Science Stakes: Britain’s Crowded Public-Science Scene Must Evolve
Since 1799, the Royal Institution of Great Britain has occupied a grand building in London’s Mayfair, surrounded today by luxury shops and private art galleries. For many years, the building was a central part of British science. Michael Faraday dazzled crowds there in the nineteenth century with pyrotechnic displays of chemistry. In many respects, its address, 21 Albemarle Street, is the Royal Institution (RI) — hence the consternation in the United Kingdom and abroad when The Times newspaper recently reported that the RI building was up for sale. The news was no surprise. The RI has been on the financial ropes for years, lumbered with the costs of a misguided £22-million refurbishment.
Richard Sykes, the RI’s current chairman, said last week that the charity was likely to be restructured. But the RI, whose property includes a remarkable collection of historic scientific equipment and documents, insists that it will continue its mission to educate and inform the public about science and will not fold. But with the future of the RI in severe doubt, those who care about science communication in Britain should take this opportunity to discuss publicly how the landscape should change. And if such efforts fail to be self-sustaining, the RI’s trustees should consider whom to favour with the charity’s collection of historic equipment and other resources.