Eye on Burlington House

Having been forewarned of this story as soon as my copy of Private Eye arrived (this morning, owing to the Bank Holiday weekend) I headed straight to this:

It sounds rather alarming for the Royal Astronomical Society, which is currently accommodated in Burlington House in Piccadilly, but I do remember something similar being in the air not too long ago when I was a Member of RAS Council. The Government of the time threatened to increased rents and everyone involved with the RAS, including its Fellows, was a bit worried but an agreement was struck. Presumably now the leases are up for negotiation again?

It’s worth pointing out a few inaccuracies in the Eye piece.

  1.  “..the six Learned Societies complacently assumed they would continue to pay a peppercorn rent forever”. This is untrue as the rents have been renegotiated before (see above).
  2.  “The Royal Academy is still relatively flush….but the other five are effectively broke”. I don’t know anything about the others but I’d be very surprised if the Royal Society of Chemistry is “effectively broke” given the income from its academic publishing wing. It also has sizeable industrial income, as does the Geological Society. The Royal Astronomical Society has sizeable reserves in the form of a portfolio of long-term investments built up over the 200 years of its existence but it tends not to use them to fund expenditure; its main cash flow is provided again by academic publishing, especially Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. This year – the bicentenary of its foundation – is a bit of an exception because it has dipped into reserves to fund a series of celebratory outreach activities.
  3. The description of “vast clubbable tearooms” is inaccurate too. The RAS occupies rather cramped accommodation in one corner of Burlington house. There is a Fellows’ Room but it is rather small. There are staff offices, a (small) lecture theatre and an important historical library. There are also the President’s Apartments (which I have of course never seen).

I wouldn’t put it past this particular Government to kick out the Learned Societies and outsource Burlington House to Serco but even if this does happen, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.  In my view the RAS needs to shake off the fusty image that its current accommodation in what looks like an old museum tends to perpetuate.  It has always been the case that most of the regulars at the monthly Open Meetings in Burlington House are based in or near London, which means many Fellows don’t get the chance to be involved. Would it really be all that bad for the Royal Astronomical Society had to move? They may have to overhaul their finances anyway if their publishing revenues dry up…

Why not use the opportunity to move the Society out of London altogether to a place with a strong astronomical connection, Bath for example, although that would admittedly make it difficult to get to the Athenaeum in time for dinner…

And if “commercial rates” are going to be the thing for Government-owned buildings, shouldn’t the occupant of 10 Downing Street be charged for his accommodation?

 

 

4 Responses to “Eye on Burlington House”

  1. Rob Ivison Says:

    Like you, it’s a decade or more since I was on RAS Council, but I recall they were far from broke, even after the RAS Fellows were created (when the bankers ate all the pie in ~2008); stockpiling funds was justified precisely by the threat of eviction from Burlington House. Moving closer to the geographical centre of the UK astronomical world would do them good, no?

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    It’s not obvious to me that these societies need premises at all nowadays. Certainly they should not bank on any publishing revenue as the online-only journal revolution accelerates. At present they act as a funnel for large sums of money from academic scientists to persons employed by these societies’ publishing wings, and in the internet era for dissemination of research this means that they act against the interests of most of their members.

  3. Simon Kemp Says:

    I attended the RAS AGM for the first time this year (as it was of course virtual) and the possibility of this was mentioned (so they have told the members who atended the AGM)

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