Sir David Attenborough calls on Prime Minister to solve crisis threatening four of the UK’s learned societies

The entrance to the Royal Astronomical Society
Royal Astronomical Society
Licence type

Sir David Attenborough has written to the Prime Minister to urge his intervention to safeguard the learned societies at Burlington House, whose contributions to the planet’s welfare Attenborough says are under severe threat from the grossly escalating rent imposed by Government.

The letter comes as pressure mounts on the Government after a public campaign by the four learned societies – The Geological Society, Linnean Society, Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Astronomical Society – led to a Westminster Hall Debate on 8th June 2021. The debate saw MHCLG representative Eddie Hughes MP come under fire from a broad all-party group of MPs, calling on the Government to fundamentally reconsider the way it handles Burlington House and its occupants.

Despite having purpose-built New Burlington House in Piccadilly for these charitable institutions in the nineteenth century, over more recent years the Government has treated the building as an investment property under the remit of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).

Prior to the Westminster Hall Debate, MHCLG had written to the Societies with a proposal for an alternative rental agreement. The Societies say this merely proposed to spread the same increase over a longer time period and failed to acknowledge the fundamentally unaffordable situation they already find themselves in, which diverts much-needed funds away from scientific endeavours that make a critical contribution to addressing global challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss and the energy transition.

Sir David Attenborough is a Fellow of all the Societies with the exception of the Royal Astronomical Society. In his letter to the Prime Minister, Attenborough emphasises that meeting the costs of ever-rising rent imposed by MHCLG – which has already increased by thirty times in the last ten years – has “forced the Societies to divert their charitable income away from scholarly purposes”, and “will severely damage the contribution they are able to make to both the public’s understanding and the planet’s welfare, now and in the future”.

The letter urges the Prime Minister to accept a meeting with the Societies to hear more on the issue, which Attenborough believes could enable HM Government to “quickly find a long-term solution which would safeguard the existence of them all and ensure that they are able to continue their important work for centuries to come”.

Professor Emma Bunce, President of the Royal Astronomical Society, said, “A sustainable agreement to protect the Societies would empower us to build on an already rich programme of public engagement. Our Lates in the Courtyard events, public lectures and education activities already show what is possible from the Societies on the premises, and our online offerings continue to expand. Building on this success, together we have a bold ambition to form a collective cultural programme around the courtyard that examines in detail the grand ideas and challenges of our time. Connecting our rich cultural heritage and long of history of discovery to the ambitions for Global Britain, as a scientific superpower, and a leading cultural light; we urge Government to consider solving our rental crisis as an investment that would deliver public value greatly exceeding the financial value of the bricks and mortar of New Burlington House.”

Read the letter from Sir David Attenborough to the Prime Minister below.


Letter from Sir David Attenborough to Prime Minister Boris Johnson re: Burlington House
Letter from Sir David Attenborough to Prime Minister Boris Johnson re: Burlington House
Sir David Attenborough


Support our case to stay at Burlington House

After 145 years, our home at Burlington House is under threat. Our rents have escalated by 3,000% in just ten years and if this continues, we will need to consider relocation, disrupting our plans, investments, and significantly impacting on the contribution we make in public value every year.

We have joined our neighbours the Geological Society, the Linnean Society, and the Society of Antiquaries, in a campaign to urge the Government, our landlord, to find a solution that can enable us to continue to deliver millions of pounds in public value to the UK at Burlington House.

Our case for staying at Burlington House

The Royal Astronomical Society was founded in 1820 to encourage and promote the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics, and closely related branches of science. 

We now represent astronomy both nationally and internationally, and our work and significant public value we bring to the UK (estimated at over £7.5 million every year) is enabled through our premises at Burlington House, which helps us to: 

  • Connect business and industry – We support the close and ongoing relations with the UK Space Industry, the European Space Agency and sit on the UK Space Agency Committees. 
  • Support policy, and provide advice and expertise – we have invested in an active advocacy programme to ensure that decision-makers in Westminster are engaged in the effect of ‘blue skies’ research and its potential for the UK.
  • Maintain and protect internationally-renowned libraries and heritage collections – The Society hosts one of the world’s premier astronomical libraries containing rare books and manuscripts as well as photographs, instruments and journals. The building, designed for the Society, allows for the safe, accessible storage of these heritage assets – including over 25,000 books, 3,000 photographic glass plates and an archive containing over 1,000 boxes of astronomical observations and correspondence.
  • Secure the UK’s position on the global stage – the Society has global reach, profile and provides a significant contribution to international collaborations, such as through its role as the UK 'National Member' of the International Astronomical Union (IAU). London easily provides the most accessible point for physical engagement, including for the one third of its membership located outside of the UK.
  • Ensure that UK science is working for its public – Burlington House allows the Society to host a programme of popular, free public lectures in its intimate and atmospheric lecture theatre. Outside of London we host the National Astronomy Meeting each year and sponsor regional events, which are run from our home in Piccadilly. 




What does the Royal Astronomical Society do?

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. We have more than 4,000 members (Fellows) consisting of professional astronomers and geophysicists, as well as a number of students and advanced amateur astronomers. 

What will happen to the Society if an affordable situation is not agreed?

Without a sustainable solution to stay at Burlington House, we will need to look at alternative premises from which to conduct our activities, support the UK space sector and encourage and promote the study of astronomy and its close fields. 

This will direct significant resources away from our charitable objectives, not only restricting the continued delivery of our work for the UK space sector, in policy-making and in public engagement activities with astronomy, but may also hinder the extent to which we can continue to maintain and protect our internationally-recognised collections. 

What will happen next?  

With the Government’s recognition of our situation and all-party Parliamentary support we encourage the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government to lead a process with the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and HM Treasury to find a bespoke solution. We are looking to engage parties from across these Departments as well as the Prime Minister to ensure that an agreement that further increases the public value we deliver to the nation can be agreed.

How can I help?

You can find out how you can support the campaign here.

Submitted by Gurjeet Kahlon on Wed, 07/07/2021 - 12:32