11 January 2010

The RI and its director – history rewritten

It has taken the kerfuffle at the Royal Institution to wake me up here. Reading the growing flood of material on the current state of the RI, and the redundancy notice handed out to Baroness Susan Greenfield, suggests that some people seem to have forgotten their history.

Baroness Greenfield has been in the job so long – can it really be 11 years? – that some of the younger bloggers commenting on the saga were probably still at school when she became director. For this reason we can forgive them for not knowing about the history of the RI before the regime of Professor Greenfield, as she still was until 2001.

You cannot apply the same excuse to Professor Lisa Jardine, who was, as the Guardian reminds us, a former member of the RI's governing council. The newspaper quotes Jardine as saying of RI directors "It has been always a charismatic scientist supported by a membership."

This is not the case. There have been some charismatic scientists in charge, perhaps most notably Professor Sir George Porter, who was eminent enough not just to be elected to the Royal Society, but to be, at one time, both the President of the RS and the Director of the RI. But there have been some directors of recent memory who were fine scientists but who were at the back of the queue when they handed out the charisma gene.

While this hardly changes the goings on at the RI, it could be seen as rewriting history, something that you would not expect of Professor Jardine.

As an observer of the RI for more than a quarter of a century, and at one time a member of a committee advising on its future, it has always struck me as an odd place. Down in the depths of the venerable old building, a prime site in the middle of London, they carried out experiments that would horrify some health and safety zealots, what with all those gas cylinders.

More important than the safety was the puzzle about its status as a research organisation. It just didn't make much sense in today's scientific environment. The RI got away with it simply because it was the RI.

For years, the quality of that research was undeniable. That is partly because of the eminence of the director. This probably explained the RI's ability to attract research funds.

But scientific eminence does not guarantee charisma or an ability to fulfil the RI's other role, as a place for public engagement in science. Some directors failed hopelessly on that front. So it is misleading to suggest that all directors managed to balance scientific excellence with public engagement.

The evidence of this failure shows in the RI's contribution to the late but not much lamented Committee on the Public Understanding of Science. (I should declare an interest here, I was one of the first members of this body.) COPUS, which grew out of the Bodmer report of 1985 on the public understanding of science, existed in part to bring together the Royal Society, the Royal Institution and the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BA), as the British Science Association was then known.

Before COPUS, the BA was really the brand leader on public engagement in science and technology (PEST), as this activity is now known. Before COPUS, the RS was itself pretty stuffy and far from a leading player in public engagement. But it soon learned how to improve its PESTery, thanks partly to the enthusiasm of Sir George and his willingness to take the RS in that direction.

The BA also became more dynamic and forged ahead in the PEST arena. The RI somehow seemed to miss out on the game. That all changed significantly during Baroness Greenfield's regime.

Quite how much of the improvement in the RI's work on PEST is due to Greenfield is for others to decide. I haven't been as closely involved in events as I once was. So it would be unwise to comment on the current kerfuffle. But anyone who does feel the urge to write about it might find it useful to look at the history of the RI.

As the accounts of recent events remind us, the RI's history is long. This year it marks 200 years "as a member organisation". That history precedes by centuries the era of the internet. It is, therefore, beyond the reach of Google. A proper understanding of even the RI's relatively recent past needs a somewhat old fashioned approach to research which almost certainly involves reading bits of paper.