Previous Section Index Home Page

15 May 2008 : Column 511WH—continued

15 May 2008 : Column 512WH

We have not rejected out of hand the Committee’s proposals and I apologise for any adverse tone in our response—it was not intentional. We want to take research forward and we are responding positively to the Committee’s recommendation that we do so. I strongly agreed with the hon. Gentleman when he said that science centres are varied and that they will require different solutions. My instinct—I want first to see the evidence of the impact study—tells me that different solutions are likely to be required.

On VAT, I can confirm that officials spoke to Revenue and Customs about the report, so it is aware of the Committee’s deliberations. As is known, local authorities have discretion on rates and I encourage them to consider using it when it comes to science centres, because of the contribution that they can make to local and regional economies.

Dr. Iddon: I have a point on VAT that did not appear on the report. When we purchased our £500,000-worth of equipment for Bolton Technical Innovation Centre, we paid 17.5 per cent. VAT, yet the school next door pays zero-rated VAT when it purchases equipment. I plead with the Minister to look into the of possibility making centres that provide a lot of educational material zero-VAT rated, as schools are.

Ian Pearson: I appreciate my hon. Friend’s comments and his commitment to science centres. However, science centres are not schools, and they should not be treated as such. Their status varies—some will be companies limited by guarantee, some will have charitable status, and some will not. The complications of the structures have consequences under EU VAT rules, but I heard what he said and I shall reflect further on the matter.

My hon. Friend also talked about the wide variety of science and discovery centres in the UK—I agree with him on that—and the importance of promoting science to women. The Government are strongly committed to that. I had the opportunity to present a certificate to the 18,000th science and engineering ambassador, who is a woman; actually, 56 per cent. of our ambassadors are women. We help fund the women in science and education programme and have a UK resource centre for women. Getting more women interested in taking science subjects and pursuing science careers is high on our agenda.

I enjoyed what my hon. Friend said about 3-D printers and building and firing rockets, and how such things enthuse young people. He also spoke about Catalyst and the problems of funding centres. I am sure that they will want to participate in the research that we are commissioning to demonstrate the impact that they have on their local and regional communities.

My hon. Friend mentioned the role that regional development agencies play in science cities. The UK’s science cities are beginning to play an important part in regional economies. I feel proud of the Government’s record of developing major projects such as science and innovation campuses and collaborative research and development. He came up with an interesting suggestion when he said that there should be a big science club in every town rather than a science club in every school. It was an interesting idea—certainly, we will look at how better to network science clubs. I should like to take the idea away and reflect on it, and I shall ask our consultants to consider the idea in future.

15 May 2008 : Column 513WH

Dr. Iddon: I am pleased that the Minister said that. It will take a long time at the current rate to spread science clubs throughout the entire country or even within a town. Only one school in our town benefits at the moment. If we cannot develop a big science club for the town, it would be better if children from other schools who are interested in science and technology could go to the school that has been provided with money, so that all children have access to a club, rather than just those in a single school.

Ian Pearson: We could pursue a number of different options. Certainly, I am happy to consider all the options and to speak to my colleagues in the DCSF about them.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the funding problems that Expore-At-Bristol has been having. As he will be aware, it received funding for two years from DIUS and the DCSF combined and has been part of the consortium project of the £750,000 funding that was provided through Ecsite-uk. At the moment, the DCSF is funding a science and learning centre co-located there. I am aware of some of the exciting work done at Explore-At-Bristol. I hope that the people there will want to work with the consultants that we appoint and demonstrate the impact that they are having.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North talked about catching them young, with which I agree completely. He also talked about how we as a Government and a society relate to science. Again, we will cover that in significant detail in our science and society strategy. He called for more science centres. I was pleased that he sees the value of science centres across our economy. Norwich has major centres of excellence, including the John Innes centre and the Institute of Food Research, and there are exciting plans for the development of a world-class cluster in the Norwich area.

My hon. Friend also spoke at some length about Inspire, a project in his constituency that is finding itself in difficulty. I congratulate him—he is not here at the moment, but I am sure that he will read his speech, and possibly my reply—on his work to bring partners together and broker creative solutions. I think that I covered his question, “How does this fit into the Government strategy?” when I said that we want to evaluate science centres fully and see them as part of a coherent picture in our new science and society strategy.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon made a thoughtful contribution. I mention in passing that Science Oxford, a science centre in his area, has benefited from consortium money provided by Ecsite-uk. I think that he is under a misapprehension that science centres should be seen as the same as schools and hospitals. We do not expect schools and hospitals to make a profit, but we do expect them to operate within their budgets, and I would expect science centres as well to operate effectively within the budgets available.

Dr. Evan Harris: I am grateful for the opportunity to fend for myself and to probe the Minister on that point. I think that he will accept that I was not saying that science centres ought a priori to be funded because they are public services, like schools and hospitals; rather, requiring them to be commercially successful in order to be funded is not reasonable when they perform a public good and/or achieve Government objectives. That was my point, and I think that he recognises that.

15 May 2008 : Column 514WH

Ian Pearson: I recognise that there is a distinction to be made between commercial success and financial sustainability. We want science centres to be financially sustainable. We do not expect them to make a profit and return dividends to shareholders, but we want them to be viable. Science centres that received Millennium Commission funding or the £2 million in funding provided by the Government between 2004 and 2006 did so on the basis that they would be financially sustainable or, at the very least, work towards financial viability.

The hon. Gentleman also said that he would be happy to see winners and losers when it comes to the DCMS funding applied to museums. He needs to think carefully about that. Opening up the DCMS budget, which goes to some of the UK’s national treasures, to science centres and perhaps other museums, would be opening up a can of worms. I am convinced that that would not be in the UK’s best interests. He might want to think about that.

Adam Afriyie rose—

Ian Pearson: I was just coming to the hon. Gentleman, so I will give way to him.

Adam Afriyie: I shall be charming, and I am sure that the Minister will be charming too. I recognise that he is making some valid points. On the funding of entrance to museums rather than science and discovery centres, if the evidence shows that science and discovery centres provide an overwhelmingly excellent service in getting people into STEM subjects at school and in university, will he consider looking at some of the report’s proposals—whether about VAT or other suggestions—to ensure that society and the economy benefit from science and discovery centres? Or is he completely writing that off now and saying that he will not look at them at all, that museum funding and the definitions will remain exactly as they are and that no other channel of support, funding or encouragement will be available?

Ian Pearson: I am not writing anything off; I am saying that I see no realistic prospect that the DCMS will open up its budget to science centres. On funding and charges, the situation at the moment is that, because of this Labour Government, we have a policy under which a very limited number of museums offer free entry as a result of decisions that we made back in 2001. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the fact that overseas visitors can come to our world-class museums for free. I think that that is a good thing. Both UK and tourist visitor numbers have risen dramatically as a result of that policy initiative. If he is suggesting that we should have a tourist tax, that is an interesting new Conservative policy.

As I said, free entry applies to a relatively small number of museums—21, I think—across the country. Many other museums charge, and their charging policies are determined by their governing bodies or local authorities, depending on the arrangements. I think that the hon. Gentleman, like me, is a fan of the National Space Centre at Leicester. He is right that I am instinctively comfortable with the view that science centres have an impact. Exactly how much of an impact and how that compares with science and engineering ambassadors, science and learning centres and the whole range of
15 May 2008 : Column 515WH
other activities going on, such as national science and engineering week and national fairs and competitions, is something that we need to consider carefully as part of a coherent strategy for engaging the public and making them enthusiastic and excited about STEM subjects.

I am hopeful about the work that we are commissioning and the science and society strategy. We want to open up discussions with the wider community, which we have done and continue to do by holding workshops. I hope that we will develop a comprehensive strategy based on firm evidence. The hon. Gentleman spoke about data collection. Obviously, the survey will provide more data, but specifically, Ecsite-uk recognises that there are a lot of differences in how data are collected. I understand that work is ongoing. Our funding has supported the development of an online survey tool, but it is still the beginning of the road for a network. It is not a short-term solution, and more work can be done in that area.

As I said to the Select Committee, as a Minister in the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, I am content to take lead responsibility on science centre issues in the Government, but we need to work closely
15 May 2008 : Column 516WH
with the DCSF, particularly on the STEM agenda. We also need to work closely with the DCMS. We have agreed with the Committee’s proposals to commission research into the impact of science centres, which we are now in a position to do. All three Departments would agree with the Committee’s view that continuing to focus on short-term financial fixes is not the right way forward. We want to encourage all interested parties to contribute to the consultation on our science in society strategy, which will take place very shortly.

I would like to encourage the science centre community to assist in our upcoming work programme; Ecsite-uk to work with the community to continue to develop the work on benchmarking and best practice; and individual organisations—the 2,000 museums and 100 or so science centres in the UK—to consider diverse sources of funding. As a Department for innovation, we want “innovation” to be the watchword of science centres. I know that it can be a struggle trying to find funds from different sources and putting in grant applications, but it is important. As part of our overall strategy, we will certainly consider the wider picture as well and the contribution that science centres make to our agenda.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes to Five o’clock.

    Index Home Page