Friday, 18 December 2009

But it's a British institution!

I gather from this excellent blog post by Matt Brown (whose photo I have nicked) that the Royal Institution in London is in financial difficulties. This is really sad news. The RI is a wonderful facility, especially since its fancy makeover, and does excellent work. I have had the honour of speaking there a couple of times, and there are few things more scary for a speaker than an RI introduction, when standing at the desk where Faraday did demonstrations, your audience is told that 'n of the elements were discovered here, they have had x Nobel Prize winners... and now Brian Clegg is going to speak to you.' Gulp.

Some argue, and I'm afraid that I would agree, that the current director Susan Greenfield has not done a great job. I certainly feel that the RI could be handled differently. With hindsight, spending £20 million on a refurbishment programme was probably not wise (though I guess a fair amount of this came from grants).

Personally, I would suggest that those in charge of the direction of the RI bite the bullet and ask 'What do we do best?' Despite that history of fundamental research, I'd suggest that the RI's real strength has been science communication to the general public. If money has to be saved, I would reluctantly chop much or even all of the research work and concentrate on the communication side.

It used to be that every month the RI put on a wide range of 'Talking Point' events for the general public. It was at one of these that I did a session on infinity a few years ago, and it was totally sold out. But during the refurbishment, the momentum for these events was lost, and there still isn't anywhere near as good and wide ranging a programme as there used to be.

Matt worries about the RI being too formal and offputting. I don't - its tradition stands it in good stead. It shouldn't try to be another Dana Centre. But the RI does need to re-focus before it's too late.

This is the last post before the schools break up for Christmas - I expect posting to be rather intermittent for the next couple of weeks, but back to normal in the New Year.

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