The 59-year-old neuroscientist, who had been director of the institution since 1998, has now consulted a QC over the decision to serve her with redundancy papers. Sources say Baroness Greenfield was offered a “generous” redundancy package and glowing tributes if she agreed to leave her post, but refused. She is now planning to make a sex discrimination claim following the institution trustees’ move to axe her position.
Friends claim an “old boys’ club” culture in the institution has led to the move. “I am the only female appointed to this iconic post throughout the 211-year history of the Royal Institution and cannot see how this decision can be in the best interests of the organisation or its members,” Greenfield said.
On Saturday night, letters —sent to all institution members — confirmed the organisation no longer required a director “as currently defined”. This decision was denounced by Professor Lisa Jardine, a former member of its governing council. “The institution has always had a charismatic scientist as its director. To get rid of the post suggests it has decided to commit suicide. Susan has done her job superbly and did not deserve to be escorted off the premises on Friday. We are allowing one of our most important scientific institutions to go to the wall.”
The news on Friday stunned the institution. Staff were given 30 minutes’ notice to attend a meeting at which the chief executive, Chris Rofe, announced her redundancy. “There was absolute silence when we were told,” said one worker.
On Saturday, senior scientists and politicians paid tribute to the work of Greenfield, a professor of pharmacology widely seen as dynamic, forceful and a brilliant communicator, though significantly none condemned the institution’s decision to sever its connection with her.
“The Royal Institution is a tremendously important institution,” said science minister Lord Drayson. “Although it is clearly going through a difficult period at the moment, I wish it the very best in future.” Colin Blakemore, the Oxford neuroscientist, said Greenfield had achieved a great deal. “Under new leadership, the RI will have an opportunity to resolve its financial problems and to continue to play an important role.”
The RI is struggling with a financial crisis following a £22m development programme masterminded by Greenfield. The RI’s auditors recently warned that it is in a perilous financial position.