I am pleased to join forces with, and lend my support to, the Save21AlbemarleStreet campaign set-up last Friday by Mary R. Perkins. The following statement reflects discussions we have been having. A new joint website will be appearing later, and in the meantime I encourage people to follow @Save21Albemarle on Twitter and, for those on Facebook, to join the group:
Thank you to the overwhelming level of support so far. I apologise for not replying to each email individually – there are just too many!
Campaign to Save the Royal Institution
“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” So wrote Winston Churchill, and there is no building anywhere in the world to which this profound observation applies more than the Royal Institution. We can move all the books in the British Library to a new building, as has been done, and we can move all the treasures in the National Gallery also, but we cannot move the Royal Institution. The Royal Institution is the building and the building is the Royal Institution. Generations of budding young scientists, from the UK and all over the world, have been inspired just by walking along corridors where once strode Humphry Davy, Michael Faraday, Nobel Laureates Henry and Lawrence Bragg as well as George Porter or by peering into the laboratory where Faraday’s first electric motor is on display and where he actually discovered the key properties of electricity, the life force of the Modern World. No one who has had this experience forgets it and anyone with a modicum of scientific zeitgeist can see that it cannot be reincarnated elsewhere. Make no mistake, if this building is sold the Institution will be lost forever and it will be a loss fully commensurate with the one hundred and sixteen plays of Sophocles burned (only seven survive) and the wanton destruction of the Buddhist statues in Afghanistan as well as countless other priceless cultural icons of human creativity deliberately destroyed. In this case the act will not be by ignorant philistines but people who profess to be guardians of our culture. Sale of the building will be the death-knell of the greatest shrine to not only British Science but to the Scientific Culture of the World, and we must not let this happen.
There is only one credible way to save the Royal Institution and that is to find a government or philanthropic source or most probably a cohort of philanthropic sources able to pay off the current debts and create an endowment that will allow it to function in Albemarle Street for the foreseeable future. The actual cost of this can only be determined when the Institution’s current financial situation becomes clear. In order to attract potential donors, there will also have to be a forward-looking “business plan” that is both compelling and imaginative in addressing the scientific and science educational needs of a country that must compete in the technologically advanced modern world. The UK will desperately need to inspire the next generations of young scientists and technical entrepreneurs of the 21st Century in a way that the Royal Institution did in the 19th and 20th. In addition, given the controversy surrounding the recent management, a new form of governance may be necessary. In the UK, only a few organisations have the experience and credibility to assist and advise on the running of operations like the Royal Institution. Of these, the Royal Society is certainly one attractive choice, so the campaign must develop its strategy with some such end in mind.
The forward-look strategy will require a three-pronged approach in which: a) The Institution’s iconic position as the still-vibrant inspirational source of the UK’s national science educational programme for our children must be maintained and its media and Internet roles expanded; b) Research groups with imaginative and healthy research programmes, capable of attracting research funding, as was the case until ca 2000, should be replanted; there may be some advantage in preferring theoretical and computational research which will be more easily accommodated in such an historic building; and arguably most importantly, c) The Institution must become the platform for 21st Century Educational Science Outreach on a truly global scale by exploiting the full potential of the Internet as an intellectually democratizing influence which is as revolutionary as was the printing press which over 500 years ago led to the Birth of the Enlightenment.
Since the preliminary survey was initiated to determine the viability of a campaign to save the Royal Institution, in almost no time at all, several hundred responses have been received, all conveying the following two messages: a) Total shock that sale of the building could even be contemplated and b) This institution has played a most amazing role in the lives of a huge numbers of not only UK scientists, engineers, teachers, technologists but an amazing number of lay people who became fascinated by the sciences because the seed of scientific excitement was planted in their minds by the activities of the Ri when they were young. The latter result indicates most clearly that the loss of this building and its associated activities will have the most serious negative impact on the UK’s future science base with dangerous consequences for our ability to compete as the 21st Century becomes ever more technologically competitive.
A typical message: “Let me add my name to your campaign to save the RI premises from being sold off. As a personal inspiration to me as a youngster to become involved in science I would hate to see future generations deprived of the experience”.