Reprieve for Royal Institution’s board

In the end it wasn’t even close. At a special general meeting last night, members of the Royal Institution voted 512 to 121 against a move to oust the board and bring in a new group of trustees.

The sad saga of the RI has fascinated scientific London since December when its charismatic director, Susan Greenfield, was made redundant in the midst of a financial crisis at the 211-year-old institution.

A high-powered group of dissident RI members – including Julian Hunt, former head of the Met Office, and Lisa Jardine, historian of science and chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority -  triggered the SGM. They felt that the 12-member board of trustees had unfairly made Greenfield the scapegoat for a crisis that was their collective responsibility.

But at last night’s meeting – attended by around 650 of the RI’s 2,400 members, who spilled out of the historic Faraday lecture theatre into libraries and galleries – the dissidents were strangely inarticulate.

They failed to make a convincing case to support a move that would have been unprecedented at a British charity: to sack all the trustees simultaneously. Members who spoke from the floor made clear that they were not prepared for such a revolution, whatever the rights and wrongs of the case.

Nor did the dissidents make clear whether their primary motivation was to improve the RI’s governance or to reinstate Greenfield, who is suing the institution for sex discrimination and unfair dismissal.

Another important factor was the evidently strong feeling of RI staff that the present board should remain in place and Greenfield should not return.

After this vote of confidence by the membership, there are two priorities for the board and management.

Firstly, with losses running at £100,000 a month, the RI urgently needs new funds. Adrian de Ferranti, the chairman, said four donors had offered £8.75m in interest-free loans that might be convertible into gifts.

Secondly, the RI must recruit a top scientist (who is also a good communicator) to a leadership position. The current trustees and staff include no well-known scientists – which is clearly unacceptable in an institution that aims to be a world-class promoter of science.

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Margaret McCartney is a Glasgow-based GP and FT Weekend columnist. She started writing for the Life and Arts section in 2005 and moved to the magazine in 2008. She also has her own blog: www.margaretmccartney.com/blog

Clive Cookson has been a science journalist for the whole of his working life. He joined the FT in 1987. Clive, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education.

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