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.