The Royal Institution doesn't represent my kind of Britishness in science

By all means, let’s save the Royal Institution from closure, but let's also take the opportunity to replace its Victorian vision of science with one that looks more like Britain today.

Scientists have been up in arms about the likely sale of the Royal Institution’s (RI) building on Albermarle Street. This is the place where Michael Faraday made his discoveries in electromagnetism, and where public lectures have explained the latest ideas of science for nearly 200 years.

One of the prime reasons given for the outcry is that the tradition of RI’s Christmas Lectures would be lost. Watching the lectures on television is a sacred ritual for a certain type of British middle-class child. The lectures are then recreated around the world. The tour is “an important ambassador for British Science”, as Bristol University psychologist Bruce Hood, the 2011 lecturer, wrote at yesterday.

I have nothing against the lectures – if I watch them, I generally enjoy them. But I’m uncomfortable with this vision of Britishness in science. As someone who spent the early 80s referred to by my peers as the “school Paki” (despite being of Caribbean descent), the RI is just not my kind of British.

For a start, there's the gender issue. We already know we are failing girls when it comes to science. Girls and boys do equally well at GCSE-level physics, but only 20 per cent of A-level physics students are girls. The Royal Institution’s offering of role models can’t be helping. Its lectures have been running every year since 1825 (apart from a few years during WW2). In all that time there have been four female lecturers.

Including those four women, though, I’m not aware of a lecturer who was anything other than white.

If we learned anything from the Olympics opening ceremony last year, it’s that we’re proud to display Britain as a multicultural nation. But while our athletes and musicians hail from every community, our scientists are not quite so diverse. This is not a Britain I am proud to put on display to the world. Especially when it ends up failing a significant minority.

The voices clamouring for the RI to be saved are the same voices who like to point out that training in science leads to a higher income. What a shame, then, that young black British people are not able to take advantage of this opportunity.

Earlier this month, researchers at King’s College London released a study showing that 18 per cent of British black children are interested in a career in science (£). That’s significantly higher than the 13 per cent of British white children. However, the black children don’t get to follow through on their aspirations.

A different study, published in March last year, shows where things start to go wrong. Steve Strand of Oxford University’s Department of Education found that, at age 14, 46 per cent of White British students are entered to the higher tier science test. 38 per cent of Bangladeshi students are given this opportunity, alongside 33 per cent of Black African, 28 per cent of Pakistani and 28 per cent of Black Caribbean students.

With achievement having been restricted by entry, 12 per cent of White British students achieve the highest level, compared to only 6 per cent of Pakistani and Black African students and 5 per cent of Bangladeshi and Black Caribbean students. These kinds of achievements (and failures) set the course for future studies and specialisms.

I first wrote about this disparity in 1997, when only 12.4 per cent of Birmingham’s black Caribbean boys achieved the top three grades in GCSE science, compared with 39.6 per cent of white boys. I included a report of a teacher who admitted that he had laughed when black children had asked for help getting the grades they needed to study medicine. When Asian children had made the same request, he had gone to the library with them and worked alongside them to improve their understanding.

Clearly, these are issues for educators, but it’s also about role models. And the white male public face of British science – also on display at the Royal Society, I should add –  isn’t helping. By all means, let’s save the Royal Institution. But if and when it is saved, let’s take this opportunity to make sure its Victorian values disappear, to be replaced by a reflection of the modern Britain that really is rather great.


The Royal Institution in Albemarle Street in a painting of 1838 by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd. Image: WikiCommons

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

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New Times: David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed – both of which squeeze the state's power.

Left-wing political parties exist to use the power of the state to rectify unjust distributions of power in society. What has gone wrong with this project? First, the political parties bit. Established parties everywhere are struggling to seem relevant to most people’s everyday concerns: they look increasingly like the tired relics of a more hierarchical age. The exception, of course, is the current Labour Party, which has opened itself up to become the biggest mass-membership party in Europe. But the trade-off has been to move away from seeing the acquisition of power as its primary purpose. These days parties can only really draw people in by offering to be vehicles for the expression of political resentment and disenchantment. But that is no way to rectify the causes of their resentment; neglecting the challenge of power usually ends up making things worse.

However, this is just a symptom of the wider problem, which is the changing nature of power. Technology lies at the heart of it. The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed. First, it has empowered individuals, by providing them with unprecedented access to information, tools of communication and the means of expression. This is power exercised as choice: we all now have multiple ways of registering our likes and dislikes that never existed before.

Second, the digital revolution has empowered networks, creating vast new webs that span the globe. Some of them, such as Facebook, are close to being monopolies. We end up joining the networks that other people have joined, because that’s where the action is. This gives a small number of networks an awful lot of power.

Both of these developments are deeply problematic for the power of the state. The proliferation of choice makes citizens much harder to satisfy. Many of us have got used to micromanaging our lives in ways that leaves government looking flat-footed and unresponsive, no matter how hard it tries. At the same time, states face global networks that they have no idea how to control. International finance is one of these: money is information and information now has too many different ways to flow. States are getting squeezed.

The paradox is that the same forces that are squeezing the state are also giving impetus to left-wing politics. There are huge imbalances of power being created in networked societies. The monopolists are hoovering up money and influence. Personal connections count for more than ever, now that networked connections have become ubiquitous. Education is turning into a way of pulling up the drawbridge rather than moving up the ladder. One temptation for the left is to assume that the evidence of injustice will sooner or later outweigh the disabling effects of these social forces on the state. That is part of the Corbyn gamble: hang around until people are sufficiently pissed off to start demanding social-democratic solutions to their problems.

I don’t think this is going to happen. There is nothing to suggest that popular dissatisfaction will find its way back to the state as its best outlet. It will be channelled through the networks that are making the life of the state increasingly difficult.

The other temptation is to think that the left can achieve its goals by bypassing conventional social democracy and channelling its own ambitions into network politics. This is the other side of the Corbyn gamble, or at least the view of some of the people who have attached themselves to him: a new politics is coming that uses digital technology to mobilise fleet-footed networks of activists who can generate change without going through the cumbersome and time-consuming process of winning general elections. That also looks pretty wishful to me. These networks are just another vehicle for expressing personal preferences. They don’t have any means of changing the preferences of people who think differently. You need to win power to do that.

The state’s power is being squeezed by networks of empowered individuals, but these networks don’t have the kind of power necessary to do the redistributive work of the state. What is the left to do? It needs to try to find value in the fact that the state is not just another network. The right does this instinctively, by talking up the state’s security functions and championing ideas of sovereignty and national identity. But that does nothing to address the deleterious effects of living in a modern networked society, where we are swamped by personal choice but impotent in the face of corporate and financial power.

Rather than trying to harness the power of networks, the left should stand up for people against the dehumanising power of Big Data. The state isn’t Google and should not try to pretend to be. We don’t need more choice. We don’t need more efficiency of the kind that digital technology is endlessly supplying. We need protection from the mindless bureaucratic demands of the new machine age: the relentless pursuit of information, regardless of the human cost. There are limits to what the state can do but it retains some real power. It still employs real human beings; it educates them and provides them with welfare. It should do what is in its power to make the work tolerable and the education meaningful, to provide welfare in ways that don’t leave people at the mercy of faceless systems. The left needs to humanise the state.

At the moment, too much energy is being spent trying to humanise the party. We are told that people are tired of robotic, careerist politicians; they want unspun versions of people like themselves. But robotic politicians aren’t the problem; the coming age of robots is. While the party tries to feel more comfortable with itself, the effects of a networked society are running rampant. Acquiring the power of the state is still the best way to fight back. It doesn’t matter if that has to be done in an ugly, mechanised, artificial way, by careerist politicians with whom we wouldn’t choose to spend our personal time. Better an ugly, artificial politics than an ugly, artificial world. 

David Runciman is a professor of politics and the head of the department of politics and international studies at Cambridge

This article is part of a New Times collection of the future of the left. Read the other pieces here.


This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times