She is a charismatic scientist, a gifted communicator and a flamboyant dresser with a taste for crimson leather jackets. As the first female director of the Royal Institution, the world's oldest independent scientific research body, Baroness Susan Greenfield promised dynamic new leadership and a successful future. Now she could be its last.
Warfare has broken out at the 200-year-old institution which votes today on a proposal to dismiss the entire current council and replace it with supporters of Lady Greenfield, who was made redundant from her post in January following cost overruns.
Her opponents have warned that the no-confidence vote is "unprecedented in legal history" and that if it is won it could lead to the institution's demise. Sponsors are said to fear that replacing the entire council would create instability. One is reported to be preparing to withdraw funding.
What started as a row over one woman's post has developed into a battle between rival factions within the scientific elite. Lady Greenfield accuses the RI of sexism – "I was unfairly dismissed. I am female and it is my contention that a man would not have been treated in the same way," she told the BBC on Friday. She has threatened to file an employment tribunal claim against the organisation.
The RI said it had made her redundant because its "requirements for the functions for the role of director as currently defined has ceased to exist".
The RI is £2.5m in debt and has annual losses of £1.75m after spending £22m on the refurbishment of its London headquarters in Albemarle Street, Mayfair, including an upmarket restaurant and bar, masterminded by Lady Greenfield. The work was funded by selling off property that had provided an income for the Institution.
A 21-page document sent to the 2,600 members by the trustees urges them to reject the no-confidence resolution and warns that, if passed, it could further destabilise the organisation and worsen its financial crisis.
Chris Rofe, the Institution's chief executive, said: "The Royal Institution is now well-positioned to capitalise on the benefits of the refurbished premises and the drive, skill and creativity of its staff. This positive momentum will not be helped by such combative manoeuvres... and the inevitable instability this process creates."
But supporters of Lady Greenfield, who include Professor Lisa Jardine, chair of the Human Fertilistation Authority, Lord Julian Hunt, former head of the Met Office and Miriam Stoppard, writer and broadcaster, are unmoved.
Professor Jardine told a newspaper yesterday that Lady Greenfield could win between £500,000 and £1m at tribunal. "That would only exacerbate the Institution financial crisis. The present council... are a funny boxed-in clique and we are trying to free the institution from their influence."
The dissident members say their priority is to improve the governance and finances of the institution rather than to re-instate Lady Greenfield. Critics have questioned the value of having a celebrity director who is not able to pull in much-needed finance while supporters worry that without a prominent figurehead the institution may be doomed.Reuse content