The Royal Institution is in financial difficulties, and has recently suggested that it may need to sell its base at 21 Albemarle Street. This has rightly given rise to an outcry from people ranging from those, like myself, who had scientific links there, to those who have enjoyed the Christmas lectures over many years. A petition has been organised that suggests the building should be bought for the nation; you can find it here, and I recommend that you sign it. Articles and letters have appeared in the national press (here’s an example), and a website has been set up to coordinate activities. Conversely there are those who ridicule the idea, suggesting that it is not necessary to save the building; they miss the point about its importance. For balance, an example is here.
My own recollections of the RI date back to the years between 1989 and around 1999. My former postdoc supervisor, Richard Catlow, moved there from Keele in 1989. I had just got a permanent post at Keele, so I decided to stay put, but I continued to visit Richard at the RI for research collaboration for several years. Richard’s research group occupied some of the labs and space that had been used by David Phillips and his group, so it took a while for everyone to get settled. But it all came together with the arrival of state-of-the-art computing equipment, and my visits there were fruitful and enjoyable. I particularly remember the route to Richard’s labs – up the main stairs, left along a book-lined corridor to an area used for refreshments, and then through a door that led to a wonderfully rickety back staircase (did it survive the refurbishment?). Other things I remember were the annual Christmas reviews, including one where an Italian PhD student impersonated Sir John Meurig Thomas, and our evening trips to The Clarence pub, which has sadly now become a wine bar/restaurant (or was when I was last there anyway). But I wouldn’t want to give the impression that no work was done! During Richard’s tenure at the RI it became the centre of materials modelling in the UK,; some of my students went there to do their PhDs and I have several publications from my collaboration there.
This post isn’t just about reminiscences though. If the RI is to survive at 21 Albemarle St, we, its supporters, must make a strong and compelling case. Unfortunately there were some years of mismanagement and poor leadership, which many remember, and which are being used as a weapon by those who are not convinced by our arguments. Instead, let us focus on how we can bring the RI back to its status as a major centre for Science Communication and research. This is eminently achievable; it is an attractive central London location, with modern facilities and infrastructure. Having worked there as a visiting researcher I can testify to that. Attracting researchers there will not be difficult, and the grants they will bring in will include contributions to infrastructure running costs. Add to this science outreach events and public lectures, as well as making it possible to hire that incredible lecture theatre, and we start to achieve financial viability. Of course there are details to be worked out, but this model worked before, and could work again. We just need the finance to buy the building, and from then I am convinced that the RI can once again be viable.
Finally, think of the scientific heritage bound up in this amazing building. The place where scientific giants like Michael Faraday did their world-changing research shouldn’t have to be sold to pay some bills! We as a nation are better than that when it comes to safeguarding our heritage. Instead we must ensure that this incredible location can continue to inspire an interest and love of science in future generations for many years to come.