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.

Screenshots of Toffee/Salonee Gadgil
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What I learned from Toffee – the elitist dating app

I tried out the new dating app for posh people.

A while ago, I was on a first date, via Tinder. Let’s call the fella Joe. He knew I’d grown up in India and had only been living in London a few months. I’m sure before we met he’d made a few assumptions about what that might mean.

Joe and I got on – easy chat, arm touching, the lot. A few drinks in, Joe relaxed and revealed I wasn’t as he’d expected; my English far too good and my pop culture references too familiar for someone who’d grown up so far away.

I did a big ol’ eye roll in my head, while politely explaining that English is my first language and I grew up watching Crystal Maze just like he did.

“But the way you talk,” he said. “I can hardly hear your accent. If anything, you sound posh. Posh, with a hint of curry!”

I stared at him in silence, confused about whether to be amused or offended. Of all the things I wanted to say, this slipped out: “But brown people can’t be posh!”

“Sure you can,” he explained. “You use words like ‘thrice’ and ‘hence forth’, those are things only posh people do.”

I sort of understood his confusion. The outcome of a colonial education was being interpreted as a marker of upper-class status. “Oh, dear Joe,” I thought to myself. “I speak the way posh white folk taught my people to speak. This is imitation Burberry, not the real stuff.”

I never saw Joe again. But he left me curious about the concept of poshness. There are the usual tropes: privately educated, preppy dressing, polo playing types called things like Arabella or Bertram.

But the word posh gets thrown around lot. For someone who hasn’t grown up in England, it’s a bit difficult to understand.


To sign up to Toffee you have to link up your Facebook profile. The author goes by "Bombom" on Facebook. Photo: Salonee Gadgil

The recently launched dating app called Toffee is exclusively for posh people, according to its founder Lydia Davis. Predictably, reactions to the app have been those of ridicule and outrage, with woke Twitter warriors saying it’s another way of reinforcing archaic social stratification most of us want to move away from.

In reaction, some posh people sulked about being the subject of ridicule; they didn’t choose to be called Bertram.

Part of me sympathises.

Curious, I downloaded Toffee. But for Toffee, the fact that I use the word “thrice” isn’t quite posh enough. To be able to use the app you have to have gone to a private school, either in the UK or US.

There are schools in India that may be considered posh, like the Doon School. It’s where the Indian one per cent goes – your Nehrus and Gandhis. There’s a large population of Doon School alumni in England, but I couldn’t find reference to it on the app.

Toffee isn’t for all upper-class people, then; it seems it’s an app for upper-class white English people. This reaffirms what I said to Joe: “Brown people can’t be posh.”


A referral incentive includes a ticket and drink at a polo event. Photo: Salonee Gadgil

Having been single for two years, and done a deep dive into the world of dating apps, I’ve discovered as many types of men in this country as there are varieties of cheese. Sure, the Europeans do cheese better – and perhaps they do men better too – but we’re on the subject of variety not quality.

Personally, I believe one of the joys of using dating apps is the sheer variety of people they introduce you to. You have the chance, if you have an open mind, to extend the limits of your social circle. I should know, I’ve dated an underwater mechanic, the owner of a tech company, a string theorist, a poet, a cop and a trapeze artist. And my life has been richer for it.

I despair at the idea that people are choosing to find love based on how much money their potential partner’s parents spent on their education. But equally, I like the idea that Arabella and Bertram can have their own fenced-off manicured field to play equestrian games in. I imagine they discuss that enlightening gap year they had in India, where they took yoga lessons – the instructions were in impeccable English, would you believe it?!

Me personally, I’d rather run free among those who believe they could find love anywhere, even the circus.

Salonee Gadgil is on the editorial team at Creative Review magazine. She co-hosts a talk series called The Swipe Hype: a modern-day salon held once every quarter in London to discuss the dilemmas of dating in the digital age.

This article was amended on 16 April 2018 to clarify details about the Toffee app.