April 12, 2010 10:36 pm

Coup bid at Royal Institution fails

The trustees of the financially troubled Royal Institution – one of Britain’s most august scientific bodies – resoundingly defeated an attempt by dissident members to sack them at a special general meeting on Monday night.

The 512-to-121 vote in favour of the board followed an emotionally charged two-hour debate attended by 650 members, who spilled out of the historic Faraday lecture theatre into the RI’s libraries and galleries. The RI has been promoting science and carrying out research at its imposing Mayfair headquarters for more than 200 years.

Not present but very much at the heart of the debate was Baroness Susan Greenfield, the charismatic former director whose dismissal last December led a group of unhappy members to commandeer Monday night’s meeting. She has sued for unfair dismissal and sex discrimination, and after the vote she said she would be pursuing the case.

The dissident members tried to convince the meeting that the current 12-member board had made Lady Greenfield a scapegoat for a crisis that was their collective responsibility.

“I see us hurtling towards financial ruin,” said Lisa Jardine, the historian of science and chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.

Lord Julian Hunt, former head of the UK Meteorological Office, would have chaired a new transitional council if the move to sack the existing board had succeeded.

He denied that the dissidents were a front for the return of Lady Greenfield, but said: “The RI shouldn’t be like organisations that declare people redundant and then have to pay substantial compensation.”

Lord Hunt said he had promises of financial help from wealthy donors, including Luke Johnson, former chairman of Channel 4.

Andrew Osmond, RI treasurer, said the institution had a £2m deficit last year and was losing £100,000 a month. The financial problems started when costs overran on the £22m refurbishment of its building – opened by the Queen in 2008 – while promised donations failed to appear.

But the board persuaded the meeting that it had the crisis in hand. Adrian de Ferranti, chairman, said: “We have made great progress in restoring the RI to financial health.”

Four donors have pledged a total of £8.75m in interest-free loans, which might be convertible into gifts, Mr de Ferranti said. The Hambro banking family and Hiscox, the insurance company, pledged £2m each.

After the vote was announced, Mr de Ferranti told members: “You have my assurance that we will not only listen but also act.”

Lady Greenfield said: “Obviously I’m disappointed. I felt we had a very exciting agenda and vision for rescuing the RI.”

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