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 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.

 

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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Welcome to the new New Statesman website

We've had a makeover. We hope you like it!

In the past five years, the New Statesman website has grown beyond all our expectations. In 2010, barely half a million readers a month were visiting it; now, we regularly see around two million people. The way we read on the internet has changed in that time, too – more than half the people looking at our website are now doing so using a mobile phone or a tablet rather than their desktop computer. 

To reflect this shift, we have launched a new New Statesman website. The design is simple, clean and readable, as well as being optimised for screens small and large. There is a greater emphasis on images and typography. We have made the navigation more intuitive, so that it will be easier for you to find the features, columns and reviews you enjoy in the magazine online, as well as our web-only offering of fast-paced Westminster coverage, cultural comment and opinionated blogging. Above all, it is a place for reading, free of distraction and interruption.

The credit for the new website's design should go to New Statesman's development team - Sam Hall, Chris Boyle and Zoltan Hack (Chris even designed us a cute 404 page), with input from our design editor Erica Weathers. As you might have noticed, we are now using one of our magazine fonts (Unit Slab) for headlines, plus a body type that's similar to Documenta (Merryweather). 

On the editorial side, the project was led by our web editor Caroline Crampton, who spent many hours puzzling over the perfect taxonomy. Her attention to detail has been incredible. If you would like to give us any feedback, email me or Caroline on firstname.lastname@newstatesman.co.uk

So far, it's looking great - we've tripled the number of pages per visit, and increased dwell time on articles. But any update means that some features won't work quite how they used to, so here's a quick guide to what's new.

1. Our new homepage

The new front page is now mobile-optimised, and responsive across tablet and desktop. We're still fine-tuning it, but for now we're keeping things simple: a splash, three stories of the day, and better display for our popular Westminster-focused blog, the Staggers, edited by Stephen Bush. Further down, you'll find a mix of magazine and web-first content, plus links to our most popular stories, our podcasts, and our sister site CityMetric, edited by Jonn Elledge.

On mobile, we've stripped back the homepage - so if you want more options, then click the "hamburger" in the top right to see the full menu.

 

2. A longreads section

We now have a dedicated section for magazine features, and a special template for them, too. This means a much less cluttered reading experience, with more white space - perfect if you are settling down for 6,000 words on the menopause by Suzanne Moore, or the blockbuster last interview with Christopher Hitchens by Richard Dawkins

3. This Week's Magazine

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4. Comments

We've disabled comments for launch as the unit can be unpredictable, but they'll be back soon. You'll need to click to expand them at the bottom of stories (otherwise they would have interfered with the infinite scroll - which allows you to move on to another story once you've finished reading the first one). 

5. Our writers

For 102 years, of our biggest strengths has always been our world-class writers - from HG Wells to Rebecca West to Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens. We've now created a dedicated page where you can see our regular writers, both in print and online, and find links to their entire archives. 

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As well as the main New Statesman podcast - which offers politics, culture and foreign affairs - Caroline Crampton and Anna Leszkiewicz have recently launched SRSLY, a podcast which takes pop culture seriously. Recent topics include fandom, graphic novels and the politics of Harry Potter. You can subscribe here, and follow SRSLY on Twitter.

7. The Staggers

We've introduced a new unit on the homepage next to the splash, for the latest stories, and you can find the our rolling politics blog The Staggers underneath it. There's room on the homepage to display the three most recently published politics articles, so if you want a more in-depth look at the day's politics coverage, bookmark The Staggers' dedicated homepage

Anyway, we hope you like the new look - any feedback, drop me or Caroline a line by email or on Twitter.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.