Royalty and Science? Let’s break the link.

The Royal Society and the Royal Institution are on the ‘A’ list of major world and UK scientific societies. But I would like to suggest that both of them should drop any association with Royalty and change their names.

I have occasionally visited these institutions and – speaking as a ‘grammar school boy’ – they reek of class, privilege, and wealth. I simply wanted to leave the buildings. Now I may be oversensitive in this regard, but I think the effect these institutions have on me – someone who might be generally thought to ‘belong’ in the milieu that would inhabit their hallowed halls – is as nothing to the number of people who would never venture near their doors. It is as true in the 21st century as it was in the 17th, that scientific institutions should in principle and in practice avoid association with ‘establishment’ power. Let’s look at these very different ‘Royal’ establishments in turn.

The Royal Society actually formally uses a byline to explain what it is: The National Academy of Science of the UK and Commonwealth. My comment is that if it needs such a byline, why doesn’t it just call itself what it is? The problems with the organisation’s identity and role are symbolised by the premises it has chosen to occupy.  Carlton House Terrace, overlooking the Mall, with views to Buckingham Palace and Downing Street must be amongst the most expensive locations in the world. It is as legitimate to ask the Royal Society what it is doing in such a location? I have heard senior fellows of the society argue that it gives them access to the people in government who make key decisions. I would argue that a large building in Milton Keynes, Manchester or Bristol and a season ticket to London would achieve the same ends. In a state which is reducing science funding systematically, the Royal Society’s opulence is increasingly anomalous and out of place. And its naming association with Royalty is simply inappropriate for Scientific Society.

The Royal Institution‘s name again gives no clue as to what its aims or activities might involve. It is a charity and does not receive the £45M per year that the Government (i.e. ourselves) gives the Royal Society. It is ‘dedicated to connecting people with the world of science’ and so in modern parlance it is a ‘science centre’ that tries to engage in some real research in a few carefully chosen areas. Once again I fail to see how associations with royalty or a grand location in the poshest part of London helps to achieve that. I find it hard to believe that – Christmas lectures apart – the royal institution has any more impact than, say, the Science Museum or the National Space Centre. Once again, why not call it the National Science Centre and position it somewhere where real people might visit. Perhaps in the Midlands? And if they want to show real scientists at work, why not offer sabbaticals and facilities to the many real scientists who would desperately welcome them, rather trying to build their own small research universe.

Now please let me make clear that this is not a criticism of the people involved in these institutions. They are generally doing their best; often working much harder than me; and are also generally much cleverer than me! They would argue (I imagine) that these are precious historical institutions that we need to preserve and cherish. I disagree. I really feel that its time to turn these institutions upside down and start again. We need institutions built for the future not the past, and very little that was built 200 years ago is still fit for purpose. Its time to move on.

7 Responses to “Royalty and Science? Let’s break the link.”

  1. Jeff Says:

    I think that there is great danger in this suggested modernisation. The most important thing for the royal society is to maintain its independence of government to be an independent lobbyist stronger than the sum of its members and not become another quango or ‘physics is phun’ emporium,(which is what may be happening anyway). Maintaining the links with the past may be the best way of ensuring this. In the past ,I think, that the royal society has been more egalitarian and internationalist than the universities and very much more so than the government, if this is at odds with its image then that may need attention.

  2. protonsforbreakfast Says:

    Independence from government is indeed important, but no organisation which gets £45M a year from government is really independent. My point here is that (IMHO) as the UK’s premier scientific society – the Royal Society should not associate itself with Royalty – surely the ultimate in anti-egalitarian establishments.

  3. Jeff Says:

    Is the link with royalty really of any consequence or just a quirky historical status?

  4. protonsforbreakfast Says:

    Like so many things in the UK, I think the ‘Royal’ naming arises from a quirk of history. And I don’t think that our Royal Family has any malign or improper influence. However it is the association of the two realms – the scientific and the regal – to which I object. And when coupled with the opulence of their central london palace, it makes it hard to conclude anything other than that the Royal Society represents an establishment viewpoint. If the Royal Society wants to be seen as independent of establishment influence it should make sure that that separation is clear. Changing its name would be a very simple starting point.

  5. Melindwr Williams Says:

    ” it is the association of the two realms – the scientific and the regal – to which I object.”

    I agree.
    History has a habit of generatiing alliances and associations that, later, become inconvenient or embarrassing.
    In these days, when the status of royalty is perceived to be anachronistic by many, the “Royal” appellation is just such an example. The Royal Society, The Royal College of Science, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals are just a few examples of organisations whose currency among the general population might be improved by dissociating themselves from just such an outdated institution.
    Similarly, awards that are associated with royalty, for example, “By appointment”, Orders of Chivalry and other such decorations, that hark back to a period of regal absolutism and imperial aspiration, might be considered to confuse the distinction between independent achievement and erstwhile royal patronage.

  6. Helen Says:

    I was very amused to come across your blog. I worked at both organisations in the 1990s – I’m a comprehensive school girl and my most notable scientific achievement was CSE Chemistry grade 3.

    During my time in the RS’s publications department, I remember pointing out to my boss that the title page of one of the publications (I think it was Biographical Memoirs) still referred to the Monarch as “Her Sacred Majesty”. It appeared that nobody had noticed, but it was then swiftly removed. I’m sure that even the Fellows of the Royal Society no longer believe in the Divine Right Of Kings.

    I’ve also been reading about the recent ousting of Susan Greenfield from the RI with amusement. Long before her appointment, the building in Albemarle Street was literally a waste of space, but it’s utterly incredible that the decision was taken to sell three other properties in Albemarle Street which were guaranteed sources of rental income.

    The RS has a definite purpose, but the RI? As you say, bar the televised Christmas Lectures, most people have never heard of it. Even then, many non-scientists mix up the RS and the RI.

  7. RI: Re-Inventing itself « Protons for Breakfast Blog Says:

    […] I have written previously that if the RI were really committed to science communication it should leave its hyper-posh headquarters in the most exclusive part of London, and move to the Midlands. Maybe I spoke too soon. This kind of podcast brings a topicality and accessibility to modern science communication that television – with its obsessions with short punchy ‘packages’-  just can’t touch. And the location definitely adds a little something. […]

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