The Royal Institution: not time to move on

The Royal Institution
Less than a week after the Royal Institution announced that it was contemplating the sale of its historic home in Albermarle Street, Nature published an editorial criticising the 200 year old organisation for having lost its science communication mojo in a world that had ‘moved on’. The journal went so far as to suggest that the RI should hand over its historical artefacts to the Science Museum and quit a field that is now over-run with “a lively pack of mass media, bloggers and tweeters”.

I beg to differ. As did Gail Cardew, the Director of Science and Communication at the RI, who wrote to Nature this week to provide some data on the RI’s activities that had been overlooked in the editorial.

Unlike the editorial, the rebuttal has been kept behind a paywall, which seems inappropriately asymmetric in a debate about an institution that is an important part of our scientific heritage. To further that debate I am posting the text of Dr Cardew’s letter below. I think it would be helpful if Nature made it freely available.

“You mischaracterize the impact and continued relevance of the Royal Institution of Great Britain (RI) by presenting an incomplete picture.

In 2012 the RI delivered 87 evening events. Of the 46 held in the Faraday Theatre, the mean attendance was 288, much higher than might be expected from a small marketing budget. The thriving schools programme featured 136 lectures and workshops, reaching nearly 13,000 students last year alone. The RI runs mathematics and engineering masterclasses for schoolchildren at more than 140 UK locations. Our activities score very highly using the industry-standard Generic Learning Outcomes, which gauge enjoyment, inspiration, knowledge and understanding.

Thanks to its unique position and unrivalled heritage, the RI attracts the best scientists and science communicators across its programmes, including psychologist Stephen Pinker and physicist Brian Cox.

Even if one thinks that public talks are irrelevant in this age of “the Internet and mass media”, then the RI is still a powerful player. Our televised Christmas Lectures had an audience of 4.2 million in 2011.

The RI Channel website launched just over a year ago and showcases some 300 videos, which have so far attracted almost 1 million views. Some highlight recent RI events, others feature re-digitized footage from our archive, and there are high-quality videos from scientific institutions across the world.

I accept that mistakes made by the RI have led to the current situation. The growing popularity of its programmes — live, broadcast and online — isn’t one of them.”


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One Response to The Royal Institution: not time to move on

  1. Ross Buchanan says:

    Excellent letter from Dr Cardew in response to a poorly researched editorial.
    Thanks Stephen

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