Science Centres Should Receive Government Support Says Report

By Caroline Lewis | 22 October 2007
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photo of a light blue hangar like building with a red and yellow wall next to it an a family walking next to it

Newcastle's Centre for Life (also known as the Life Science Centre). © Centre for Life

Science centres around the UK are welcoming a select committee report that has concluded they are worthy of government support.

The Science and Technology Select Committee was the first one to look at the role of science centres, and it gave them a resounding thumbs-up in its report, published on October 22 2007.

“…We have been impressed by the range of subjects tackled by science centres, their commitment to education and public engagement and the role that they play in their local communities,” says the report.

“The financial struggles that science centres have faced and continue to face are equalled only by the unrelenting enthusiasm of the members of the science centre community.”

The report concludes that the centres should have the opportunity to gain central funding:

“Science and discovery centres contribute to effective science education for young people and play and important role in public engagement, and should be eligible for government's support”

The news comes at a time when fewer and fewer young people are choosing to study sciences at further and higher education levels, despite estimates that the UK will need a workforce of approximately 2.4 million with a science and technology background in the next decade.

Science centres could therefore be playing a crucial role in attracting youngsters to what should be a fascinating area, not to mention a lynchpin of modern life and the country’s economy.

photo of an audience in a planetarium watching a presentation

Thinktank opened a state-of-the-art planetarium in 2005. Courtesy Thinktank

The body Ecsite-uk represents science centres and museums in the UK, which include venues such as the Centre for Life in Newcastle, Norwich’s Inspire, At-Bristol and Birmingham’s Thinktank.

Dr Nick Winterbotham is chairman of Ecsite-uk and CEO of Thinktank.

“This report is precisely the shot in the arm that UK science needs,” he said. “Ministers should now recognise what an ally they have in the nation’s new phenomenon of science centres.”

“For more than two decades, they have been giving families and schoolchildren a real taste of hands-on and minds-on science. Thanks to this report, we can look forward to a time when every child in the UK will be given the opportunity to fire their imagination in a science centre.”

The 50-plus science centres in the UK attract more than 17 million visitors each year. They are particularly popular for school visits, presenting workshops on Key Stage topics in science, technology, engineering and maths.

While they have the status of major institutions in this way, most are charities relying on fundraising, sponsorship and partnerships. In the last year, some have been forced to close, and others have made cutbacks, such as At-Bristol, which had to close two of its attractions and slash 45 jobs.

photo of an audience watching a lightning bolt like flame in the centre of an auditorium

Magna Science Adventure Centre, Rotherham, demonstrates what an exciting subject science should be. Courtesy Magna

“The UK has a proud history of scientific innovation and now more than ever we will rely on scientific entrepreneurship to solve some of the major challenges our society faces, from climate change to public health,” commented Dr Penny Fidler, director of Ecsite-uk.

“As this report highlights, the science centres and museums are already taking centre stage in the dialogue between scientists and the public. This will have an increasingly important role as we, as a society, strive to address these pressing issues.”

“It is to the select committee’s credit that they have recognised the powerful learning resource that science centres represent.”

Before long-term government funding is provided for science centres, however, the select committee recommends that research is carried out “to determine how effective these centres are at promoting interest in science and encouraging young people to embark on a career in a science subject”.

In the meantime it recommends short-term funding should be made available for centres that are struggling. Further research could lead to science centres receiving the same kind of funding given to museums and galleries.

The full report is available on the Ecsite-uk website.

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