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15 May 2008 : Column 505WH—continued

Beyond public support, many science and discovery centres are independent and already stand on their own two feet. There is a danger that if the Government were consistently to provide core funding to all science and discovery centres—a couple of Labour Back Benchers have called for that—they might lose their independence and unique qualities. They might also lose the control that they have over the outcomes that they deliver to
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society. I caution rushing headlong into complete Government core funding for every organisation. The energy and enthusiasm of the people who start these centres, which was most ably described by the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), make the centres successful and vibrant in the long run.

How does the Minister plan to help science and discovery centre budgets in the short and long terms? The short-term issue is that one or two more centres may be going out of operation in the next few months. What does the Minister plan to do in the short term to address those challenges, while we await the evidence that we hope will be forthcoming, if he has commissioned the research?

When UK schools are slipping in world science ranking tables, and a Government poll found that 59 per cent. of people feel uninformed about science, it is vital that the Government tackle the challenges to and remove the obstacles to the take-up of STEM subjects. Science and discovery centres certainly contribute to the task of capturing young people’s enthusiasm and helping science teachers to motivate their students. Given the lack of empirical evidence, it is difficult to know what the Government plan to do next and it is difficult for us to call on the Government to do something specific.

That is why I think the recommendations of the report are superb—they are clearly stated and clearly conditional. I was incredibly surprised at the almost off-hand dismissal of those clear recommendations in the Government’s response. In his eloquent, entertaining and amusing speech, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough made it clear that many of the rejections were completely unreasoned. Other hon. Members have pointed out that the rejections were illogical. I think they were pretty slapdash. Having heard the debate today, will the Minister go back and ask his Department to take some time to review those rejections and come back with a more comprehensive explanation of why the recommendations were rejected? Simply saying, “We are not doing that”, and setting up a straw man argument not only discredits the work of the Committee, but the work of the Parliament. I therefore urge the Minister to go back to the Department and answer the recommendations once again.

Currently, we are subsidising access to museums for overseas visitors. We do not differentiate between the people who come into museums, yet we could enhance social mobility and the opportunities of some of the least well-off and most disadvantaged in our society by increasing access to science and discovery centres. Will the Minister explain that anomaly? Why do we subsidise overseas visitors to museums in the United Kingdom, yet charge our own citizens, often from the least well-off backgrounds, to gain access to science and discovery centres?

I am instinctively very enthusiastic about science and discovery centres, but if, when the research comes through, it shows that they contribute nothing to the overall agenda of encouraging people to go into science and if the evidence says that they work against that objective, I would withdraw my support for some of the recommendations. However, I suspect that if the Minister just gets a move on and commissions the research, we will find that the centres contribute an enormous amount to our society and economy. I urge him to get on with it and commission the research.

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4.11 pm

The Minister for Science and Innovation (Ian Pearson): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) for introducing the debate. I am also grateful to the other contributors to it, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) and for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), who, over a long period, have shown a deep interest in the issues under discussion.

Before I respond to the key points raised, I shall set out the Government’s views on science centres and our plans for the future. I stress that it is a Government-wide view. We acknowledged in the response to the Select Committee’s report that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills will take the lead on science centre issues within Government, but we will work closely with the Departments for Culture, Media and Sport and for Children, Schools and Families, because they share an interest in that agenda. Indeed, both DIUS and the DCSF funded Ecsite-uk’s recent science centre enrichment activity grant scheme, and officials from all three Departments maintain contact on the issues and worked together to formulate the response to the Committee’s recommendations.

I am a bit disappointed by how negative hon. Members seem to feel the Government response was. I do not believe that to be the case, but Government funding is finite and we need strong, robust evidence that our interventions can make a difference, are well focused and serve the public interest. As hon. Members themselves argued, short-term financial fixes do not help the sector, the recreational visitor, or the educational user. We need to understand more fully the contribution, role and influence of science centres. The Committee recognised that fact back in October, when it agreed that a Government commitment to long-term revenue support for science centres should not be considered unless independent evidence of their effectiveness was obtained. I shall say something about that in a moment.

I have met and corresponded with representatives from several science centres and, before becoming Minister for Science and Innovation, I visited about 14 of them. I also met representatives of Ecsite-uk earlier in the year to discuss its vision for the future. I therefore know about some of the problems and opportunities facing the sector. My Department continues to fund Ecsite-uk, and I trust that it will take forward important work on fostering and disseminating best practice in the sector.

As hon. Members will be aware, between November 2006 and March 2008, DIUS and the DCSF jointly provided almost £750,000 for a project to enhance financial sustainability and help the network to develop an approach to best practice and benchmarking. Of that funding, £250,000 came from the DCSF and the remaining £490,000 from DIUS. We never expected a magic bullet solution to emerge from the project, but I understand from the final reports that it has enabled significant outreach work to be conducted by the centres that were successful in their grant bids, and it has facilitated the development of consortiums that would benefit from the collaborations and new approaches to working together throughout the country. Results suggest that everyone involved, including children and teachers in targeted hard-to-reach schools, thought that they had benefited from the experience.

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As a result of the funding, Ecsite-uk has also completed a project to begin work on a new approach to benchmarking in the sector. Ecsite-uk has stressed that the project is not a panacea, but it feels positive and believes that it is a start and will help the sector to become more rigorous about best practice and measurement. A common theme in today’s debate was the need for greater measurement and assessment of impact.

Several of the Select Committee’s recommendations were directed at Ecsite-uk, and I again take the opportunity to encourage Ecsite-uk and individual science centres to work collaboratively, to learn from best practice, wherever it comes from, and to work to obtain greater diversity in funding streams. I know that there is a commitment in the sector to do that.

Comparisons were made with the museum sector—indeed, that was a major theme of the speech by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough. I understand the arguments about museums and the comparisons drawn between science centres and museums, whether they relate to their public engagement work or their funding. I stress that museums clearly have a public engagement role; they are not just about collections. However, it is important to dispel some misconceptions about museums and science centres. I do not think that those misconceptions are found among members of the Select Committee, but they might be found in the wider community.

The first misconception is that the two types of institution are essentially the same. It is true that a number of museums, perhaps most notably the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum, are affiliates of the Ecsite-uk network and can be classified as science or discovery centres. However, in the Government’s mind, there is an important distinction between a museum and another type of visitor attraction: the possession of a collection, as we heard.

As my hon. Friends will be aware, the Museums Association gives this definition:

I hope that it can be seen from that definition that a museum exists because of its collection. That is not its only role, but the collection is at the heart of its activities, whether it is inspiring and informing visitors or supporting the learning of schoolchildren, which a museum also undertakes. Museums have an equally important additional curatorial duty to maintain and preserve their collections for future generations. In contrast, science centres often have no permanent artefacts or items and aim to present science to the public via temporary exhibits or displays.

The second misconception arises from the fact that many people believe that the Government fund free access to all museums in England and are therefore duty-bound to fund a similar scheme for all science centres. The simple fact is that only a small number of museums in England are funded directly by central Government. The Museums Association estimates that there are about 2,000 museums in England. The vast majority either are funded by local authorities—689 museums in total—or are independent charities; that is the case for 811 museums. The policy on admission prices for those museums is a matter for the relevant council, its councillors and the local community, or the trustees of the organisation, depending on its status.

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The DCMS is the Department with lead responsibility for museums in England and it directly sponsors only 21 museums, 13 of which are defined as national by virtue of the importance of their collections. DCMS supports those national museums for their pre-eminent national collections, which are held by the museums in trust for the nation and for future generations. Of those 21 museums, nine could be categorised as science centres. It is not the case that DCMS does not give equal treatment to science and the arts when funding our national museums.

Dr. Evan Harris: Will the Minister give way?

Ian Pearson: I shall first annoy the hon. Gentleman a little. I do not accept the argument that science centres fall into the same category as schools and hospitals; nor do I accept the argument that DCMS favours the arts over the sciences, given that in nine of the 21 museums that it funds, science is the key, or even the total, component.

Dr. Harris: I hope that the Minister is willing to place in the Library or to give us an analysis of those nine museums in the Library, showing whether they are funded because they are science museums, or whether funding still comes back to the collections issue. The question is not really about numbers, but about whether there is enough flexibility in Government funding to capture what is good, regardless of the strict rules that may apply.

Ian Pearson: It does come back to the collections issue. I am happy to provide whatever additional information I can, but the simple fact is that DCMS funds only 21 museums out of more than 2,000 nationwide. It is not realistic to argue that the 100 or so science centres in the United Kingdom should be able to access the funding that those 21 museums currently get from the Department but that the other 2,000 museums that are not funded by the Department cannot access.

Mr. Willis: I hope that the Minister will not be uncharacteristically disingenuous again. He is not responding to what our report said, nor to what my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) said. The report did not say that we expected every science centre to be funded by the Government. We said that those that were MLA accredited in the same way as the museums would be eligible for that funding. However, it would be entirely up to the sponsoring organisations to decide whether they could be grant-aided. That is what happens now.

As for whether science centres should be regarded in the same way as schools and hospitals, that was not my hon. Friend’s point. He was commenting on commercial viability being the criteria by which the Government will decide whether the centres will be allowed to continue. Both in the report and in response to the Minister’s predecessor, Lord Sainsbury, we commented strongly on the fact that that was not the criteria that the Government had set for the STEM agenda—an objective that science centres were trying to fulfil.

Ian Pearson: I am sure that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) is more than capable of defending himself. I shall speak directly about the STEM agenda in a moment.

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Science centres are not the only means of engaging the population with science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Indeed, all three Departments have already made a significant investment, reaching many millions of children and adults as a result. The House will doubtless be aware that DIUS—and previously the DTI—has supported more than 18,000 science and engineering ambassadors, the BA crest awards, national science and engineering week, and the Sciencewise programme; those are just a few examples. We are also working closely with the DCMS and the Natural History museum in their Darwin200 celebrations.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families is funding a wide range of activities to engage and inspire young people in science. Among them are science and engineering clubs. The DCMS is already funding 250 such clubs, and it will be setting up another 250 this autumn. It has also commissioned a programme of support and guidance aimed at increasing the number of young people continuing their study of STEM subjects post-16. Alongside that, the DCSF has begun a three-year STEM communications campaign to inform pupils, parents and others of the wide-ranging and exciting opportunities that are open to students when they study STEM subjects and achieve qualifications. A lot of work is involved in the STEM agenda.

Due to sustained increases in Government funding for education, a far higher level of money per pupil is going to our schools. Schools have the capacity to take children on school visits as part of the curriculum. I am keen for science centres to promote themselves—for instance, so that schoolchildren in the midlands are encouraged to go to Thinktank or the National Space Centre rather than to Alton Towers or Legoland. That would be far better for them, but it is up to science centres to promote themselves to schools.

Given the wide-ranging activities that are taking place on the STEM agenda, DIUS has committed itself to undertaking research into the effectiveness and impact of science centres, a commitment that we made in the Government response in January. I know that that is eagerly anticipated within the sector. It seemed right for Ecsite-uk to complete and publish its results, which it did last month.

We are now in a position to build on that work and to develop the strongest possible evidence base on which to make future decisions. I know that some believe that we should have commissioned the research before, but our judgment was that we wanted to see the findings from Ecsite-uk’s work before taking the next step. We are now ready to launch a call for proposals.

We know from the recently completed Research Councils UK-DIUS survey of public attitudes to science and Ecsite-uk’s figures that significant numbers visit science and discovery centres. That is not up for debate, but we need a measurable impact of their contributions, and a more in-depth understanding of that contribution relative to the many and varied initiatives and offerings that are already out there. That is something that the Select Committee pressed us to do and we will do it.

On research, as we indicated in our response to the Committee, researchers will consider the relative contributions of our delivery partners to our science and society goals. We will want them to assess existing evidence, and to suggest the best way in which we can unravel the complexities of the contribution, value for money and effectiveness of the initiatives now in place.

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The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough asked about timing. I hope that we will be able to commission that work within the next few weeks. I have been talking to officials about the time scale for the project. I would like a draft final report to be published in September, and a final report in October. My officials, however, advise me that that might be “A little quick, Minister,” and that science centres might need more time to get the information to the consultants who are to be appointed to undertake that work.

I shall ask my officials to talk to Ecsite-uk about establishing a reasonable time scale for the project. If the feeling of the science centre community is that it will not get the work done to the required level until December, I shall happily agree. However, like the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie), I want to get on with it.

Adam Afriyie: I am marginally reassured by hearing that the Minister, too, is keen to commission the research. Why should he assume that Ecsite-uk will do the next round of research—although it is possible that he gave that impression but did not mean to? I urge him to consider using a completely independent researcher rather have it conducted by someone within the industry.

Ian Pearson: I can see other hon. Members nodding at that suggestion. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Government intend to appoint a contractor from our framework contractors that has experience in undertaking economic evaluation studies. That is the sort of hard information that we want.

Dr. Evan Harris: Does the Minister intend to consult the Committee on the terms of reference for the research when he has the information he requires to go forward?

Ian Pearson: I should be happy to make available the study’s terms of reference to the Committee. I suggest that we do that quickly, but I will be more than happy to share the information.

Hon. Members asked how the study fits into the overall strategy. The Government hope to publish a consultation document in the next few weeks that will lead to the development of a science and society strategy. We have said in the past few months that we want to refresh our vision for science and society. We want a society that is excited about science, values its importance to our economic and social well-being, and supports a representative, well-qualified work force. We want to look at how science centres fit into that strategy—the research that we are commissioning will be an important part of the science and society work that we do in future. I encourage science and discovery centres to participate in the consultation phase of the science and society strategy when it is launched, so that we have an informed debate on all aspects of it.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough fairly summarised the Committee’s report, but it is not true that the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council does not see education as an important role. It develops generic learning outcomes for museums. Ecsite-uk is committed to using and promoting that tool within the science community. Museums perform multiple roles, as I outlined.

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