Royal Institution Director Forced Out, May Sue for Sex Discrimination (Updated)

Deputy News Editor

After running the Royal Institution (RI) of Great Britain for more than a decade, a period in which she spearheaded a controversial and costly physical renovation of the science body’s historic London headquarters, neuroscientist Susan Greenfield found her director position eliminated and herself locked out of an RI-owned flat on Friday night. On Saturday, the trustees who oversee the RI released a statement explaining the apparent cost-saving move, saying it came after a recent review of the body’s governance led them to conclude that “the requirement for the functions of the role of Director as currently defined has ceased to exist.” But Greenfield isn’t going quietly; she quickly released her own statement saying she’s considering legal challenges to her dismissal that may include sexual discrimination charges against the RI.

The RI was founded in 1799 and has long worked to promote science to the public; its Christmas lectures are a British tradition. The RI has also provided a home for a small number of celebrated scientists, including physicists Michael Faraday and Lawrence Bragg. The RI reopened its headquarters last year, showing off modernized laboratory space and a new high-end bar and restaurant within the headquarters. But rumors have been swirling that Greenfield might be pushed out ever since the RI’s precarious financial state came to light in a series of recent media reports. The £20 million-plus renovations forced the selling of other real-estate assets and still reportedly left the organization £3 million in debt. Its auditors even recently questioned the ongoing viability of the institution.

Greenfield has always been a polarizing figure; some have dismissed her scientific qualifications whereas others have praised her ability to communicate science to the public. (A Science profile of Greenfield captured the mixed views.) Last year, Greenfield added to her controversial resume with claims that heavy use of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter effectively rewires children's brains to have short attention spans.

But what seems to have lost Greenfield her job were matters of money not science. The RI had reportedly offered her a severance package or the possibility of continuing as director in a part-time or unpaid capacity, but she declined. In her statement, Greenfield says: "I am saddened and dismayed by developments and dispute the lawfulness of the current decision-making procedure. As well as contesting the legitimacy of the process, I will be presenting a claim in the employment tribunal which will include allegations of sex discrimination. I am the only female who has been appointed to this iconic post throughout the 211-year history of the Royal Institution, and I cannot see how this decision can be in the best interests of the organisation or its members."

Chris Rofe, the RI’s chief executive officer, has now assumed leadership of the RI, but some British scientists say the science body needs a charismatic researcher at the helm.

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UPDATE: Quentin Pankhurst, who in 2008 was appointed director of the Davy-Faraday Research Laboratories at the RI, just spoke with ScienceInsider and says that his group's investigations into bio- and nanomagnetism continue. "We are a self-sufficient part of the Royal Institution and not jeopardized in any way by the financial situation affecting the rest of the Institution,” he says. Pankhurst’s team and colleagues at University College London recently won a £1.6 million grant to explore how magnetic nanoparticles can treat cancer.

Posted in Education, Europe Royal Institution, Susan Greenfield