One stormy night in early June, with trees down all over the Home Counties and the Central line disabled by flooding, a stalwart group of (mostly) men gathered at the Royal Institution in London. They could have been attending one of its Friday Evening Discourses – a black-tie event in the historic lecture theatre, where Michael Faraday once demonstrated electromagnetism and where, today, leading scientists come to give account to a curious public of their world-changing specialisms. It is one of London’s unsung delights. As you climb the back staircase to the theatre you feel the ghosts of Humphry Davy, Ada Lovelace and other pioneers of science gather to hear the latest news.
This, however, was a Thursday, and the seriously suited group was drawn here not by a grand public discourse but by one of London’s newest societies, the 14-10 club. Aimed at finance professionals with a background in science or maths, it was set up just a year ago with the support of two patrons: David Harding, founder of Winton Capital Management hedge fund, who gained a first in natural sciences at Cambridge, and Alex Lipton, MD and co-head of the Global Analytics Group, Bank of America Merrill Lynch and visiting professor of mathematics at Imperial College.
The members, at first 100 but creeping up steadily, are all City high-flyers – accountants, investment bankers, hedge-fund managers, financial analysts – all with at least one, often two, sometimes three degrees behind them. What draws them to the 14-10 club (named for the 14 Nobel Prizes won by scientists working in the RI laboratories and the 10 chemical elements isolated in the 19th century by fellows Sir Humphry Davy and Lord Rayleigh), is partly, of course, this interesting peer group. Sometimes, I am told, members have to be prised from the bar at closing time. But the core of the club, the serious focus that calls members out even in an unseasonal downpour, is the series of monthly talks that offers exclusive access to some of the most brilliant scientists and mathematicians of our generation.
Sir Richard Sykes, chairman of the Royal Institution, a distinguished biochemist and former chairman of pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, explains that the club has huge benefits for the RI. “For 200 years the Royal Institution has been run hand to mouth,” he says. “It has no government money. McKinsey helped to develop the concept of the club with Dr Gail Cardew, the RI’s director of science and education, to reconnect those with a science or maths background who have gone into the City with their original subject.” In return, the members pay an annual fee of £350. This supports the founding charitable purpose of the Royal Institution, of “diffusing the knowledge [...] of useful mechanical inventions and improvements; and for teaching, by courses of philosophical lectures and experiments, the application of science to the common purposes of life”. As Sykes points out, after the Big Bang in 1986, “the whole of the City began to be run by algorithms. City institutions needed to employ people who could bring mathematics to bear on this common purpose.”
This has meant that while many who do well in the City have used their wealth to enjoy the arts, there are considerable numbers whose first love is science. The 14-10 club enables them to support the scientific education of others, while keeping themselves up to speed with the latest developments. As Lipton said when the scheme launched: “Science and maths are now at the heart of the financial sector. The type of work we do, building quantitative models and strategies, means that those entering financial careers no longer see themselves as leaving science behind, but rather as applying it in a different context.” Besides the intellectual pleasure of keeping pace with the discipline you once mastered, there is the added incentive that many of the lectures – whether in computer modelling, ecology, geology or financial mathematics – have a direct bearing on the day job.
The night I was there, Dr Tim Hubbard, head of informatics at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, talked about the convergence of leaps in understanding of the underlying molecular mechanisms of disease since the sequencing 10 years ago of the human genome, with the ability of computers to collate and analyse medical data. In the future, he suggested, medical care will become increasingly personalised, responsive to each individual’s genetic make-up.
No sooner had we absorbed this astonishing picture than Dr Cristin Buescu, a lecturer in financial mathematics at King’s College London, invited us to consider different ways of pricing counterparty credit risk to comply with the latest phase of European financial regulation. One member beamed at me afterwards and said he was exhilarated but completely baffled. The salient questions from the floor suggested, however, that Buescu had carried much of the group with him. Other speakers have included the cosmologist Professor John D Barrow; former government chief scientific adviser Lord Robert May; and the behavioural economist Professor Daniel Kahneman.
For Poppy Allonby, a fund manager and managing director on the Natural Resources Equity Team at BlackRock, one of the world’s leading asset management companies, 14-10 has led to her becoming an active patron of other aspects of the RI’s educational activities. “I studied physics [at Imperial College] because I found it fascinating,” she says. “The 14-10 club has opened up the whole of the RI to me – I want schoolchildren to realise that science is a fantastic discipline and underpins the way our whole society operates.” Allonby sees 14-10 as a direct link between the scientific community and the worlds of industry and finance – but even without the potential for material benefit, she enjoys the sheer intellectual stimulus. “Sometimes at the end of a crazy week I think, ‘Do I really want to get all dressed up and go to the RI and hear about particle physics?’ But have never left the RI feeling that way.”
Allonby, in her early 30s, is not alone. Over the past 10 years the enthusiasm for public lectures and debates, for a kind of communal intellectual experience among adults of all ages, has grown enormously. There in people’s diaries, alongside the opera and the private viewing, is the next debate run by Intelligence Squared. These encompass subjects as diverse as the cultural value of hip-hop and the wisdom of the “Elders” – Desmond Tutu, Mary Robinson, Jimmy Carter et al. Where once your friends might have discussed the latest film release, now they argue the merits of the different Ted talks they have sought out on YouTube. Port Eliot Festival, with its elegant philosophising by the Lynher Estuary, has risen up to offer a more cerebral alternative to Glastonbury. Even once staid bodies such as the Royal Society of Arts and the Royal Geographical Society are drawing younger, engaged audiences. As the talk series 5x15 testifies, with its strictly timed bouts, thinking is the latest spectator sport. One CEO of a corporate finance company even confessed to me recently that he was no longer interested in buying things, or even experiences; what he really wants to do is philosophy, his subject at university.
The economic crisis has done nothing to dampen this almost Victorian enthusiasm for high-minded self-improvement, just as global communications have done nothing to dent our hankering for the intimacy of the salon. If anything, the urge to engage in Platonic debate, or sit at the foot of the master, has only increased. As Yana Peel, the new group CEO of Intelligence Squared, says: “There is so much information, so many media. People increasingly want interpretation. That is quite universal.” She also believes that however globally networked we are through the internet, the key to innovation is face-to-face interaction. “You need to bring people together physically to generate new ideas,” she says. “Then they can continue online.” While Peel acknowledges that “we are experiencing a post-consumer moment in London”, she found the same hunger in Hong Kong, where she set up IQ Squared Asia in 2009 with art consultant and gallerist Amelie von Wedel. “We now have in excess of 3,000 supporters in a consumer-driven economy at a very different stage in its development.”
The trick that the RI has pulled off is to turn this desire for access to intelligence into a stimulus to engage in philanthropy. In Hong Kong, IQ2 Asia donates its profits to good causes and most recently supported a summer scheme run by Debate Mate – the charity founded by barrister Margaret McCabe in 2007 to raise debating skills in disadvantaged schools in the UK and elsewhere. Ted and IQ2 UK, however, are lucrative businesses.
David Giampaolo’s members’ programme at Pi Capital, a leading investment club, occupies a middle ground where philanthropy, while not the primary purpose of the exercise, has become an important side benefit. Back in 2002, when Giampaolo – a successful entrepreneur – and a few investors acquired a controlling interest in Pi Capital, it was, as he puts it, “a transactionally focused club”. This seemed a wasted opportunity, given the accumulated business intelligence of the members. “I wanted some magic that would hold us all together whatever the economic climate,” he explains. He began by holding a quarterly lunch, which became monthly. Then he began inviting a speaker. Now the events programme, from being the cherry on the cake, has become intrinsic. “Intellectual capital is the focus,” he says. Giampaolo organises between four and six events every month, which range from a small private lunch with Bill Clinton to breakfast with the cross-partisan think tank the Henry Jackson Society, with guest speakers including Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP, and Dominic Barton, global MD of McKinsey. The topic up for discussion alongside coffee and croissants? “Capitalism and Society”. As Giampaolo says: “It is the investment opportunities that are now the cream.” As well as expanding the range of topics beyond the purely financial, a number of events have a philanthropic aspect to them. Three events over the past five months, for instance, have raised the profile of charities including Human Rights Watch, Room to Read and The Elders (the latter attended by Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu and Sir Richard Branson). As a result, many of the club’s members have made donations to these groups.
Pi Capital’s 300-plus members pay £5,000 a year, plus a £1,000 joining fee, to belong to this exclusive club of high-net-worth investors interested in learning and networking. Deals certainly happen. But as two members explained to me early one morning, the joy of Pi Capital is that there is no pressure, no one is being sold anything; instead there is a shared sense of trying to learn the most in order to operate in a treacherous world. While Giampaolo is happy for his club to be included on the circuit of writers with a new work to plug – the morning I attend, economist Dambisa Moyo is discussing her latest book on China, Winner Take All – he insists that every meeting is treated as a discussion among peers and not a lecture or sales pitch. Ambassadors, Pentagon advisers and serious financial players probe Moyo about her views on the potential impact of China’s aggressive policy of acquiring commodities, land, businesses and property around the globe. Giampaolo has noticed more people wishing to attend these events over the past five years – specifically since the financial crisis.
Whatever the reasons, there is no sating our appetite for wisdom. As Dr Etienne Hofstetter, director of KPMG Risk Consulting and one of the first members of 14-10, says: “If you work with real systems you need to be curious. The solution to systemic risk, for instance, might be found in the study of complex systems in biology or chemistry.” If this can be acquired in the congenial context of a club, with philanthropic benefits, then everyone wins.