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15 May 2008 : Column 493WH—continued

That is what we need—strategic vision. The devolved Governments in Wales, Northern Ireland and—the best example—the Parliament in Scotland are better at supporting these centres.

Core funding, which is difficult to raise, is required to help centres to renew their equipment and their interactive exhibits. Anyone who has visited a hands-on centre will know how enthusiastic children can put exhibits out of action almost by the hour. In any case, exhibits and hands-on experiments need to be kept at the cutting edge—that is what science and discovery are all about.

I am pleased that the Select Committee carried out this inquiry, because it has allowed a light to be shone in this dark corner of science policy. It has brought all the facts together, so that there can be no misunderstanding about the difficulties that science and discovery centres are in.

I hope that the Government’s review will allow them to conclude that these centres are worth supporting—perhaps through the newly created co-ordinating body Ecsite-uk—and that they will provide core funding to keep them all open. If the Government do not do that, there is no doubt that many centres will go out of business. That will happen at a time when countries such as Canada and Japan see centres as playing a key role in maintaining confidence in scientists and their discoveries. Science and discovery centres play a role in nurturing our future science and engineering talent. All that it takes to keep them open is political will.

3.17 pm

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): I apologise for having to leave at four o’clock, but I have to be in another part of Westminster to take part in debate on whether we should privatise universities or keep them public. I and others will be taking on the vice-chancellor of Buckingham university, which is always a bit of fun.

I was not a member of the Committee, but I am proud to be associated with the report. I have read it, thought about it and talked about it to other people, and I congratulate the Committee on the way in which its Chairman, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) have presented it.

I was extremely happy when the new Department was set up. I thought that that was a real initiative that we should be proud of. It was a bold step—and, gosh, do we need bold steps these days. It was bold and rather important step in the field of science, because it brought higher education and science together in the new Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

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Joined-up science policy is very important for this country and, linked with skills, it has allowed us to produce graduates with a sound practical knowledge base who can go into employment, provided that we know what industries are developing. We need graduates to go into industry with skills, innovatory ability and a knowledge of the subjects, but we need to go a bit further than that: we need to explain issues to people at a much younger age, long before they are graduates. Science and discovery centres bridge a large part of that gap and can reach our young people.

The Minister and I were at a rather high-octane meeting with some very young people last night. Among other things, we discussed scientific understanding and policy determination in government. I know enthusiasm when I see it, and it is clear that large numbers of young people want to enter this arena to develop their science and make sure that science plays a central part in policy determination. The evidence base should be evidence- based, and what better than science to achieve that? This is the 21st century. Nothing is better than catching people young, and I stand with Alex Ferguson when I say that. We must get them when they are young—they may not last long, but, by gosh, they can give a lot in the time they are in the profession.

There are specialist science and engineering schools now. It has been interesting to hear from the engineering greats with whom we on the Select Committee on Innovation, Universities and Skills have spoken. They do not know how many schools there are in this country where it is possible to specialise in engineering, and that is probably true of science too. However, there are schools that specialise in those areas, and we must ensure that the people who enter them have some understanding of what science is about.

Colleagues from the Committee may remember some young engineers to whom we spoke during our recent engineering inquiry who had lots of friends who wanted to do science, but were tempted away from it by better money and conditions in industry. We must take that issue on, quite seriously. I do not think that everything is a matter of money; it is also a matter of conditions and recognition, of saying, “Well done,” and of making sure that there are jobs available for a large part of people’s lives in which they can develop their ideas. If we could get civil servants who knew a bit of science, we would not have some of the problems that we have in government now. The evidence base would be much better understood. I have said before that one can tell that many civil servants on Capitol hill have a scientific background.

Science captures the imagination. It is not just about David Attenborough and the wonderful things in his programmes. I am amazed by some of the features of life he shows us, as are others, I am sure—they capture the imagination. However, earlier this week we discussed stem cell research and Britain being ahead of the curve, and in that context it is no use if, in schools such as one I visited recently, the subject of stem cells is taught in religion, not science, classes. It is interesting that that is how that subject is seen in some schools. Of course that can and will be argued about in schools.

As the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East said, discovery centres are places where young people can have fun on a rainy day—or a sunny day—and
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learn about and experience science in an exciting way. I get quite turned on when I go in and try some of the things, although I do not understand much, because science is highly specialised. It is very good for adults to question how things happen, and there is nothing better than to spend an hour or so in those centres. They set young minds going for the future, and that is what we should be doing. Young people need to go into science, and they need to be excited to get those careers. There are competitive markets globally, and we must be engaged in them. If we capture them young and get their imagination involved, we shall hold our own.

This debate is not just about science funding; it is also about how Government and society relate to science and about the whole process, from early excitement about science to arriving in whatever scientific career or training people want, whether they go into the civil service, or research science or something else. The issue is national and local at the same time. We have been debating the merits of funding and how the Government might help to fund the centres. The young man who started the Inspire discovery centre in Norwich, who is now in Wales, I think, was here for the demonstration on Monday, when we were lobbied by scientists about stem cell research. It was nice to meet again someone who spent eight or 10 years of his career trying to set up that science centre; he struggled, but it got there, and as he moves on there are difficulties in replacing someone of his ability. That should not happen. Those present for the debate know why it should not happen; the question is how to get out of that position and ensure that the excellence of what he set up is maintained.

I am keen on making Norwich a science city. People are cynical about them, but there are science cities in this country, such as Nottingham, Newcastle and York. There is no money attached to the status, but it pulls people together at all levels of society and gives them something to fight for and be determined about, not just at the business end but in the context of getting young people interested in the first place in becoming entrepreneurs and the business men and women of the future. It is a great idea. I asked the chief scientific adviser about them, and he did not know what a science city was; he asked whether one would just put up a sign at the entrance to the city saying, “Science city here”. The idea has not percolated outwards yet. I hope the Minister is listening when I say that we need another 12 or 15 science cities, to inspire the people at all levels who should be working together. Inspire in Norwich, which is threatened with closure, is a good example of how we can build around the scientific community, which is very big.

Dr. Iddon: I hope that my hon. Friend will tell us more about Inspire; I understand that it was started in a church—hence the name—and was part of regeneration work.

Dr. Gibson: Yes, Norwich is a city full of pubs and churches. I always get this wrong—even on my website—so shall not say which there are more of. Whatever I say I get it wrong, and a constituent always writes to me. However, Inspire is in a church, and is run by a company called Science Projects. It also runs the Observatory
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science centre at Herstmonceux castle, in Sussex. That is a huge complex run by Queen’s university of Canada, but the observatory has been turned into a science centre and is now extremely successful. Those two examples furnish us with a case study of centres that are closing or developing, and we should try to find out what success really means. The Observatory science centre has conferences and larger exhibitions. It has greater pull, with a huge stream of visitors, as well as discovery days and outdoor festivals. It is hard to organise those things for a church in the centre of Norwich where there is no parking—the parking restrictions in the centre of Norwich are a real problem. However, I know of a place where it could be done, and I hope that the press are listening.

We are working with the Norwich research park—a research council-funded organisation that is extremely successful. It is world class in plant sciences and the food industry, with food research being done at the Institute of Food Research. Those elements are beginning to merge, and I have an idea of something else that could merge with them. I have talked to the vice-chancellor and his staff, and they will meet Inspire representatives in the next few weeks. The institutes will meet them too, to try to work out a deal so that the place can be kept going. The work of Community University Engagement East is also proving fruitful. If I can get my regional development agency to take something like science really seriously—things in my area are not as they are in the north-east or north-west, but are pretty low key—there will be money streams that could be merged together. If those things do not happen, we shall not have a centre.

I should like to move the centre out of the cold old church and put it into the wonderful building in Norwich called the Forum. It is quite stylish, with beautiful rooms, and was funded by lottery money. It ran an exhibition, which has had its day, called Origins, in which people were taught to speak in Norfolk language. Some people would like everyone from Norfolk to speak it, and I can understand why, but it is difficult for someone from Scotland or up north, for example, to understand. Anyhow, the Forum gets visitors and is a classic example of a place where everyone goes. It is perfect for a science centre and is right in the middle of the city. We want to get student volunteers involved there, because interaction between young students and other young people is an important factor in developing such places. The meeting I spoke of will take place, and I think that there will be some action in connection with the Inspire centre. I shall certainly spend a fair bit of time on it.

Another group of organisations about which we should think seriously is the trade union movement. An hour or so ago, I met people from trade unions such as Unite and Prospect, which are not just defensive units that defend pay and conditions. They have always had an interest in bringing forward new ideas and strategies for the future. It seems to me that many of their members are in scientific research councils and universities. It would be a good project if the trade union movement were to combine with some other forces, with financial backing, to produce something good—six or seven projects or one big one; whatever was wanted. It would show that trade unionists and the people working in the relevant industries are offering to give something back, not only in their knowledge of what is happening in
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science, but by contributing something to help young people. I put it to them, if they are listening, that they should try to get together. The TUC could front such a project: it could take money from different unions and ensure that such places flourish. Revenue streams are very important.

Many people in this Chamber will remember the discovery dome. Steve Pizzey, who ran the organisation in Norwich, took it around the country to festivals. It had 100,000 visitors in the first year alone. Some of us probably went to see it. It was exciting and fun, but one learned something as well. There were people, including young people, on hand to answer questions. It was an amazing success when it was in the centre of Norwich.

There is very good institute attached to Queen Mary university, Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry called the Centre of the Cell, which makes deliberate efforts to help young people in the east end of London to understand science. For financial resources, it helps that it is attached to a university and so on. It is fronted by the director, Frances Balkwill, who is a professor at Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry. She has written 13 books for children about science, AIDS and other things—very exciting—and she also happens to be very good at cancer research. It is good to see people at that level devoting some of their time to bringing on youth. The Centre of the Cell is well worth a visit, and perhaps at some time the Select Committee could visit it to see how well it is doing.

The centre started off struggling for money. We helped—we had meetings in this place and everywhere—and eventually it got support. It will be hand to mouth for a bit, but it will get there because the people are determined to do what they are doing. There is hope, and examples of places where such things can be done.

Dr. Iddon: My hon. Friend mentioned a mobile science and discovery centre. Would he like to join me in congratulating those who have innovative ideas? The Institute of Physics, with its lab on a truck, produces mobile science and discovery centres. We should not forget them in this debate.

Dr. Gibson: I thank my hon. Friend. I will go even further and say that many of the societies—the Royal Society of Chemistry, with which he is affiliated, the Institute of Physics, the Institute of Biology and others—have put in a lot of effort, too. Working together, they could be part of an amalgam of people who are interested in this area. They just need to get into the same room and talk about such things, and see how much they will cost.

I want to say something about cost. The report said that £750,000 was given to Ecsite-uk. As Members will know, I am hot on statistics these days and I am keen to find out how they are gathered. We really need an inquiry into how Government Departments use, or do not use, statistics. In this case, however, the first question is whether £750,000 is a big sum of money. It sounds like a lot to the paupers in the House of Commons, but, at the end of the day, when I consider the 100 centres that have a turnover of £100,000 to £200,000 a year, and the £43 million contributed by the Wellcome Trust, I start to wonder whether £750,000 really is big beer.

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Many centres fend for themselves much of the time. They do not have business expertise—I absolutely acknowledge that—because of the nature of their work. They need a lot of expertise and help. I do not want to go into all the stuff about business plans, dynamism and so on, but we all know that places can be turned around if the right people move in. There is expertise in the country, and the Government may have to think about how to keep such places going.

We heard a bit about the Scottish model. Actually, I am getting bored with Scotland. Everything seems to be better there these days, and I am down here. Mesothelioma is better treated in Scotland, I am told, and care for the elderly is better, but then I am told that that is because the English give Scotland so much money and that we will have to take some back because things are done better there. I have never heard such nonsense in my life. There is a different attitude in those places and in centres to handling some of the problems with drugs and so on in the health arena.

I and, I am sure, members of the Select Committee have looked at the position around the world. It is absolutely amazing how some of the centres in the United States get money together with some local help and, of course, help from private sources. One that I have looked into in detail is in Birmingham, Alabama. The US seems to have centres everywhere. I do not know whether there is a correlation with the excellence of their research, but I would bet that many young people who eventually end up doing research, making discoveries and running businesses started off by getting that first touch of interest and enthusiasm by going around centres such as that one, which happens to specialise in dinosaurs. Dinosaurs seem to fascinate young people—we have the Natural History Museum, which is also full of them. We could have such centres if we had support from individuals and organisations right across the country.

I am not too happy with the Government’s attitude, which suggests that science centres are not as important as museums or galleries, that they are separate and that we really should not support them. They refuse to have a Department with responsibility for them. I think that we should have a Minister with responsibility for science and discovery centres, in the same way that we have Ministers for museums, charities and so on. Ministers are always fighting about getting out of one part of Whitehall and into another. We need to grasp the nettle and start pushing for a Minister with the power to ensure that we get a national science centre. Science centres fit into the Government strategy, and we should make a louder noise about them. I hope that the Government will recognise that there is a strong case for their being part of the education process. This is where it starts, and where it finishes will depend on how well we start.

3.37 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), who modestly said—in the context of how specialised scientists are, I believe—that he did not know much about science. I hope that that will not be mischievously misquoted back at him by the media. He was very clear that science is a broad subject. Science centres are so important because they expose young people to the breadth of the subject.

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Although I am speaking from the Front Bench now, I was and am a member of the Select Committee that conducted this inquiry. It was interesting to participate in it. It was short and sometimes sweet, and it certainly set out the problems that science centres face and the wonderful opportunities that a solution to those problems would offer to them, to the people whom they serve and to communities, and, indeed, to Government policy.

The Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), rightly paid tribute to the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) for his initiative in pushing the inquiry forward. Whenever this is raised, I point out that it was I who got science centres on the agenda for our quarterly question session with the then Minister for Science and Innovation, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, because I had been contacted by the science centre in Oxford, which expressed concern about the position that science centres generally were in. I remember being very disappointed by Lord Sainsbury’s response at the time. As he put it—I am paraphrasing because I do not have the exact quote—the Government wanted to promote science learning through science learning centres and did not see any role for science centres. In essence, they had to live and die by the marketplace. I thought that that was the wrong approach to take, and I urged the Committee to look into the matter further. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East was able to persuade it to take on the inquiry.

In his introductory speech, the Chairman magnificently and succinctly identified the disappointing nature of the Government’s response, particularly on the key issues relating to our three options on funding: the museums link, VAT, and emergency short-term capital-type funding to keep things going. I shall return to those things in a moment.

The value of the work done by science centres was brought home to me when the Newcastle Centre for Life kindly sent a team of science explainers to the House of Commons, where they set up their equipment—they had microscopes, models, interactive approaches and display boards—to enable members of the public and Members of Parliament to learn more about the exact nature of stem cells and hybrid embryo research. They were even kind enough to battle the elements and come outside for a photo call to show that scientists—those young explainers were all science-trained—have a role to play in explaining controversial issues to the public and the media.

If, as I hope, the controversial measures in the Government’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill get through, it will be thanks in no small part to the efforts of the science community to engage with the public, the media and with parliamentarians to explain their science, what the research is about and some of the myths created, and to support individuals, including parliamentarians such as me, the Chairman of the Select Committee, other Members who have spoken today and Ministers, who support the proposals in the Bill.

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