My dream Royal Institution

Edit 24/1/13The RI crisis returns with the recent announcement that the buildings might have to be sold. Some are calling for clear statements of visions for the future, so I believe that this piece is still relevant. There have been some great improvements since it was written, however. For example the RI channel videos put together by Jonathan Sanderson and others. The Institution is more than its building, however I do hope that it keeps Albemarle St. It is a powerful statement that science is recognised, and (at least at some time) was respected in the centres of power.

I grew up with the Christmas lectures. They were as much part of christmas as the Turkey. The Royal Insititution was a place of magic. Yet, the swanky Mayfair location completely passed me by. Davy was a man who had made a lamp. Faraday had something to do with electricity. I had not heard of Bragg or Porter. The magic came instead from one man: Bill Coates1:

A figure in the shadows of the lectures, but always there if you knew where to look. The man responsible for scientific demonstrations beyond anything else in the world at that time (to my knowledge). The RI was a place of magic and it was clear that this came  from Coates’ almost mythical prep room.

When I got to visit and work in the prep room last year2 therefore, it was a dream come true. Yet a dream tinged with sadness. This was a space neglected by the redevelopment, still brilliantly staffed but with out of date facilities. In fact, worse than neglect, the facilities had been cut, the workshops in the basement taken away by the refurbishment.

The current debate3, like the priorities of the leadership in the redevelopment, does not seem to capture what made the RI great and unique. The prestige of the building has been pushed with the development of a fancy restaurant. The prestige of cutting edge science has been pushed with a new nano-technology group. The building of magical machines to demonstrate science has been left behind. The building is prestigious, but it is in Mayfair where there is no shortage of prestigious locations; many more prestigious and more experienced at hosting events. The science of the RI is great, its place in history is secure, yet today many places do cutting edge research; many far better funded. What about science communication and science machines? They certainly live as deep in the Institution’s bones. Faraday’s popular lectures, especially his Chemical History of the Candle, put the place on the map at the time, more even than his work on electricity. Twenty five years ago I would argue the RI was ahead of everyone else in the world. That is no longer the case. There has been recent great development in science communication, others have caught up with the RI. As an example the Centre for Life in Newcastle has a wonderful line in informative, exciting science and shows with meat that rival Faraday’s candle. It is however a far less crowded field, something the country desperately needs and the RI is well within the leading group.

The standard rebuttal to all arguments about the RI (for the last decade, maybe longer) is that you are trying to recapture the glory of the past, not moving towards the future. Perhaps you could say this here. Bill Coates was a completely unique individual and not someone who can ever be replaced. No one will be able to create traffic jams for a science event today like Faraday did. This is true, but I also think these are ideas which are only just getting started. Today there are worlds available that simply would not have been possible before, even to a genius like Coates. We have laser-cutters, 5-axis routers, even 3d printing. The ability to transform ideas into objects has increased beyond recognition, moving from a highly skilled job to a semi-skilled one, even a mathematician can do it. It is not even that expensive. The MIT FabLab project gets you a good set up of machines for just $50,000 (~£32,500). Even better the designs can be released for others to make. Many schools have these machines, or at least access to them, and there has been a recent explosion of Maker Faires, hackerspaces and FabLabs where people come together with the desire to build stuff.

Let me sum up with my personal dream, vision, reinvention for the RI. That is what everyone says the RI needs after all. A scientific fab lab. A space with open access to all UK scientists kitted out with a workshop and computer manufacturing machines. Anyone with vague ideas for sciencey things to build can come along and get support from the scientifically knowledgeable and technically skilled staff (that the RI already has). After all the standard PhD does not have a lot of practical training in manufacturing. This would be combined with the other expertise the staff of the RI have in abundance: science communication, the christmas lectures, shows, masterclasses. An RI like this would be a place of magic for me once more, even to my more cynical adult mind. Perhaps I am not the only one.


In 1986 Coates retired, but the magic continued in the hands of Bryson Gore and others.

I was making material for How do shapes fill space? my exhibit at the 2009 Royal Society Summer exhibition. The RI was one of the partners and provided workshop space.

The problems started with the weak financial situation revealed (but not completely caused) by the credit crunch. This has been combined with the fight between the council and Susan Greenfield the director they made redundant. She has not gone quietly, and is now suing for unfair dismissal. In addition her supporters organised a Special General Meeting to try to remove the council but failed. This has of course led to open season on visions and reinventions for the RI, that I am leaping on board. You can find a lot more with a Google or Google News search. This story will probably run for a while!