Podium: Spreading the gospel of science

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The Independent Culture


From the inaugural lecture by the

Director of the Royal Institution, London

In a few short weeks I shall be taking over as the new Director of the Royal Institution. One of the Royal Institution's special qualities, which sets it apart from other bodies, is that it is not in any sense an inward looking organisation - it has always been aware of the need for scientists to play a full and visible role in society.

Since Humphry Davy invented the safety lamp to save lives in the coal mines, and since Michael Faraday gave the world the electric motor, we have been active in the promotion of science for a wider public.

The RI remains vital because what it provides is supremely relevant to the needs of the moment now in the twentieth century. This was true in our early years and will remain true in the new millennium that lies before us.

The Royal Institution quite properly takes its place at the epicentre of science. From such a position the RI can - and should - increasingly speak with authority on scientific matters. Its outstanding history and continuing tradition of leading-edge research provides a unique authority to speak about how science affects our everyday lives. I intend, that in the years to come, the pivotal role of the Royal Institution will further develop. The RI occupies a position of unique influence and should be a first port of call for all those who comment about scientific matters, all those who wish to find out more about science, all those who understand that science is a crucial part of our national life.

We shall be looking for new opportunities to work with journalists and broadcasters, to help promote science and to encourage a proper, responsible and informed approach to scientific issues. We shall not be afraid to take the lead, to initiate public debate, on specific matters of public concern or interest. We shall increasingly arrange seminars and conferences at which members of the public and scientists can exchange views and explore controversial issues. We need to seek new audiences, reach new readership. The survival of science, and our success as a nation, depends on it.

People's interest in science has never been greater, nor has its impact on them. Interest in scientific matters is not confined to people who read broadsheet newspapers or scientific journals; those who need the information the most may not be those familiar with such modes of communication. I should like people to look to us for a different kind of information, concise, pertinent and authoritative responses to the great scientific issues of the day. We will be ready, both philosophically and administratively, to provide it.

We will not, however, simply be sitting back waiting for people to come to us. We will increasingly be going to them. We already visit schools, but we should not stop there. For example, many employers may be amenable to the RI giving presentations at the workplace.

One could imagine that workers on the production line of a company would be stimulated and feel themselves more involved if someone from the RI came and gave them a short presentation about how the product they were packing actually worked and what it could do.

This would reach people who do not think of themselves as particularly science oriented, spreading the gospel of science in the way that we are uniquely placed to do. These are areas which I want us to explore in the months to come.

We have a product. Our product, which we should go out and sell, is science as a concept, scientific knowledge as an integral part of our modern way of life. We are going to be looking at ways of promoting this product to a market which I know from my own experience of publishing, radio and television is crying out for it.

Next year, as you know, the Royal Institution will be 200 years old. We intend to celebrate in style, with a whole series of special events intended to point not only to the fact that the RI has a long history of scientific service to the community, but also that we have a long future ahead of us as well.

A key ingredient in our bicentennial celebrations will be the promotion of awards for the new generation of younger scientists. Their capacity to innovate and discover new knowledge will all depend on us as we move forward into the future.

True to our roots, we shall also be placing great emphasis on the ability of these new scientists to communicate what they are doing. They must be able to foster a greater understanding and sense of partnership with the public; otherwise, their research may become irrelevant. I think myself incredibly lucky to share this precious responsibility with you as your new director.