16 April 2010

So, farewell then Susan Greenfield

The recent turmoil at the Royal Institution has sparked off some thoughtful comments by people who know what they are talking about. One such came from Professor Colin Blakemore in The Times. When I tried to add these comments to the article, they vanished into the ether, perhaps because they are too long and rambling. So, here they are, for others to judge, should anyone be interested in the views from someone who was around at the time.

As Colin Blakemore says, the Bodmer report lit a bomb under what some of us call the Public Engagement in Science and Technology (PEST) movement. (It started of as "Public Understanding", but that was deemed to be too patronising.) The report led to COPUS, the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science, which brought together the Royal Society (RS), British Association for the Advancement of Science (BA) and Royal Institution (RI) in what could have been a powerhouse for public communication.

The first two organisations went into overdrive. Even the Royal Society, ostensibly the stuffier of the three, became really enthusiastic about PEST. Other players, such as the Science Museum and the Wellcome Trust, picked up ideas and made them work. The RI sat on its hands.

Unlike the BA and RS, which were led by people who made their enthusiasm for public engagement clear to anyone who would listen, especially if they had money to hand out, those then in charge at the RI had little time for PESTs. They still saw the RI as a quiet haven in the middle of London for world leading researchers that would deliver yet more Nobel Prizes. That is why they rejected attempts to engineer a merger between the RI and the BA, then less healthy than it is now, and to develop the RI's buildings.

The RS remains stuck in overdrive on all fronts, proving that good science and public engagement can coexist and even feed off one an other. The BA, in its new home, and with its new name, the British Science Association (BSA), no longer needs the RI.

Does anyone?

Even after a decade with a leader who rejected the stuffier view of science, the RI as a whole, rather than its director, hasn't achieved the visibility that its excellent work deserves and that could have attracted financial backing.

The RI's biggest asset is its building. It may also be its biggest liability. But without the buildings it might as well hand its various PEST activities over to the RS or BA.

Visit the "members' rooms" at the learned societies and you will soon see that there is a real need for a venue in London where scientists who are not eminent enough to be allowed into the Royal Society can while away an hour or two and grab a bite and perhaps rub shoulders with an interested public.

Would a Groucho Club for scientists make money? Perhaps in the longer term. But is there time?

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