A defence of the RI

In such times of economic instability and government cutbacks, the sad news of institutions having to close due to funding problems is becoming a more harsh reality.  Along with many other science enthusiasts and professionals alike, I was dismayed recently to hear of the possibility that the Royal Institution (RI), the place where “science lives”, may be forced to close its doors for good.

Subsequently, I was a little taken aback by an editorial response to the news – from Nature, no less.

It’s certainly a thought-provoking read. The author of this editorial does make a good point: science, and how we communicate about it, is evolving. With new technologies and widespread internet access providing more exciting opportunities to educate and inform than ever before, arguing that fact is futile. Additionally, with many global issues that we face, including over-population, climate change and pollution, effective science communication has arguably never been more important.

However, I firmly believe that increasingly widespread use of technology in education should NOT come at the expense of more traditional media. Contrary to the beliefs of some, the lecture is not a “dead” form of science communication. Allow me to elaborate a little, and explain some of my own reasons for why we should save the RI.

Without wanting this to sound like a personal statement, I have always loved science, and enjoyed studying inside and outside the classroom for as long as I can remember. But learning scientific facts was only part of the reason why I grew to love it so. The history of science itself, and the story of how study has changed over thousands of years, offers such wonder and amusement. Whilst undoubtedly played up by the history books – particularly the Horrible Science books I so love – the stories of scientists and their work in years gone by continue to fascinate me, and countless other adults and children alike. Learning about science within the contexts of political and social conditions of a particular time allows us to understand scientists’ plights, and makes the science itself more memorable.Who has ever learned about the discovery of gravity without Newton and the apple? Would the story of Fleming’s discovery of penicillin be so captivating if we didn’t know it had been a total accident? It’s difficult to tell, but I would imagine not.Talks and lectures are a vital part of this storytelling, and are a superb way of engaging directly with an audience.

The aforementioned Nature editorial suggests that the RI has “media, bloggers and tweeters snapping at its heels”. I suppose it’s true that with the number of science professionals and enthusiasts using social media, there seems to be little shortage of places to find information. But being a blogger myself, the implication that we’re “snapping at the RI’s heels”, could not really be further from the truth. There is realistically no need for bloggers, tweeters and long-lived scientific institutions such as the RI to compete. Of course, there are certain things that modern media can provide that lectures and exhibitions cannot: namely helping to make science more of a force in mainstream media and everyday life. But there are some things that simply cannot be conveyed via the internet. Sitting in a lecture hall, particularly one as significant and historic as in the RI, is truly a unique experience. When delivered with enthusiasm, lectures and debates have the power to truly inspire, excite, and bring people together. Why shouldn’t they work in harmony with new technology?  There are few things more stirring than listening to a well-delivered lecture by someone who clearly loves what they do, and these lectures are often enhanced with technology. This magic isn’t lost when lectures are broadcast, either; having recently watched Bill Gates’ “Impatient Optimist” lecture on television (for example), I still found his passion for the subject captivating. Put simply, I feel that no forms of science communication should exceed at the expense of any others.

Another concern is that with new technology, the study of science in schools is in danger of becoming a classroom experience further removed from the reality of science. We must keep in touch with real science by getting our hands dirty – metaphorically or otherwise. Having been a science enthusiast from primary school through to the present day (and proudly so), I have a multitude of memories from school that will stay with me throughout my life. In Chemistry lessons our teacher made flammable methane bubbles, and for an end-of-A-Levels-treat, we had a class gunpowder fight (whilst probably not conventionally ‘safe’, it was THE standout hour of my educational career). In Physics we played Russian Roulette with a Van de Graaf generator, hooked up electrical circuits and wired plugs for ourselves. In Biology, field trips and dissections captivated the whole class, and allowed us to see life – real life – up close. Physically connecting with the world around us in a scientific context creates memories and experiences that really leave their mark. Helping to create these personal and emotional connections is something classic institutions such as the RI do very well, and I worry about what would happen without them. For students in particular, it is also essential to have an understanding of experimental methods to support scientific facts. This is something I only began to appreciate fully during my final year at university, when a lecturer asked a 200 person+ theatre room at large how we might go about doing a certain cell stain (nobody had a clue…but learnt quickly enough).

Finally, and because I am a sentimental being, I believe the RI should be saved because the premises themselves are simply astonishing. The RI building is reminiscent of a previous grandeur, and a time when science was reserved for the wealthy and bored. It is a place that, like the Natural History Museum, sparks my imagination from the moment I step in the doors. To have been a fly on those walls during historic discoveries and demonstrations is something we can only dream of…but we can still dream of it. I fear that if the building were lost to a developer, such sparks of imagination, wonder and scientific daydreaming would be lost completely.

Long live the RI!

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