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Royal Institution confirms ‘possible’ sale of landmark building

Richard Sykes, chairman of the Royal Institution, has confirmed reports that the charity may sell some—or all—of its landmark building on Albemarle Street in London’s west end.

“The RI and its advisers are exploring a range of options to ensure it can continue to pursue fully its charitable aims and deploy its resources optimally,” said Sykes, former chairman of pharma giant GSK, in a statement on 17 January. “It is clear that this is likely to involve a restructuring of the charity and, ideally, a substantial partnership. It may also involve the RI sub-letting or disposing of some or all of its Albemarle Street property.”

Sykes added that it is “well known” that renovation of the building during the past 10 years or so has “undermined the financial position of the charity”.

According to a 2011 financial statement, the RI has been struggling with a £7.1 million deficit on general funds “largely as a result of the excessive costs of the refurbishment”. The renovation was completed in 2008.

News of the sale was first reported in The Times newspaper on 17 January. The article claimed that the property will soon be listed for sale by a real estate agency for £60m or more.

Martyn Poliakoff, foreign secretary of the Royal Society, said it would be a “great tragedy” if the Royal Institution’s building is “lost to science”.

“It is part of our proud scientific heritage and a reminder of when science was very much at the heart of our culture. People get a real buzz from going into a building and knowing that Faraday worked there. It is important that as a nation we do as much as we can to maintain our scientific heritage,” he said in a statement.

In another statement, Colin Blakemore, professor of neuroscience and philosophy at the University of London, said: “The RI invented science communication, but there are now a multitude of other organisations that do the same things, sometimes better and usually more cheaply.

“Nevertheless, the loss of this icon of public science would be a tragic signal that Britain no longer values its unique contribution to history. A fraction of the cost of a Picasso or a football club would save this venerable institution. Surely there’s a benefactor out there who wants to secure a place in history by rescuing it.”

The Royal Institution is a science-communication charity, set up some 200 years ago. Its best-known initiatives include the Christmas lectures, started by the scientist Michael Faraday in 1825.