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Westminster Hall

Thursday 15 May 2008

[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Science and Discovery Centres (Funding)

[Relevant documents: Eleventh Report from the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2006-07, HC 903-I, and the Government response, HC 214.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be new adjourned.—[Alison Seabeck.]

Mr. Roger Gale (in the Chair): I gently remind those present that this is a debate about science and discovery centres, as in the terms of the report before us, and not the funding of science, although a certain amount of leeway might be allowed.

2.30 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): Thank you very much for your wise counsel, Mr. Gale. It is lovely to be introducing this debate in your presence. I am sure that none of my colleagues wishes to stretch your patience, or that of our vast audience, in discussing these matters. I am extremely pleased to open this debate on the subject of the eleventh report of the former Science and Technology Committee, published in October 2007, to which I shall certainly confine my remarks. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) who not only encouraged the Committee to conduct this inquiry, but, as a director of the Bolton technology innovation centre, has been a committed advocate of science and discovery centres and their vital role in the science agenda.

There are more than 100 science centres in the UK, attracting some 19.5 million visitors a year. They range in size from huge centres, such as the Science Museum in London and the Eden project in Cornwall, to very small ones, such as the Armagh Planetarium in Northern Ireland and the Scottish Seabird Centre in the firth of Forth, both of which are ideal. I mentioned the one in Scotland for the benefit of my colleague, the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson).

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): Good. You’re safe now.

Mr. Willis: Indeed. I always have to mention Scotland—usually Dundee—to get me off the hook for the following 15 minutes.

As a network, the science and discovery centres represent a unique opportunity to foster scientific curiosity and a genuine, long-lasting sense of excitement and interest in science. Every branch of science, technology and engineering is catered for by an army of professional science communicators and enthusiastic volunteers, who have two key objectives: to switch young people on to science and related career opportunities; and to engage the wider public in cutting-edge and often controversial science issues. It was interesting that on Monday, before the Second Reading of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, representatives of the Centre for Life,
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in Newcastle, visited the House and gave a presentation to Members of Parliament of some very interesting, simple and explanatory information about research into embryonic stem cells. That demonstrated the sorts of activities in which many science centres are involved.

The Committee decided to conduct the inquiry for three reasons: first, because the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East constantly said that we should. The second reason was the widespread concern over the financial security and future of science centres. Of the 18 science centres given capital grants by the Millennium Commission, two have already closed—the Earth Centre, in Doncaster, and the Big Idea, in Ayrshire. Furthermore, the Explore-At-Bristol centre has partially closed after it shut down its “wildwalk” facility and IMAX attraction. Since our inquiry, yet another has closed—the Inspire in Norwich—about which no doubt the hon. Member for Norwich, North will want to say more later. In addition, the future of Jodrell Bank—everyone in this Chamber will be familiar with it—which set up one of the first science centres in the world, back in 1965, hangs in the balance. Catalyst, at Widnes, which during this academic year delivered 575 science lessons to more than 17,000 children, struggles to survive and has been within a few days of closure on several occasions in the past five years, despite tremendous involvement from the chemical industry, local authorities and Members of this House.

Perhaps we should not be surprised by the financial plight of the science centres. After all, Lord Sainsbury—a great devotee and promoter of science and the then Science Minister—told the Committee in October 2006 that the projected revenues for the millennium centres, in particular, were

The third reason why we looked at this subject was to examine what role science centres had within the Government’s agenda for science, technology, engineering and mathematics—STEM—to which, to their credit, they remain highly committed. They have acknowledged the important role that science centres play in promoting to young people STEM subjects and careers in science. Yet the bulk of our recommendations on science centres were rejected out of hand by the Government, and science centres continue to struggle.

My task this afternoon is to provide an overview of the key themes covered in the report, to give a brief update on relevant developments and to highlight some of the outstanding issues to be addressed by the Government. I am delighted that three members of the former Committee are with us this afternoon—[Interruption.] I am sorry, four members—I apologise to the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie), who has just arrived. I am also delighted to be joined by the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), who is a member of the new Committee.

We need to consider the funding stream. We recognised that the majority of science centres lacked stable funding, and that if centres were to remain vibrant and to attract new exhibits and new audiences, stable funding was essential. We noted that funding regimes in England contrasted starkly with those in the devolved Administrations. Indeed, we were impressed with the Scottish model of policy exchange and co-ordinated funding, backed by a £2.5 million per year grant to four designated co-ordinated centres.

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We did propose a Scottish model for the rest of the UK. Centres are hugely varied, geographically widespread and have differing missions and structures, so different solutions need to be explored, rather than simply importing a model from elsewhere. Instead, we sought to find a potential funding stream for science centres and identified that if the distinction between science centres and museums could be successfully challenged, there might be a satisfactory solution. Museums come in many different flavours, but the thing that they all have in common is that they house collections. The gold standard for museums is the Museums and Libraries Archive Council’s accreditation scheme, which sets nationally agreed standards for UK museums in user services, governance, visitor facilities and collections management.

Some science centres house collections, and a few science centres, such as Thinktank in Birmingham, are accredited under the MLA scheme. However, most do not house collections and are precluded, therefore, from receiving accreditation. However, the accreditation scheme itself recognises that learning

In other words, support for museums is based on the fact that the collections that they keep are beneficial to society through education and public engagement. We suggested, therefore, that the accreditation scheme be divided into two parts: first, to focus on collections; and secondly, to focus on public engagement and education.

Given that only accredited museums can receive central Government funding, such a move would essentially divide the £320 million funding stream for museums from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport into two streams: one directed to collections and collection management, and the other to public engagement activities. That simple yet workable solution would mean that institutions that carry out the “core purpose of museums” without actually being museums—because they do not hold collections—could access funding that would enable them to carry out their valuable role in society. It is a simple solution that would solve many of the centres’ problems. However, the Government dismissed the suggestion on three grounds, each of which is flawed.

First, the Government attempted to downgrade the importance of learning in the role of museums. They said:

That was uncharacteristically disingenuous of the Minister—or of the official who wrote the report. Of the four key elements of the accreditation system, three are relevant to science centres—user services, governance and visitor facilities—and only one is usually not, which is collections management. The MLA makes it clear that educational activity is key to the role of museums. The fact that learning is, within the Government’s tight definition of “museum”, related to collections, does not diminish the reality that it is the very educational benefits that museums offer that makes them attractive to fund in the first place.

The second reason why the Government dismissed our suggestion was that they felt that it was impractical because accreditation does not automatically ensure funding. That was a diversion. Only accredited museums
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can receive DCMS funding. We did not presume that, if science centres were to be accredited, they would automatically receive funding because not all accredited museums receive funding. We simply suggested that accreditation would open up to science centres a funding stream currently not available to them. Again, that seems a perfectly reasonable point of view.

The third reason why the Government dismissed our suggestion was that the MLA is a non-departmental public body and that

That is mere obfuscation. The MLA was set up by the Government to set standards for institutions that house collections. Our report suggests that the MLA’s remit should be altered, which is something that only the Government can do. Therefore, the Government’s intervention is absolutely crucial if that scheme is going to happen; the MLA cannot do it on its own.

It is a shame that the Government have dismissed our suggestion to realign the accreditation scheme and split the funding stream. Such a move would increase transparency, and enable the Government to meet the objectives more effectively. In the light of the Department’s misunderstanding of our recommendation—because that is what I think it is—we would like the Minister to reconsider and perhaps to suggest a better way to rework the accreditation scheme.

We also proposed other ways in which the Government could help science centres. First, to prevent existing science centres from closing and to help those struggling financially, we suggested making available competitively awarded short-term funding. Secondly, we asked the Government to consider reducing the VAT rate on admissions fees to science and other educational centres. Thirdly, we urged our local authorities to offer 100 per cent. business rate relief to science centres. The Government wickedly rejected out of hand the first suggestion on the ground that a science centre that is

That depends on what we mean by “failing”. I suspect that the hon. Members for Bolton, South-East and for Norwich, North would beg to differ. The Government, through DCMS, already fund science centres that are part of science museums. Science centres earn on average 63 per cent. of their core costs through commercial activities, while science museums fund only 16.5 per cent. of their costs through commercial activities. Is the Minister saying that all the science museums are failing? Of course he is not; he is far too intelligent a man to make such a ridiculous claim. Science museums are not set up to make money. They exist to provide educational services and to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers. Science centres should be thought of in exactly the same light as museums.

Our fear about impending closures of science centres was well founded. Inspire, in Norwich, announced last week that due to a lack of sustainable funding it will be forced to close in September. Is the Government letting this resource disappear because Inspire does not add value to Norwich and the surrounding districts? Perhaps the Minister feels that because we have a distinguished scientist representing Norwich, North and a distinguished mathematician representing Norwich, South—the right
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hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke)—some people in Norwich are already sufficiently inspired to take up science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Dr. Gibson: Where did you get that?

Mr. Willis: I said that perhaps that was the case. It may even be that we do not need more scientists or engineers coming from the region. I thought that the hon. Gentleman, from a sedentary position, was querying the fact that he was a distinguished scientist, not that the right hon. Member for Norwich, South was a distinguished mathematician.

The Committee’s second suggestion to help financial viability was that the Government should consider reducing VAT on admission fees. That was rejected on the ground that

That is an eminently sensible policy. We did not ask the Government to reduce the VAT burden for science centres, but to consider whether reducing the VAT burden on educational centres may be a cost-effective way of encouraging public engagement in STEM issues. To simply dismiss the suggestion without even engaging with it smacked of an unwillingness to engage with the seriousness of the situation in which science centres find themselves. Will the Minister say whether he has had any conversations with the Treasury over the VAT issue? If he has not, will he give this proposal full consideration and a more reasoned response?

Our third suggestion—that local authorities offer 100 per cent. business rate relief to science centres, as they are entitled to do—has, to the best of my knowledge, also fallen on deaf ears. That is a sad reflection on so-called joined-up thinking.

The Government’s refusal to accept any of our recommendations on funding options seems to indicate a fundamental misinterpretation of our report; that is the most generous comment that I can make. We were careful not to make simple calls for increased funds, because they would rightly have been rejected. Except in the case of our call for emergency funds to prevent precipitous closures of struggling science centres, we placed an important caveat on each of our funding suggestions:

That was a very fair comment by the Committee.

Here, we found a real problem. During our inquiry, we were surprised to find that, although science centres claim to play an important role in society, they have not convincingly demonstrated that they have achieved their goals. Academics from Cardiff university outlined the current body of evidence and commented:

They went on to say:

In our report, we recommended that Ecsite-uk, which enthusiastically represents some 70 centres, work to produce a benchmarking toolkit for science centres, so that data for science centres across the UK are collected in a more rigorous manner.

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It is good news that that process is already well under way. Ecsite immediately took up the challenge; however, in view of its proximity to the sector, we recommended that the Government commission independent research on the effectiveness of science centres and other STEM initiatives. To its credit, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills agreed to do so and said that it would start the work at the beginning of 2008. It is now the middle of May and I understand that the research has not even been commissioned. Perhaps the Minister can explain the delay—I am sure that he has been busy doing other things—and share with us the terms of reference for the research, how much it will cost and how long it will take to complete, because it is important to all the science centres that that information be available.

We also found evidence that the level of co-ordination among science centres, and between science centres and other organisations, was variable. Many science centres co-ordinate policy particularly well with the education sector. The Eden Project in Cornwall, for example, runs professional development courses for teachers. Magna, in Rotherham, designs competitions and science projects in schools and colleges to retain interest sparked during visits. Others work well with individual scientists and universities.

Some centres work well together, for example, to produce touring exhibitions. However, we discovered that there was huge room for improvement and identified the Scottish science centre network as an example of best practice in co-ordination and co-operation. We therefore recommended that Ecsite-uk, on behalf of the science centre community, should examine the co-ordination and collaboration mechanisms in Scotland and internationally, with a view to producing best practice guidance to promote co-ordination between science centres across the whole UK.

Ecsite-uk, again to its credit, has been busy with the benchmarking exercise for data collection and has also asked for examples of best practice from the chief executive officers of the science centres. Those examples were published in Ecsite’s recent report, which I understand will form the basis for taking forward the Committee’s recommendation.

Our final recommendation was that the Minister should take up responsibility for science centres. His ready and enthusiastic acceptance of the recommendation that DIUS should act as

was welcome. However, I remain concerned about how proactive DIUS is being on the issue. One science centre has already announced its closure since the publication of our report, and another, in which the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East is heavily involved—the Bolton technical innovation centre—has recently been transferred to local education authority hands.

Pending research on the effectiveness of science centres compared with other initiatives, they may emerge as an extremely valuable resource for the UK in inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers. It will be an enormous shame if, when that research is completed and the Minister has done his work, there is nothing left to co-ordinate because all the centres have closed.

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