A group of leading scientists, including Sir David Attenborough and Richard Dawkins, have given their backing to the Royal Institution.
The educational charity, founded in 1799, might have to sell its famous headquarters at 21 Albemarle Street, London, valued at £45m in May 2011, due to a large financial deficit that was run up after it failed to recoup its investment from a redevelopment project designed to attract more visitors.
Supporters fear any sale would ultimately lead to the closure of the charity, which is renowned for its contribution to some of Britain’s most important scientific discoveries.
In a show of support, 22 eminent scientists, who have all given Christmas lectures at the institution, wrote a letter to The Times newspaper to praise its work and urge "those who have power and influence to save the Royal Institution for the nation".
"If Britain loses the Royal Institution, it loses a part of its past," says the letter. "This institution, with its iconic lecture room where almost all the Christmas lectures have been delivered, is just as precious as any ancient palace or famous painting."
The letter follows a statement from Sir Richard Sykes, chairman of the Royal Institution, in which he acknowledged the organisation’s dire financial position.
In the statement, posted on the charity’s website earlier this month, Sykes said the charity would have to undergo a restructure and was considering "sub-letting or disposing of some or all of its Albemarle Street property".
The statement added: "The recently appointed trustees have worked hard to put the charity back on a sound financial footing. Much has been achieved, but more remains to be done financially and operationally to realise the full potential of the RI."
The financial problems date back to 2006, when the charity embarked on a £22m refurbishment of the headquarters. The project overran by five months and faced a funding shortfall because of the charity’s failure to meet fundraising targets.
Sykes acknowledged this had "undermined the financial position of the charity".
A regulatory case report from the Charity Commission in 2010 concluded that the charity had wrongly spent more than £3.2m refurbishing its buildings, in breach of the terms on which the funds were held.
A petition on the government’s e-petition website, which calls on the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to buy the institution’s headquarters to protect its long-term future, has attracted more than 1,300 signatures.