A year or so ago I was discussing the Royal Institution’s (RI) multi-million pound refurbishment to incorporate (among other things) an expensive restaurant and bar. “Why did they go and do that?” wondered my friend, “there’s a perfectly good pub just round the corner.”

Typical scientist. Why do we need an expensive restaurant when a pub is available? We’re an unworldly lot. And generally speaking, don’t earn enough to eat out in Mayfair that often. So what on earth was the RI thinking? Now, famously, they are up to their eyeballs in debt, said refurbishment having run over budget, and facing a case from former director Baroness Greenfield (of whom more later) for unfair dismissal amid a sulphurous cloud of sexism.

Of course, the RI is not just for scientists. The RI Christmas lectures are a deservedly beloved institution. Even if I can’t recall who has delivered them for, jeez, decades, I still recall being bowled over by a certain Dawkins chap (1991) and before him, Colin Blakemore (1982). The way Blakemore held my attention is especially impressive considering that at the time I was far more interested in Battle of the Planets than almost anything else.  Both these were broadcast before I became a professional scientist, and probably had something to do with my becoming one eventually. The RI has always had a high profile among the public at large. Perhaps it was hoped that the bar and restaurant would benefit from the recent flowering of interest in science, which has led at least one national newspaper to run a feature on how science is cool (really?).

If so, it would have helped if the restaurant was any good. Instead it opened to the sort of reviews that you’d kill for. If, that is, you were running a competing restaurant next door which sold battered shit on a stick. After reading Jay Rayner’s review in the Observer, I think I’d have gone for the turd tempura. Ouch.

It’s not obvious that the refurbishment was necessarily going to be such a costly mistake. The RI and other organizations like it are rightly trying to shed the slightly musty image they’ve developed. It is a dreadful shame when the press you get talks about all the interesting things which you did in the past. But the RI’s attempts have been a costly catastrophe. If they wanted to see how it should have been done, the Dana Centre and the Wellcome Collection have both produced excellent modern spaces for engagement with science.

And now, having generously micturated 22 million quid up the wall on the refurbishment, the RI is seized by political strife. On Monday, a meeting forced by some RI members considered whether to remove the RI council, and possibly pave the way for the return of Greenfield, who was made redundant in January. Followed by a secret ballot, the council was left in place, the rebels having been comprehensively defeated.

Susan Greenfield is, as she admits herself, a divisive figure. She is quite right that women are appallingly underrepresented at the top of academia, and that sexism continues to distort scientific careers. However it is also true that in science, as in many fields, there are both men and women who through their skills in networking, their aggressive appetite for career advancement, and an almost supernatural imperviousness to criticism which would wither a weaker soul into submission, come to occupy positions out of all proportion to their talent or achievement. I do not mean to imply that this is the case with Susan Greenfield, I merely wish to point out that such people exist, and they are found among both genders.

Her views on computer games however (among other things), seem to directly contradict her statement that “I love the way that science is absolutely ruthless, saying ‘Where is the evidence, prove it’. It is impartial, or should be.” But heck, one person’s cognitive dissonance is another’s attempt to start a high profile national debate on which they can be a self-appointed authority.

The RI’s work in outreach is now probably more important than the actual science done there. Despite its storied history as a place where discoveries have been made and Nobel prizes won, it is time to move on. I wish them luck,  but devoutly hope they look before their next leap.