Desperately Needing Susan

The Royal Institution has made a huge mistake by sacking its media-friendly director

John Stein

In 1825, Albemarle Street became the first one-way street in Europe, such was the crush of carriages and cabs to get to the Royal Institution to hear Samuel Coleridge’s celebrated lectures on science. Fashionable Georgian society was agog with the new discoveries and later even more so when its director, Michael Faraday, began to demonstrate the secrets of electricity. 

Today, however, apart from being aware of its televised Christmas lectures for children, few people have even heard of the Royal Institution, founded in 1799, or they confuse it with the Royal Society, the premier club for successful scientists, founded more than a century earlier. Fourteen Nobel prizes later, the RI had ceased being a cauldron of public interest in science to become a worthy, dull and dusty emblem of our past. When my brother, Rick Stein, and I organised a Saturday of cooking and lectures on “fabulous fish” at the RI in 2004, some 600 people came, but virtually none had ever heard of it before.

However, over the last 10 years its fusty image was beginning to change: the RI Council had boldly appointed Susan Greenfield to become its first female director, following her very successful Christmas lectures and her popular books on the brain. She was told to reinvigorate it. Her appointment was indeed controversial because she was the Versace-miniskirted opposite of the tweedy, bearded stereotype of a scientist. With her exceptional gifts as a lecturer, she is able to capture the minds of thousands of young people to consider science seriously as a career. She shows that science can be much more sexy than the dry accumulation of facts that is so often how it is taught. As a medical admissions tutor, I was always impressed by how many applicants had been turned on to an interest in the brain by Susan’s lectures and books. (For the record, she was a post-doctoral student with me.)

Her media exposure as a favourite talking head did not endear her to those who privately believe that her approach trivialises serious science, and who (wrongly) claim that her own research on degenerative diseases is lightweight. Undeterred, she set about transforming the RI into a science club for everyone, where you would want to go to see science in action, to talk about it with like-minded visitors and to have a nice meal and drink in an attractive scientific environment. 

Her life in the public eye had given her unrivalled connections, and she was able to raise more than £10 million for the architect Terry Farrell to renovate the RI for the 21st century. It now boasts a highly imaginative use of its museum of laboratory instruments, fun interactive displays about the 10 elements discovered in its own laboratories, about the periodic table and about the parts of the brain, together with the famous lecture theatre with Faraday’s desk, splendid library and other meeting rooms, bar and restaurant. The Queen reopened it in May 2008 and particularly commended the lightness achieved by Farrell’s high atrium and also a beautiful chandelier assembled from small brass laboratory instruments.

Note however the date, May 2008: the RI reopened just as the recession took hold. Compounding this bad luck, the decision seems to have been taken to economise on advertising its new facilities. So few people ever got to hear about them. The expected numbers wanting to use the RI, both corporate and individual, failed to materialise. Takings declined greatly and it is now in deficit, allegedly by £2 million. 

Susan Greenfield’s reward for piloting the RI into the 21st century was to be effectively sacked. In a move of unbelievable stupidity, its council decided to save money by abolishing the office of director. Accordingly, Professor Baroness Greenfield was declared redundant and escorted off the premises. This decision was incredibly foolish for two reasons. First, because it is not clear that the RI Council actually has the powers to abolish a 200-year-old post established by Act of Parliament. Second, and more importantly, Susan Greenfield was the one person who had the charisma and connections to keep up morale and raise the small amount of money that was needed to get over these difficult times. It was an extreme case of killing the goose that laid the golden egg. 

How on earth did this sorry state of affairs arise? A petty and spiteful detail of her dismissal, namely that the plaque commemorating her contribution to the RI refurbishment was removed that very day, suggests that lack of money was not the only issue, but that more personal dislikes and jealousies were involved, and that she was being scapegoated. 

The director is not responsible for the finances of the RI — the council is. Unlike some of the bankers on the council, she cannot be blamed for the economic downturn. The decision to declare her redundant was taken at meetings to which she was not invited, and her views and suggestions as to how to deal with the financial problems were apparently ignored. Two very important council members were so outraged by her treatment that they resigned in protest. 

You would have thought that objections by the President of the Royal Society, Lord Rees, and the Chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, Professor Lisa Jardine, would carry some weight in a council supposedly dedicated to promoting the public understanding of science. The actions of the men in grey suits suggest that they know little about how science communication actually works. 

Scientists forgo large incomes and high status because they have a passion for finding out the truths of nature. Susan is brilliant at communicating that to her audiences. The RI was founded to provide public lectures to foster and maintain public interest and support for science, because its founders realised that the public had to be kept onside and also that passion for science needed to be passed on to the next generations. The RI director is the most important of its assets for these purposes and cannot just be abolished during temporary financial difficulties. The highest authority of the RI is its membership and many members are now so enraged that a special general meeting will take place this month to try to sort out the mess. 

This sorry episode reminds me of another ongoing controversy involving grey suits, the governance of Oxford University. There was strong pressure for Oxford to “reform” its governance to have a majority of outside members, bankers and industrialists on its governing council. Despite Oxford’s 900-year history of democratic and successful self-government, the insulting implication was that universities could not be trusted to use public money responsibly but would instead spend it all on college port. Bankers, of course, spend their bonuses on the public good. Like the RI, Oxford’s ultimate authority is its membership, Congregation, which consists of every member of the teaching staff. I am glad to say that the motion in favour of external control was roundly defeated, because its members reckoned that their leaders should mainly be people who really understood how the university works rather than people who run banks and industry, often badly, and know little of the democratic systems and shared passions that breed good scholars and researchers. But the pressure is still on to provide “transparent accountability” in our governance. Baroness Greenfield has been sacked because the grey suits that Oxford resisted seem to have taken over at the RI. She should be reinstated.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"