BOSSES at Newcastle’s cutting-edge Centre for Life last night called for funding reforms to give them access to the same Government funding as museums.
While the facility, home to the region’s stem cell research, has been flourishing, two of the other 18 science centres that were given grants by the Millennium Commission have already closed in Doncaster and Ayrshire.
Another, At Bristol, has had to close two of its three attractions and recently made 45 staff redundant.
MPs are today calling for long-term funding commitments from the Government after publishing the findings of their inquiry into the country’s science centres. Centre for Life bosses said they did not expect a hand-out from the Government, but said they were not operating on a level playing field with museums.
Unlike museums, the science centres receive no day-to-day funding from the Government, relying instead on ticket and shop sales, commercial sponsorship and occasional injections of state cash, including £4.5m the Centre for Life received for its current exhibition refurbishment.
While the Scottish Government and Welsh Assembly provide support for centres in their areas, the UK Government has always taken the view that it will not provide continuing subsidies for “unviable” science attractions.
The Commons Science and Technology Committee report argued that long-term support for day-to-day activities should not be guaranteed unless there was independent research to confirm that the centres make a positive contribution to science education, encourage youngsters to take up careers in science, technology, engineering and maths, and promote public engagement.
It urges the Government to commission such research and to be ready, if its findings are positive, to provide funding along the lines of the £320m given annually in grants to museums.
In the meantime, limited short-term funding should be made available to science centres to ensure that none go under while they are waiting for the study to be completed.
Centre for Life chief executive Linda Conlon said it was like no other centre because it had such a robust business model and was part of Newcastle’s world-leading science village, where the world’s first human embryo was cloned and cutting-edge stem cell research undertaken. She added: “It is not a level playing field when it comes to funding. We have already said we don’t think we deserve a hand-out from the Government as a matter of course.
“We are prepared to demonstrate our effectiveness but we would like to compete fairly with museums which we cannot at the moment because we don’t have collections.”
The committee also recommended the Government give serious consideration to a reduced 5% VAT rate on admission fees to science and other educational centres.
Committee chairman Phil Willis said: “We have been impressed by the range of subjects tackled by science centres, their commitment to education and public engagement and the role they play in their local communities, despite the financial difficulties facing many of them. We hope the Government will take a lead in continuing to develop further these close ties with everyone involved so the science centre sector can evolve and flourish.”
A Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills spokesperson said: “We’re working in a number of ways to increase public interest in science and welcome the publication of today’s report.”