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15 May 2008 : Column 499WH—continued

I received a letter from the Centre for Life afterwards, explaining that science centres do well at presenting complex and potentially frightening science simply and neutrally through interactive displays and exhibitions.
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That unit in Newcastle takes the information out in a mobile way, as the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East mentioned. It is important that there is flexibility to enable it to take mobile displays to shopping areas and schools, because such displays help people to make sense of science, which is sometimes misrepresented in the media. We are not talking just about stem cells, of course, but nanotechnology, vaccinations and climate change, which are just some of the areas that science explainers at the Newcastle science centre have gone into. The Centre for Life is right to say that it does not expect money for nothing—funding—or money for anything simply because it exists. The Government should see that there is something worth while, in terms of policy and outcomes, in spending public money on keeping kids switched on to science.

The Centre for Life tells me that, and I accept that, there is evidence that young people switch off from science at certain points during their education, that science teaching in schools is clearly under-resourced and boring, and, therefore, that it is no wonder that so many take softer subjects such as media studies. Fewer students than we would like, and fewer than the country needs, are taking science subjects. Our problem with the supply of scientists starts in schools and among young people. Science centres can offer a more exciting, relevant and hands-on approach to science for young people that complements the curriculum work being done in schools.

The Centre for Life explainers pointed out that it can engage the public in cutting-edge, controversial subjects such as stem cell technology; that should be recognised by the Government in funding terms, where necessary. As hon. Members have heard me say before, it is more important than ever that science is explained. It is not a case of dealing with a population that is not as knowledgeable as it might be, or not as knowledgeable as that of other countries; rather, we are dealing with an active campaign against science—an active campaign of anti-science and pseudo-science—that needs to be countered by the facts and by explaining what scientists do. It is worrying that sometimes, the only time that young people hear about some of these technologies is in religious education lessons, as the hon. Member for Norwich, North said. We need an alternative place where young people can get the information.

The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East made a clear plea for action on the part of the Government. He is careful about demanding action from the Government and they ought to listen, because people such as him putting such a well-argued case for something to be done adds validity to that call. It was fascinating to hear about Bolton TIC. I felt the sudden urge to travel to the north-west—probably via Crewe—to Bolton and it might still happen. I was delighted to hear that the hon. Gentleman is able, through his efforts and those of the local council, to keep Bolton TIC ticking. The hand-to-mouth existence of such organisations, involving little pots of money, is frustrating.

I am struck by the fact that the Wellcome Trust and Halton borough council, in the case of Catalyst, and Bolton metropolitan borough council have felt it worth while to provide support for science centres, whereas the Government have responded by saying that they did not feel that it was worth funding a science centre that was failing financially. I raised that point in my questions to
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Ministers during the evidence-taking session in the Select Committee on 11 July 2007, when I also asked the Wellcome Trust a question. The Government said in evidence that they

That was astonishing, because they offer ongoing subsidies and financial support to commercially unsuccessful hospitals, schools, libraries and other things. The point is that these are not commercial enterprises. If the Minister’s view is that they should be commercial enterprises—and that if they are not, then that is it—that would be clear, because then we may as well not wait for the outcome of the Government’s research into their effectiveness in delivering Government policy.

The Wellcome Trust is not foolish about handing out its money, and local councils are not allowed by the Audit Commission and the district auditor to be foolish in handing out their money, yet they have thought that funding such centres is worth while. The corollary of the Government’s view is that they will only subsidise commercially successful science and discovery centres: that is, they will only fund the ones that do not need the funding. It is astonishing that, in written evidence, the Government said what they did and followed it up with what the Committee Chairman said was a rather trite statement in response to our recommendation:

A number of schools in special measures would quiver if they heard that. It is not about funding failure, but about funding institutions to help them not fail. I have made the point, as did the Committee Chairman, that those institutions would not be failing if there were a fair, level playing field with other institutions.

That brings me to a point made by the Chairman during his introduction, which is the question of a level playing field in respect of museum funding. I do not need to repeat what he said about the unreasonableness and shallowness of the Government’s response, which was not a valid response to the points that we made. Leaving aside museums, it is peculiar that a science centre’s having a collection is the be all and end all in respect of whether they will receive funding. I accept that that is a factor: it is a role that some science centres play. However, the idea that the only thing worth funding is collections is not consistent with any rational view of the validity and importance of the role of science centres or, indeed, of any cultural centre. Other forms of funding are available for cultural centres that do not require them to have collections.

I asked the Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) on 11 July 2007, in question 80, whether there was a curiosity in this regard, because although there is a massive shortage of young people studying physics, chemistry and maths, the Government do not give ongoing revenue support to science and discovery centres, whereas the Department for Culture, Media and Sport gives massive, and welcome, support to art galleries and museums. I asked whether that was because there was a shortage of painters and young people who could become painters. That activity is funded.

That was light-hearted, but the fundamental problem is that, if young people cannot afford entry fees to science centres, they will go where there is no entry fee.
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Young people from deprived areas in particular will not have a level playing field and an equal opportunity to go to places where they might be turned on to science, just as they might be turned on to art in art galleries or history and related subjects in museums. I hope that the Minister will return to the matter and provide a valid answer, and I hope that funding might be available on an accreditation basis, regardless of whether a collection exists.

The hon. Member for Norwich, North rightly said that, when capturing young people for science, it is critical to catch them young, particularly as we will not catch them with the offer of wealth. Science salaries are not what the brightest people can achieve outside science, in the City and in the purely commercial or corporate sector. We must rely on the fact that science is interesting, or—I do not want to ostracise people—even more interesting than accountancy, banking and other sectors where salaries and bonuses are high.

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): I do not want to deride accountants and solicitors, but the hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that 50 per cent. of leading business men and heads of FTSE 100 companies come from a scientific background. Science provides the impetus or foundation for careers in business, as well as in direct scientific research.

Dr. Harris: Absolutely, and the Committee noted during its current engineering inquiry that a significant number of chief executives of major companies are engineers. I am not concerned about people going into engineering, becoming successful, and then going into business, becoming successful and heading up companies. I am worried about people who take science subjects at school and go on to study them at university, but do not go into teaching, research or industry because they are lured by the debt-abolition “golden hellos” that City institutions offer to the brightest people. The hon. Member for Norwich, North was right to make the international comparisons between our science centres and those elsewhere in the world.

I return to the Government’s response. Most of the key points were made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough in his fine introduction to the debate. On VAT reduction, the Government did not address the recommendation, which was clear. It is short and it is worth quoting for the record:

The Government did not address that. They confirmed that European VAT

services are not already

When I first read that, I thought it was good because science centres tick many boxes and are more useful to Government policy than zoos, and certainly circuses. However, the Government concluded:

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There was nothing to suggest that, following the research that we proposed in recommendation 4, the Government would consider the matter again or offer any comfort. Their response seemed to be a flat negative. Perhaps I have misunderstood, and perhaps when the research to which the Government referred in paragraph 12 of their response and to which my hon. Friend referred is under way—it was to be commissioned early in 2008, but this is no longer early 2008, so I await what the Minister says about progress in this area—the option of VAT or some other form of funding will be kept open.

We are fiddling while Rome burns, because more and more science centres are under threat and struggling. It cannot be good use of resources to keep funding them in the short term, and it is not fair on the staff in those centres to be faced with difficult decisions. We want centres to be able to plan for the future, to expand their activities, to identify what they are doing well and what the Government want them to do, and to do more of that. They cannot do that while there is doubt about funding. I urge the Government to be more constructive in their policy objective of persuading more young people to study STEM subjects and more members of the public to understand science issues.

I accept that there is a limited pot of funds, that museums, for example, jealously guard what they already have, and that if there are to be more gainers, there must be losers. I, for one, would prefer to have a combination of winners and losers than a continuation of the status quo, with these valuable centres struggling and some of them closing. It is vital that we make a success of them, and the fact that they were allowed to open on the basis of dodgy business plans through the Millennium Commission’s funding process is no excuse for blaming them. Better checks should have been made to prevent inadequate business plans from getting off the ground. The fact is that that did not happen. These centres are in a dilemma, and there is now an expectation that they will be allowed to continue. I urge the Government to make that happen.

3.57 pm

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): I am delighted to participate in this stimulating, exciting and crucial debate about the future of undergraduates, graduates and workers in STEM subjects in the UK economy, not only because I was a member of the Science and Technology Committee that prepared the report, under the able chairmanship of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), but as my party’s Front-Bench spokesman on science and technology. As someone with a science background who has built up businesses in the technology and scientific arena, the matter is close to my heart.

It became clear to me from our visits during our evidence sessions for the report that there is a vibrant world out there, with more than 100 centres in different parts of the country—underprivileged areas and affluent areas—that provide a great opportunity for people from all backgrounds to become engaged in science and
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excited about science, and to get their hands on scientific instruments, to play with them and to become involved with scientific experiments. I am certain that that leads to many young people instinctively taking up science subjects at school.

We visited the national space centre at Leicester, which is fascinating.

The Minister for Science and Innovation (Ian Pearson): It is a great experience for children.

Adam Afriyie: It is a great centre. The youngsters come in teams and, after a lot of training, manage to fly a Challenger simulator. They each take a different role and get hands-on experience that shows them why science matters if they want to do exciting things such as being an astronaut, a pilot or a shuttle captain.

I am very comfortable with the idea that the centres contribute a lot not only to the education of STEM undergraduates and those taking STEM subjects at school, but eventually to the UK economy. They promise to inspire, to educate and to inform young people, which are vital objectives at a time when the Government are saying that the UK economy is crying out for STEM skills.

There was concern about the funding and effectiveness of the centres, because they are often not purely commercial, but semi-commercial. The centres are not ministerial creations; they have welled up from the insights and enthusiasm of social entrepreneurs, business men, academics, teachers and people who are perhaps retiring from their primary career. They provide educational benefits, but are not state-run operations or top-down Government creations. Yet, in many ways, Government policy on science and discovery centres affects the ability of the centres to survive and be commercially viable.

Ministers have always recognised that science centres have an important role to play and that funding is part of the support given to them. The former Departments of Trade and Industry and for Education and Skills provided £750,000 for Ecsite-uk—a network of science and discovery centres—to research the impact that centres were having. Most people welcomed that research. However, Ecsite-uk has not looked at what the Committee was crying out for; it has not considered the empirical evidence on the impact of the centres. For example, out of 10 youngsters who visit a centre, how many change their choice of subjects in school? Evidence on that is not available. Clearly, some of the recommendations from Ecsite-uk will, I hope, over time lead to some of that data becoming available. However, as of today, the Government cannot say they will not fund science and discovery centres because the evidence does not show whether they make a contribution to the their overall objectives. We do not have the relevant evidence, so it is incredibly disappointing, frustrating and worrying that the science and discovery centres have been closing—one more has done so in the past few months. We simply do not know whether they perform a function in relation to our overall goals in society.

Let me make it clear that science centres have benefited from public money. As other hon. Members have said, 18 centres received £450 million from the Millennium Commission. The principle of funding the centres from Government has been established, so the Minister should not simply dismiss that notion and say that funding is
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anathema to the Government when it comes to independently operating organisations. In effect, there is already a public subsidy.

It is also important to point out that there is a danger of drawing artificial distinctions between museums and science and discovery centres. We should not move commas and semi-colons to define out or exclude science and discovery centres from the definition of bodies that provide public services. For example, we say that supporting collections is in the national interest, but that supporting the public engagement aspects of science and discovery centres is not, which is not a particularly helpful way to move forward. I hope that the Minister will explain the reasoning behind the almost specific exclusion of science and discovery centres from the funding that goes through the museums channel.

Will the Minister clarify the Government’s relationship to science and innovation centres? How do they fit into the overall STEM narrative? I commend the Minister for speaking about the shortage of science skills in society and among the work force. Could he spend a few moments explaining how science and discovery centres will fit into the overall picture of encouraging engagement in science subjects at school?

As I have said, we currently have no idea whether science and discovery centres are viable. The Government have already said that they will not support unviable science centres, but what is an unviable science centre? Is it a centre that does not have enough visitors giving it money and is therefore unable to provide an overall operation, or is it a centre that provides a service to the Government but is unable to recoup enough money to provide that service? Will the Minister tell us what his definition is of an unviable science and discovery centre? As the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) has pointed out, a restriction on the flow of funds for the public good and for public engagement with museums and other educational establishments to the exclusion of science and discovery centres might make them unviable. Indeed, the Government may make these organisations unviable because of the way in which they fund existing institutions.

My main concern—especially as I come from a science background—is the lack of rigorous and reliable evidence to justify the lack of public support or continued public support. We currently do not know whether support should be forthcoming. One concern expressed in the Ecsite-uk report is about the lack of information on visitor numbers. The collection and analysis of data would help centres to focus on their core business and prepare effective applications for funding. However, such data collection is expensive and money for data collection would detract from the capacity of centres to educate and inform in the way they do now. In reality, a solid evidence base remains merely an ambition. Perhaps the Minister will explain how that ambition will be fulfilled in the coming months. The Ecsite-uk report recommends improved data collection, so will the Minister say what progress has been made on that?

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