Leading article: Science and the establishment

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The Independent Online

It could have been a scene out of the novels of Anthony Trollope or John Galsworthy: the massed ranks of a venerable science organisation, the Royal Institution, gathered to vote on a resolution to restore a high-profile woman who had been dropped as its director over budgetary overruns.

You didn't need much knowledge of the British establishment to guess what would be the outcome. A London club – for that is what the Royal Institution is, to a large extent – doesn't vote willingly for root-and-branch change, still less in favour of the former director, Lady Susan Greenfield, who wears short skirts and red leather jackets. Not that the vote represented a simple conflict between modernity and fuddy-duddiness. Lady Greenfield brought a good deal of publicity to the organisation but, in doing so, put off some of its backers and members, who accused her of doing so for her own interests, rather than theirs. Nor can financial prudence be dismissed in an institution which has overspent by several million on its £20m refurbishment programme.

But then publicity, or rather public relations, lies at the heart of the Royal Institution and its role. Founded in 1799, in deliberate distinction to the more academic Royal Society, it was set up to bring technological innovation and science teaching to a wider audience. In the early days, it drew such crowds that the road outside its headquarters in Mayfair had to be turned into one of the capital's first one-way streets.

The vote on Monday evening does not resolve the problem the institution has in repeating that success today. The refurbishment of its offices, glorious though they are, has in some ways reinforced its image as a central London club, rather than an outgoing, modern science centre, as well as landing the institution with much higher costs. Lady Greenfield, for all her faults, was trying to broaden its outreach and take it into the modern world of the internet and popularisation.

Her rejection may satisfy some of the institution's backers and restore some stability after the upsets of this year. But if it simply allows the members to relapse into the comforts of their re-upholstered armchairs, it will serve neither the interests of the organisation, nor science.