be good salaries there. Could you imagine a future where the UK simply doesn’t have enough capability to run itself? We have a very complex, technically highly-tuned society, we rely hugely on all of this working and if you don’t have enough competent people to keep it working you could be in very serious trouble.’
From inspiring the next generation, to filling a hole in public scientific life, Rapley is aiming high to avert such worrying trends. ‘I would like to be able to walk away from the place feeling secure that a summary of man’s knowledge is available and accessible to people when they come through these doors. We need to give people a sufficient account of key areas that they can walk out with an understanding of the universe.
‘The danger of all this is that it’s hugely ambitious. But there’s no point not coming in with some ideas.’