Help save the Royal Institution


If you’re a Brit, you’ll know about The Royal Institution of Great Britain,which was founded in 1799 to disseminate scientific knowledge to the public. It’s now been doing that for 214 years, but, for the first time, it’s in danger of extinction. Financial difficulties are threatening the closure of this venerable and historic body by selling its headquarters.

The Royal has a distinguished past.  Thomas Henry Huxley, for instance, gave a series of public lectures there about Darwin’s theory. Their Christmas Lectures, intended for young people, began in 1825 and have featured a number of luminaries extending from Michael Faraday to Richard Dawkins and David Attenborough. Sir David and others who have lectured there wrote a letter to the Times which, though behind a paywall, is reported in the Telegraph:

The signatories of the letter, who have all given lectures at the Royal Institution, said the building had “nurtured some of science’s exciting and beneficial achievements”.

They wrote: “The Royal Institution has been home to some of the most important of Britain’s many contributions to science and engineering: the discovery of ten chemical elements, the first practical demonstrations of electricity, 14 Nobel Prizes and countless inventions.

“Since the start of its pioneering public lecture programme, through which science first entered popular culture, this building has not only nurtured some of science’s exciting and beneficial achievements, it has beamed them out to the world.”

It said that millions of families still watch the annual Christmas Lecture on television, more than 200 years after it was first given.

Written By: Jerry Coyne
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  1. It’s probably the worst time ever to ask the government to buy something, but I have signed in hope.

  2. This is the sort of thing I’d expect from my crowd- pave paradise and put up a parking lot. But oh well, I suppose it was excessively romantic of me to hold you Brits to a higher standard of civilization. Your beacon has dimmed.

  3. I remember staying home for the Christmas Lectures for many years. We had BBC reception where I lived in The Netherlands at the time. Then suddenly the Lectures had vanished, no word from the BBC anywhere. I later learned that the rights for them had been sold to some commercial TV station, erasing them beyond the UK. I remember thinking at the time that some serious rot must have set in in the UK, denying such an important educational institution as the Lectures to the rest of the world.

    Now they are being digitised and put on the internet, which is good. But a lot of Educational Magic was extinguished at the time….

  4. Is this not the closest thing science has to a cathedral? Are there publicly maintained cathedrals in Britain, St. Clemens and all that?

    You’re gonna fight over the Falklands but not this?

  5. If I recall correctly, David Cameron has said he wants to get rid of the entire UK debt in his 5-year first term as PM, which is insane considering how long it took to accumulate. You can guarantee he’ll use “reduction of debt” as an excuse not to do this if he doesn’t want to. I only wish I knew whether he wants to or not.

  6. In reply to #5 by This Is Not A Meme:

    Is this not the closest thing science has to a cathedral? >

    A good analogy, we should treat these places with reverence though sadly more people in this country worship the bloody and murderous ‘affair’ called football.

    The national lottery fund should be raided to buy out the buildings AND maintain them! Moreover the government should stop spending on useless internecine wars to educate people who would rather live in the 7th century and use that money to educate out own! The 80 million spent on that infernal wedding of ‘son of bat ears’ was another waste of public money!

  7. Signed.

    Even more than the science done there is its role in the education of the British people in science and reason. The Institution with Faraday leading the charge tackled issues of table turners and the like and set up a series of lectures on Education by seven men of science to tackle errant thinking. Faraday crowned this in his lecture with the observation that “…teaching the mind to resist its desires and inclinations, until they are proved to be right, is the most important of all, not only in things of natural philosophy, but in every department of daily life.”

    This place should be important to us.

  8. Not that I’d be opposed to my taxes being spent in this way but the article is a little thin on the reasons why the building is being sold. Does the RI own the building or is it being sold out from under them because they can’t afford the rent? If they are selling, have they explored all other options to raise money? Could the building be opened to the public? Partly turned into a museum? If they are tenants, can’t the RI just move to somewhere cheaper, if less grand? What exactly do they DO on a day-to-day basis that requires this fine, large old building? Could it exist, even thrive, as on online institution and hire suitable venues when they need to come together? Like I say, not enough information. I rather feel like I’m being asked to urge the Government to spend £60m out of nostalgia in order to keep things as they ever were rather than as a genuine last resort to ensure that the RI doesn’t cease to exist.

  9. Could this prestigious venue, not be taken over by one London’s universities as part of their science departments!

  10. The Royal Institution is an historically important building ;which should be maintained.
    Perhaps taxing religious institutions to help maintain it would be a wise move?
    There’s a lot of public money wasted on silly quangos which could also be used.
    I’m sure if they set up a fund; there wood be several ontributors ,including myself.

  11. Signed, because those we hope to persuade need icons, a genius loci and a grounded sense of lifetimes now passed.

  12. I love the Christmas lectures and watch them every year. But in truth I don’t get too dewy eyed about the venue. I think they could quite easily move the whole thing to another venerable institution, the science museum and it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

    Frankly, what is important is the BBC keeping the lectures and promoting something which is of enormous benefit to the nation even if the audience is relatively small. It was very upsetting for the lectures to go to Channel 4, who wanted to bugger around with the formulae.

    Recent live events with people like Brian Cox have encouraged me that the public appetite for science is growing again.

    Incidentally if you have teen age kids and they haven’t seen this years I urge you to get it on DVD. This years chemistry lectures were very engaging and well presented.

  13. It is vitally important to keep this outstanding building open, but it needs to be run properly in future and given a realistic chance of a sustainable future.

  14. When the Royal Institute was created, who was the major source for funds? Was it the Royal family? If the royal family isn’t contributing at least as much as the government is contributing, they should be asked to do so. During these hard times the government and the average citizen would have a hard time donating to it. However, the royal family makes a lot of money and really does not contribute a whole lot to the country.

  15. The Royal Society – which is older, and probably more distinguished than the Royal Institution, has moved many times in its history – from its beginnings in the Warden’s Lodgings at Wadham College, Oxford in the 1650s to Gresham College in London by the 1660s, Arundel House after the Great Fire, Fleet Street in the early eighteenth century, Somerset House in 1780, Burlington House in 1867 and to its current location in St. James’s, Westminster in the 1960s.

    One wonders why the Royal Institution can’t do the same. Is it just inertia? Surely a scientific society should be about more than just the length of time it has been at its current premises?

  16. In reply to #17 by Stafford Gordon:

    In reply to #2 by stephend:

    p.s. … and damn that bloody woman.

    Which woman?

    S G

    The answer is probably here and


  17. I’m all for paying to keep this building, but, in return, I insist that it is kept open and accessible to the public — that means not having prohibitive membership or access fees; and opening up its treasures to those interested in seeing it or researching it. If it is or remains an exclusive club, it doesn’t deserve my support!

  18. In reply to #23 by mmurray:

    In reply to #17 by Stafford Gordon:In reply to #2 by stephend:p.s. … and damn that bloody woman.Which woman?S GThe answer is probably here and here.Michael

    Peter Atkins’s former wife Susan Greenfield?

    I’m afraid I jumped to a conclusion, as anyone not trained as a scientist might tend to do, that it was Margaret Hilda, you know who.

    I never learn.

    S G

  19. In reply to #13 by aquilacane:

    Having the word Royal in there is a bit insulting.

    It is historical.

    In the early days around and before Darwin’s time, only aristocratic “gentlemen” (or people sponsored by them), could afford time, equipment, accommodation, and travel, to carry out and publish scientific investigations. Such people were also the politicians in government.

    Getting a king or queen to fund your investigations was the top number!

    It was only with the industrial revolution, that the science and engineering funding moved to the new-rich industrialists like Lord Armstrong ( (1810-1900) – the famous arms manufacturer, engineer, and science innovator – who was probably (along with Parsons), responsible for the British navy ruling the seas of the world for decades.

    The revolutionary home of Lord Armstrong, Victorian inventor and landscape genius, was a wonder of its age. Built on a rocky crag high above Debdon Burn, the house was the first in the world to be lit by hydro-electricity. Cragside is a garden of breathtaking drama, whatever the season. Armstrong constructed 5 lakes, one of Europe’s largest rock gardens, and planted over 7 million trees and shrubs. –

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