The Ri: losing direction to find a new one?

On Friday 8th January, it was announced that Susan Greenfield had ‘left’ the Royal Institution. It’s sad, but to fully understand the mess that the Ri is in requires some muck-raking, and that in turn means thinking about what Greenfield has done. During her time as director of the Ri, she came under fire for a host of reasons, most notable amongst them her direction of the Ri itself and a number of ill-advised commentaries in the media. Ben Goldacre – hardly Susan’s biggest fan – has often written about her media activity, and summarizes his thoughts here, but the thrust of his argument is that she’s a scaremonger, happy to gloss over scientific method for the sake of a story. Her claims about the effects of cannabis and social networking , for example, were not only incendiary, but also relied on results from unpublished work.

During her spell as director at he Ri, she sidelined research for the sake of media appearance. The Ri, self proclaimed as ‘the oldest independent research body in the world’, had the bulk of its research programme scrapped by Greenfield, and now largely relies on UCL for facilities and lab-space. Sadly, its science communication division has hardly expanded to fill the void left by research; in fact, as far as I can tell, its communication remains largely school-based.

The crowning glory of her direction of the Ri, though, was a £22m project to recreate its Abermale Street building as – for all I can see – a science-themed event space in the heart of London. A shame, then, that the work went significantly over budget, was severely delayed, and has left the Ri on its knees; last year’s financial summary makes for pretty grim reading. Champion among the re-design was to be the new restaurant Time & Space. The result? A universal panning by critics.

It seems to me that this institution is no longer focused on research, nor communication, but providing expensive drinks to a clientèle that doesn’t exist. The types that would want to hang out in a science-themed event space (science communicators, skeptics, general-purpose geeks) can’t afford to eat and drink there; those that can afford have better taste.

Now Greenfield has been shipped out, what remains for one of the most revered scientific bodies in the world? The news that Greenfield plans to sue the Ri, based on allegations of sexual discrimination, certainly adds to the headache. As Martin Robbins writes, the Ri can’t really afford lengthy legal disputes, and Greenfield could cripple it for good.

More important than the whole Greenfield debacle, though, is what the Ri plans to do for itself in the future. For one moment, assume that the  Ri is left standing after this whole affair. What then? It seems too late to rescue its research activity, as lab space has been ripped out and, besides, it would requires a large funding investment that the Ri can little afford.

In the redesign of Abermale Street, they have produced a space that celebrates science, and now, more than ever, they should use this to their advantage. There is no reason that the Ri cannot become the science communication hub that this re-design was supposed to make it. Instead of throwing money at the problem, though, it needs to find a direction, an angle, on its communication, beyond its current school-based work. Undoubtedly it needs to embrace the digital age, but there’s so much more it can do.There are also plenty of people willing to help out such a treasured institution in its time of need, and the Ri could do worse than utilize the pool of up-and-coming science communicators based around London.

Just think how many talented, enthusiastic sci-commers could be employed using Greenfield’s salary, and what they could do.

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