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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.

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

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 Nature.com 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.