30 Responses to Royal Institution management to stay after dramatic vote

  1. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Thanks for the update.

  2. Richard P. Grant says:

    Seconded. And I can’t help but release a small cheer.

  3. Austin Elliott says:

    Yes, having been part of the Council of a learned Society, which would run in a rather similar way, it is hard to see how mass sacking of all the RI’s elected governors would have helped, especially in a period of crisis.

    One of my senior scientific friends did comment that:

    “…it would have been much better if the problems of Council and the problem of [Greenfield’s redundancy] had been separated.”

    There are obviously questions that could be asked about the RI Council, given that some of them were presumably part of the decision-making process for the £ 22 Million refurb along with Greenfield. When they were asked this at the meeting in respect of the refurb, there were some comments about it having been a “collective decision of Council,” though there was also something said to the effect that:

    “It was the Director (Greenfield) and the then Chairman# who pushed it through, with others demurring.”

    #don’t know who exactly this would have been

    In my own experience of scientific and academic panels and committees of various kinds, although decisions ARE collective, very committed and charismatic individuals who are strongly pro- or anti-something can often sway a lot of less committed or forceful people in a vote. All the more so if a person like that is pre-eminent and/or is in a leadership role.

    Part of the issue with the RI seems to have been the role of Director, which dates back to the mid 60s and is unusual for a learned society, or scientific charity, type set-up. Although we are told the position has been cut at the RI for financial reasons (the cost of the Director’s salary and “Director’s Office” was apparently £ 200 K pa), one wonders whether they were not also keen to go back to a form of governance where one single person didn’t have such a big influence. Of course, that is just me speculating.

    Anyway, as it was, it appears the meeting yesterday came to be seen largely as a vote on Greenfield’s leadership, or as “the current team vs Greenfield and friends”. The actual size of the vote against the rebels came as a surprise to a lot of people. Mark Henderson said on Twitter that he thought:

    “[The] lawsuit has lost [Greenfield] a lot of friends”

    – and that would certainly be my opinion too. People in science don’t sue, on the whole.

    Re. the lawsuit, most Employment Tribunal cases never actually get to a Tribunal but are settled beforehand. One hopes Greenfield and the RI can manage this somehow so that they can all get on with more productive things.

    PS There is an interesting comments thread after this Guardian article with some comments near the end that seem to come from people with RI ties.

  4. Richard P. Grant says:

    I found New Scientist’s spin on the affair rather unwholesome. ‘Greybeards’ vs Greenfield, essentially.
    And I am worried that anyone could attempt to use such specious grounds (alleged sexism) to get their own way like this. It’s tantamount to bullying.

  5. Austin Elliott says:

    Thanks, Richard. Hadn’t read Roger Highfield’s New Scientist piece. It does seem rather pat / lazy to go with that “greybeards v Greenfield/miniskirts” line. Julian Hunt, as an Emeritus Prof, and Lisa Jardine, both prominent Greenfield supporters, are hardly in the first flush of youth, even if they are rebels.

    The most interesting thing in Highfield’s piece was the quote from rebel spokesman Prof Clive Coen:

    “They [the current council] brought instability to this much-loved institution by scapegoating the director for decisions made by the council – within which she doesn’t have a vote.”

    Of course, not actually VOTING in the Council is not necessarily the same thing as not being in the meetings, let alone not having influence. Many scientific societies have non-voting Chief Executives who sit in meetings of Exec Cttes and Councils. But not voting doesn’t mean they don’t speak. So we still haven’t really heard chapter and verse on who was really responsible for what, and I suspect we probably never will.
    Anyway, all rather murky.

  6. Richard P. Grant says:

    Heh. A bit like saying the Queen shouldn’t be ‘scapegoated’ for decisions made by Parliament, even though she doesn’t have a vote.

  7. Brian Derby says:

    This restaurant review of the Time and Space eatery at the RI may indicate the state that the place got into.

  8. Richard Wintle says:

    I don’t have anything sensible to add on the RI itself, but that restaurant review that Brian linked to was hilarious. So thanks for that.

    As an aside, who on earth would eat roasted Wood Pigeon? To my mind, that’s roughly equivalent to braised squirrel, or perhaps baked groundhog. Not appetising at all.

  9. Angela Saini says:

    I don’t know why the RI is losing money hand over fist, but it can’t ALL be Susan Greenfield’s fault, surely? I’m assuming here that she’s not the chef at Time and Space, that she’s also not the accountant, the events co-ordinator nor the single-handed publicity team? If the place is in trouble then sacking the figurehead isn’t going to make much of a difference. I’m not sure she should be reinstated, but perhaps the governing council does need a little shake-up if the place is going to sort itself out… That’s just my humble opinion.

    But the debacle is keeping me more glued to the Internet than the election coverage.

  10. Richard P. Grant says:

    Well, it was her, apparently, who made all these changes that got them into such trouble. Allegedly. And 200 grand a year can’t hurt.

  11. Austin Elliott says:

    The RI Council members actually turn over, Angela. This current Council is not the same one that green-lighted the refurb, though it is (largely) the one that decided to dispense with the job of Director (as the job previously existed).

    There was a comment on a story on the RI business in the Times back in January that I thought was quite perceptive, written by one Rick Andrews:

    “The core of the problem was structural within the RI. By the job of Director combining both Scientific leadership and business leadership, the RI set themselves up to fail at one or the other as only a rare few candidates (suggestions please!) would have excelled at both. They need a person of high scientific credibility, charisma, excellent communication skills and a good public profile to promote the causes of science with the public, the government and with fellow scientists. This I believe Sue Greenfield did well. But they also need someone to manage the funding, properties and the expenses to achieve the first.

    I would have proposed, if anyone had asked, separation of the roles, both reporting to the Trustees, expected to work together but with distinct responsibilities.”

    While it seems highly likely (at least to me) that the business and finance aspects of the RI are likely to be much better sorted now the dust has settled, the question of what they will do about the SCIENTIFIC leadership remains.

    Though obviously not everyone would agree with Rick Andrews’ view of SG’s tenure, it is not clear how scientific leadership will happen under the new set-up. This was the point Lord Rees made when he resigned as a Trustee, and it does seem to be a valid one. I guess it is connected with the “What is the RI’s scientific role going to be?” question, which also awaits an answer. Of course, the RI supposedly initially offered SG a “cut-down” Director role, so it could be that a “Scientific Director” job might yet re-appear. Whether it would be paid is another question.

    As to the restaurant, I think they should turn it into a Pizza Express… though I think there is already one just round the corner, so probably that wouldn’t fly either.

  12. Matt Brown says:

    I think the restaurant recently closed down for evening meals, presumably due to lack of custom.

  13. Stephen Curry says:

    Many thanks for the reportage, Austin – glad to hear that sense has prevailed. I very much hope that the RI can now start digging itself out of this mess. Prof Greenfield could help by finding a graceful way to withdraw from the field of battle.

  14. Austin Elliott says:

    @Matt: having the restaurant in the basement, of course, means it has no “street footprint” / presence to draw people in. The bar (street level) is rather where a restaurant ought to be.

    @Stephen: agreed on the second count. When you hear about a dismissed senior person threatening legal action it often means they are not happy with the redundancy package they have been offered, and negotiations between the lawyers subsequently lead to an “agreed settlement”, as the phrase is The word from the RI meeting was seemingly that SG had been offered only “statutory redundancy terms”, which is kind of hard-ball from the RI management, though I suppose fits with the current financial stringency. But you would think there were some grounds for a compromise so that everyone could move on with more useful things.

  15. Matt Brown says:

    Austin: The restaurant IS at street level! The basement is for the museum and certain lab equipment. Look – you can clearly see daylight:


  16. Austin Elliott says:

    Oops! Sorry Matt – how have I misremembered that?! I’ve been there for SciOnline the last two yrs. I guess one does walk downstairs to the restaurant from the lecture theatre and rooms on the 1st floor. Oh well. Declining mental powers, I guess.

    I guess it still doesn’t LOOK all that much like a restaurant from outside, mainly because the facade of the building is preserved – so no big picture window to see the diners through – apart from in the bar? I was thinking of your point from last yr about needing ways to “signpost” people in to use the restaurant / bar, and how the RI did a much worse job than the Wellcome did up on Euston Rd.

    Some of the reports indicated the rebels were suggesting Luke “Pizza Express” Johnson would become a consultant for the catering if they won the day. It definitely sounds like they need something, but one wonders where “posh full service contemporary Anglo-French bistro” is it. Basically at the prices they are charging (see Brian’s link to the damning restaurant review) they need lots of people to CHOOSE to make a special trip to dine there. But that seems a very tough ask given all the competition. And if they’ve closed for evening meals it suggests they have already admitted it is a non-starter.

  17. Austin Elliott says:

    PS Mark Henderson’s twitter feed says there will be a “startling” interview with Greenfield in the Times tomorrow.

    So it doesn’t like the whole business is going to fade away just yet.

  18. Stephen Curry says:

    Sounds ominous…

  19. Austin Elliott says:

    Extended and, er, uncompromising, (and even somewhat bizarre) interview with Susan Greenfield in the Times here.

  20. Richard P. Grant says:


  21. Brian Derby says:

    In the Times interview (of course transferred to print by a journalist) she comes over as pretty weird. That she started off doing classics reminds me of another eminent scientist. Other than that there are no similarities. I guess the trustees must be regretting appointing her over Harry Kroto 11 years ago.

  22. Austin Elliott says:

    @Brian: Was Harry Kroto up for the RI job when SG was appointed? Hadn’t heard that before.

    @Richard: Quite, though someone on Twitter said it was probably a mis-hearing of:

    “”Yuck!” and “Wow”!”

    – which is a phrase SG has sometimes used to exemplify the fairly instant reactions people have to online things (esp games) and the presumed short online attention span.

    The interview definitely comes over to me as one it would be better not to have given “in the heat of battle.” I am slightly reminded of the oft-repeated line about:

    “Never send an angry email while you’re still actually angry.”

    It is all rather sad, and I really can’t see that dragging it out is going to help, as there is clearly no way she could now go back to the RI. None. Nada. Zilch. So why keep on with the case?

    Back in 2004 I wrote an article about science communication for Physiology News (full PDF ver), in which I said:

    “Anyone who has interviewed prospective …undergraduates over the last decade will have heard television series and televised lectures given by people like Colin Blakemore, Susan Greenfield and Nancy Rothwell repeatedly mentioned as one of the things that inspired them to apply to do a physiology, or other bioscience, degree.”

    – and I could have added SG’s earlier books on the brain, which were also frequently mentioned by the kids.

    I am sure the overwhelming majority opinion in the biz will be people thinking SG could do what she does best and write another book, or “rally” some of the psychologists or cognitive neurosci people into doing more research into the impact of the internet/gaming/online info whatever. When this kind of topic gets discussed in (online!) places like the Bad Science Forums people frequently say that there is quite a bit of research on this stuff already, which is another book in the making. But as we have seen with Simon Singh, protracted legal cases can take over your life. And where is that going to get SG, or the RI?

  23. Stephen Curry says:

    Have you seen Gelada’s proposal on what the RI should focus on?
    I agree that they should probably ditch doing primary research and focus on making science available/accessible to the public.

  24. Austin Elliott says:

    Thanks for the link Stephen – interesting.

    I agree with Gelada about some things – the likely struggle to sell the RI as an “exhibition/event space”, the need for a new modus operandi (which, as he says, everyone agrees with), and the centrality of science communication and public practical demonstration to what they do (or should do).

    The issue of whether the RI should do primary research – and, if so, where – is a very vexed one. Being a research institution is obviously a big part of their history and tradition. A lot of the older members seem (judging by the media stories) to have felt it was very important they continue to be one – certainly, the renovation and the need to sell buildings seems to have been unpopular partly because it meant moving the chemistry research off-site.

    On the other hand… given the cost of building and running a modern facility to do any kind of chemistry or nanotech research, one has to wonder if it was practicable to keep a stand-alone research facility open on the main RI site. Moving the chemists off-site, presumably to an “RI lab” in UCL’s Chemistry Dept, would have a lot of defenders as a pure practicality-based managerial decision. After all, this is the era when (e.g.) the MRC decided it was not viable to have an entire Institute (NIMR Mill Hill) running stand-alone.

    Giving up primary research altogether, of course, is a step beyond moving the research off the historic site. One can imagine a lot of members saying “If there’s no research then it isn’t the RI any more”. In some ways, having a couple of “RI Labs” or “RI Professors” nested in other London institutions is an obvious compromise. If the people concerned were also people with a big interest in public communication then you would think a “two site” job was not that unworkable.

    Also interested in Gelada’s remarks about the Centre for Life in Newcastle. I once interviewed for a job there as an “interface” person between the molecular biologists/ geneticists and the exhibit/communication folk. Gelada seems quite impressed, though the things I have heard from biologists about it in recent years haven’t been quite as upbeat.

  25. Austin Elliott says:

    Just up on Guardian science correspondent Ian Sample’s Twitter feed:

    “Just in: Royal Institution and Susan Greenfield have “reached full agreement” over the baroness’s departure as director.”

    “Baroness Greenfield has dropped charges of sexual discrimination against the Royal Institution; details not forthcoming. Yet.”

  26. Austin Elliott says:

    And the Evening Standard covers the story here.

    The report quotes a brief statement from the RI:

    “The Royal Institution of Great Britain and Baroness Greenfield are pleased to announce that they have reached full agreement as to the terms for Baroness Greenfield’s departure from the post of Director…

    Neither the Royal Institution nor Baroness Greenfield intends to make any further comment on the terms or the circumstances leading up to her departure.”

  27. Brian Clegg says:

    I’ve come to this rather late thanks to a tweet (cheers Stephen). For what it’s worth, apart from the ridiculous amount of money wasted, during her tenure the public (Talking Point) lecture programme was decimated and still isn’t back to its former glory. That, for me, is what the RI should be all about.

    As for her Baronessness, she does strike me as a little hypocritical, constantly attacking video games while at the same time making money from endorsing a, erm, video game.

  28. Stephen Curry says:

    Careful what you write Brian! Libel laws being what they are.

    It is a good outcome for all concerned. The matter can now be laid to rest, even if we are all in the dark about the terms of the (dis)agreement. Hope the RI can get back to business.

  29. Austin Elliott says:

    Though I should stress I have no special knowledge, I doubt the “disconnect” you allude to went unnoticed in the scientific community, Brian. And Ben Goldacre had blogged about it some time back, which earned it widespread attention.

    Anyway, I agree with Stephen that the outcome today is a good one for all concerned. At least now the RI and SG can hopefully both now get back to doing what they do best – though in the RI’s case they still need to have a proper think about what that is, see above.

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