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2.52 pm

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): I am a great believer in children and adults alike experiencing the excitement of science and the discoveries that it can bring, to the benefit of our society. That is brought about in a number of ways. For 29 years, I trod the boards and toured the country, as well as places as far away as Naples and Copenhagen, trying to communicate science to people who were not necessarily scientists. I know a great deal about this subject and welcome the inquiry.

Television is a powerful means of communication, and there have been some excellent science programmes such as the splendid “Horizon” series. Such programmes are often available to view on the internet, either at home or in the classroom. Unfortunately, they are expensive to put together, and they are decreasing in number, especially on mainstream television channels.

Children and families like to get out and about at the weekends and in the school holidays, and science and discovery centres provide them with excellent venues for educational visits. The centres encourage young people to take an interest in science subjects at school and inspire them to follow a science or engineering career. Part of their role is to communicate science to the general public and explain to them the benefits of investment in science, engineering and technology. According to the recent report by Ecsite-uk, which has been mentioned, a very large number of people— 19.5 million—visited our science and discovery centres, in which I include museums, in 2005-06. The Government are trying to encourage more women into science, and interestingly, 56 per cent. of those 19.5 million visitors were female. Of course, teachers also use many of the science and discovery centres to enhance their teaching.

The centres are enormously varied in their provisions. Aquariums, zoos, bird sanctuaries and museums such as the Science and Natural History museums here in London and planetariums such as that at Jodrell Bank are probably the most popular venues, followed by heritage centres. Science festivals such as the one held annually in Edinburgh are also a big attraction. Because of the popularity of those attractions, they can raise funding through entrance charges, but many of them need subsidising even so.

Our Committee listed 101 attractions that can loosely be called science and discovery centres, and gave the website addresses of all of them. They include, in alphabetical order: BUGS—biodiversity underpinning global survival—at London zoo; Brocks Hill environment centre and country park; Catalyst; the Centre for Alternative Technology; the Centre for Life; Ceramica; CONKERS; the Deep; the Discovery museum; the Ecos Centre; the Eden project; Eureka!—The Museum For Children; Explore-At-Bristol; the Glasgow Science Centre; INTECH; the Living Rainforest; the Magna Science Adventure Centre; Making It! discovery centre; the millennium seed bank; the National Botanic Garden of Wales; the National Marine Aquarium; the National Space Centre; Nature’s World; Our Dynamic Earth; the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester; the Scottish Seabird Centre; Sensation Dundee; the Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetlands Centre; Thinktank at Millennium point; the Water of Leith visitor centre;
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and whowhatwherewhenwhy, known as W5, at Belfast. I should add: no more Christmas cards, please, I get enough.

I list those centres merely to indicate the wide variety of centres in every corner of the United Kingdom. There is something for everybody within reach of their own home, and entry to many of the centres is free. Every interest is covered, and many of them include interactive displays. They are not just static exhibitions. Some of them, such as the Railway museum in York and the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford, house important national themed collections.

There are as many reasons for centres starting up as there are names or places for them. Benjamin Franklin house, which includes a hands-on science centre, is based on the life of one of our most famous scientists. Bletchley Park was the home of our famous world war two code breakers. Catalyst was bred out of the chemical industry in the Runcorn-Widnes area. Ceramica, in Stoke-on-Trent, is a celebration of its world-famous pottery industry, and the Magna Science Adventure centre is set in the Templeborough steelworks in Rotherham.

As the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), indicated, for the past four years I have been chairman of the board of the Bolton technical innovation centre—Bolton TIC, as we prefer to call it. It was founded as a partnership between the Northwest Regional Development Agency, Bolton council and Mount St. Joseph’s school. Paul Abbott, a Bolton teacher who was engaged in enthusing young people about the excitement of science, engineering and technology throughout his teaching career at the school, had a brilliant idea a few years ago and discussed it initially with David Puttnam, who was the chairman of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts at the time.

Paul wanted to create the equivalent of a music centre for pupils interested in STEM subjects—a big science club, if you like. The regional development agency was convinced by the idea and invested £2.5 million in a futuristic-looking and attractive new building in my constituency. It is Britain’s first junior incubator, as far as we know, and we have fitted it out with £500,000 of state-of-the-art equipment.

Initially, we debated whether to fit open IT systems, with open-access software, across the building. Eventually, we decided in favour of that. It contains a plethora of IT equipment, and the computer-aided design packages are extremely advanced. A pupil can design a three-dimensional object and then print it out as a prototype on a rapid prototyping machine, which is essentially a three-dimensional printer. Bolton TIC received one of the first high-definition, colour 3D printers to be seen anywhere in Europe. Children aged from nine to 19 have access to that equipment. They do not just stand there while somebody else shows them how it works.

Bolton TIC also has a suite of haptic arms, which can convert three-dimensional objects into computer images and do much more besides. There is a flight simulator and a lecture theatre that can show three-dimensional films. There is a virtual planetarium. There are also laser and water cutters and a sinter station, everything required to build cars, rockets, remote-controlled surface or underwater vehicles, aircraft and so on. The NWRDA has recently provided the TIC with a £10,000 grant to
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build the largest rocket that we have ever built there. One of the members of staff, Robin Hague, previously worked on the Starchaser rocket project.

We do not just build those rockets; we fire them. Of course, we must know about logistics. We do not want to knock any aircraft from Manchester, Blackpool or John Lennon airport in Liverpool out of the sky. We must liaise with the local airports and also with the meteorology experts, because we need to know what the cloud base is on such and such a day. Of course, we also have to find the right firing point. Incidentally, these rockets are recovered by parachute.

Dr. Gibson: My hon. Friend mentioned the fact that the TIC has received £10,000 from the local regional development agency. Has he estimated how much the regional development agency gives to science in general in his part of the country? Is that £10,000 all of its contribution, or is there more?

Dr. Iddon: I do not carry the figure around in my head, of course, but I can tell my hon. Friend that the NWRDA, through the Northwest Science Council, is very generous towards science. In fact, dare I say that it is looking after the interests of Daresbury at the moment? However, I will not stray into that area, Mr. Gale; I have taken the warning.

At Bolton TIC, a pupil can invent, design and manufacture. An artist in residence, Iain Cant, has helped to bridge that difficult gap between science and the arts. He is partly responsible for the world’s largest single stone sculpture, which can now be seen at the Eden project in Cornwall. That sculpture was designed and prototyped using equipment at the Bolton TIC. The Bolton Wireless Club, the Bolton Aero-modelling Club and the Bolton Astronomical Society have all been given access to the building, provided that they encourage children to join their clubs.

As I have said, Bolton TIC is for all children aged between nine and 19, and not just those from Bolton but from across the region. The plan was to open it beyond school hours: in the evenings, at the weekends, and throughout the school holidays. Bolton TIC is situated in one of the most deprived wards in the country, so we were able to win neighbourhood renewal funding worth £300,000 to purchase a bus that conveys children from all the schools in the area to and from the TIC.

Paul Abbott has built up a network of science communicators across the north-west. He knows who is willing to bring into the TIC equipment that the TIC does not already own: robots, lasers and so on. Many meetings, conferences and competitions for children are held in the building by a variety of learned societies, such as the Royal Society of Chemistry and other organisations promoting science and engineering. Professor Colin Pillinger, of Beagle fame, recently helped me to launch a series of lectures for children and the general public. Those lectures were very popular indeed.

Ideally Bolton TIC, which we have always seen as a regional asset, requires £500,000-worth of revenue funding per annum, but in the past four years we have managed to run it on just £300,000 per annum. Conference business has provided £80,000 per annum and the rest has had to be raised through grants and sponsorship. The Department for Education and Skills funded the
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TIC for the past two years through its Excellence in Cities programme, but efforts to maintain funding at that very high level finally ran out at the end of March this year. On 1 April 2008, the board of the TIC and the NWRDA decided on a seamless transfer of the asset to Bolton council and the project will be known in future as Bolton science and technology centre. Bolton council has dedicated £300,000 to the centre for each of the next two years, when the future of the project will have to be evaluated again.

The NWRDA and the former board of Bolton TIC have been assured that the original ethos of this exciting project, which is the first junior incubator in Britain, will not be lost and that the building will continue to be used to add value to the education of schoolchildren from Bolton and the entire region. I wish the project well in the future. I also want to take this opportunity to thank all the staff at the TIC and my fellow board directors who have struggled during the past four years to keep the project open for the benefit of local children.

If a TIC works in the north-west, why cannot we have one in every region? There has been a lot of interest already in this concept; rather than having individual science clubs in each individual school in a town, it is a big science club for a town. I ask the Minister, “Isn’t that better?” Young people play better music when they congregate together in music centres and I maintain that the same is true with science in Bolton TIC. So I encourage my hon. Friend the Minister to look carefully at this innovative project.

Just as there are 101 reasons for the start-up of science centres, the funding of them is equally complex, as I have just tried to indicate. Right now, some of the centres are in danger of closing, as the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough pointed out. That is because of the complexity of the funding mechanisms. The people who run the centres spend inordinate amounts of time bidding for grants here, there and everywhere, and they are lucky if even 10 per cent. of the applications are successful. Furthermore, the funding is often short term rather than long term. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) will say more about the Inspire Discovery Centre in his town.

Recently I have been in correspondence with Adam Hart-Davis, one of our best communicators of science in the media, who has related the plight of Explore-at-Bristol to me. It has had to close two of its main attractions, one of them being the IMAX cinema and to make 45 staff redundant as a result of a shortage of funding. The Wellcome Trust recently awarded Explore-at-Bristol a £1.5 million grant to build a touring exhibition entitled “Inside DNA: A Genomic Revolution”, which will tour the UK when it has been built. The Wellcome Trust has obviously shown that it appreciates the work done by Explore-at-Bristol.

Of the 18 centres that received £450 million from the Millennium Commission at the turn of the century, several are currently finding it difficult to survive. As the hon. Gentleman indicated, two of those have already closed: the Earth Centre at Doncaster and the Big Idea in Ayrshire. Further injections of capital have been awarded by ReDiscover. Some £33 million was provided by the Millennium Commission, the Wellcome Trust and the Wolfson Foundation in 2003. The stabilisation fund—£2 million awarded by the Government to stabilise millennium centres in financial difficulties—provided
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money in 2004. A further £1 million was awarded by the science centre enrichment activities grant scheme in 2006. All those sources of extra funding have kept many of these centres open. However, if those sources of funding are not replaced in the near future, many of the remaining centres will begin to close.

Until recently, there was no overall umbrella organisation that looked after the interests of all those organisations. It is true that museums do have an umbrella organisation already, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, which is a non-departmental Government body sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which museums can apply to for accreditation, as has been mentioned. However, the rest of the science and discovery centres remained unco-ordinated until the foundation of Ecsite-uk.

Ecsite-uk has now been formed and it has a growing membership, particularly among organisations that do not fit conveniently into any silo. I mention again the Bolton TIC as an example; it falls in the cracks between Departments. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the DCMS have recently awarded Ecsite-uk £750,000, specifically to enhance the financial viability of science and discovery centres in the 2006-08 period. I will be interested to learn from the Minister whether any results have come out of that study yet by Ecsite-uk.

As has been mentioned, the DIUS has commissioned research this year to establish how effective these centres are compared with other “delivery mechanisms”— that is the Department’s jargon, not mine—at helping the Government to meet both their science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, goals and their public engagement goals.

However, a recent review by Ecsite-uk of worldwide studies in this policy area has shown that science and discovery centres are extremely valuable. Cardiff university’s submission to our Committee has already been referred to, and the results from Cardiff appear to be positive. The Wellcome Trust published a review in 2006 on the effectiveness of the five millennium science centres that it funded, and it concluded that they:

Museums differ from science and discovery centres in that they house important local and national collections. Some museums, such as the amazingly successful Manchester museum of science and industry, house science and discovery centres. The Catalyst museum at Runcorn once housed a static display of items collected from the chemical industry in the surrounding area and was funded entirely by that industry. In recent times, it has built in a school science laboratory and an interactive public science theatre. It also offers visitors daily demonstration lectures on a rolling basis and it houses three interactive galleries.

In that respect, I declare an interest because I am proud to be one of Catalyst’s patrons. However, its future is by no means certain. It has twice been saved from closure by Halton borough council and the Northwest Regional Development Agency. Ineos Chlor, a large local chemical company, has recently also provided a large one-off grant to keep the museum open. However, that is all short-term funding, and the future of Catalyst is by no means sustainable without more help.

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The formation of science and discovery centres began about 20 years ago. The Exploratory in Bristol opened in 1983, Green’s Mill and Science Centre in Nottingham opened in 1985 and Techniquest in Cardiff and the Launchpad in London’s Science museum both opened in 1986. Those were pioneering establishments in this policy area.

Some centres receive far more visitors than others. For example, the National Space Centre near Leicester alone reaches 40,000 children every year through workshops and schools. Thousands of visitors come every year to look at its public displays and engage in its activities.

The DCMS provides revenue funding of £320 million, most of which is for museums. Funding also comes from the DIUS and DCSF, which was previously the Department for Education and Skills. Funding also comes from a variety of charities, and I have mentioned the Wellcome Trust and NESTA. There is also funding from the regional development agencies, such as that in the north-west, from local authorities, such as Halton borough council, and from industry and commerce.

Let me repeat, however, that much of that funding is extremely short term. There is a dire shortage of core funding outside the museum sector. Hardly any of the science and discovery centres can exist on the basis of their commercial activities alone. In most cases, their future business plans are not sustainable. It appears that they can generate a maximum of 78 to 80 per cent. of their income through commercial activities such as shops, cafes, restaurants, conference business, ticket sales and even car parks.

There is a need for a Department other than the DCMS to take ownership of the co-ordination and funding of centres. Our current Science Minister, who is with us today, showed some interest in that role when he came before the Committee, but the Government as a whole seem to have rejected our recommendation that they give serious consideration to taking it on.

We were disappointed that the previous Science Minister, Lord Sainsbury, felt that science and discovery centres should be self-financing through their own activities, despite the Government’s strong commitment to STEM subjects. The Committee was disappointed by his response to a request for Government intervention in this policy area. He has seen for himself the excellent work that many centres do; indeed, I was with him when he visited Catalyst, for example.

In their response to the Committee’s report, the Government said that

science and discovery centres—

The Government have also said that they regard centres as “independent organisations”. Those remarks are disappointing, particularly given that so much public money—revenue and capital alike—is ploughed into keeping centres open year in, year out. Why can the Government not take a bigger interest?

Our report recommended that the Government waive VAT for science and discovery centres, including museums, because they provide education for their visitors in a way comparable to schools. As the Committee’s Chairman said, however, the Government dismissed our proposal.
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Every year for five years, Bolton TIC has paid about £15,000 per annum in business rates to Bolton council. Imagine if it could invest that money, which it worked to hard to raise and which comes to more than £50,000, in the town’s children, instead of paying it back to the council. I therefore implore the Minister to look more seriously at waiving business rates for all these centres.

The Wellcome Trust, which has given science and discovery centres £43 million for their public engagement activities in the past decade, is

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