Science Lesson - Museums Association

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Science Lesson

The UK's science centres need to collaborate more and work in isolation less if they want to attract more investment, says Goéry Delacôte
Goéry Delacôte
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After 15 years at the helm of the Exploratorium in San Francisco, voted in April 2005 the world's best science centre, I decided to accept the invitation to head the At-Bristol science centre.

I've been in the UK for a year and I am getting a sense of how science centres and museums operate and want to contrast what I have found with my experience in the US, as well as in France (my country of origin and where I am still on the board of the Palais de la Découverte and the Exploradome in Paris).

To my surprise, I discovered collaborative working relationships between science centres in the UK, such as developing exhibitions either in common or through a consortium. This approach was favoured by the Millennium Commission and more recently by the Wellcome Trust. It is a dream approach for funders, who like to see their money create more impact than can be achieved by funding isolated organisations.

In the US, the National Science Foundation's informal science education department has sponsored major collaborative grants, such as the one to create the Centre for Informal Learning and Schools in 2002. Hosted by the Boston Museum of Science, the Exploratorium and the Science Centre of Minnesota, it created a network of more than 50 science centres working together to refine how they interact with schools.

No initiative of that magnitude has been launched in the UK, even if the spirit of some existing smaller grants is collaborative. Unfortunately, the majority of funding going to science centres is not like this.

In the US, on average, half the annual operating resources for science centres are earned, a quarter come from private fundraising and the rest from public money. Private fundraising involves large foundations donating hundreds of millions of dollars a year and a myriad of small family or private charitable trusts giving away smaller grants.

The large foundations do exist in the UK and can be quite powerful, but there are far fewer smaller trusts than in the US. In the same vein, UK museum board members' financial contributions are almost non-existent, which may be the result of a cultural tradition. But it is not the way to operate. If the board does not contribute, why would other individuals?

France does not have a roster of strong private foundations and money is provided by public channels such as the state or region. Charitable donations are relatively low. This is unfortunate because private giving is primarily about being part of a group keen to support a specific cause. In France, it comes down to 'ask the state' and in the US, 'ask the citizens'. In the UK, it is somewhere in between. This creates the risk that both look to the other to take responsibility, with the result that neither does.

Despite UK science centres' recognised impact, everyone is struggling for resources and sometimes barely holding their heads above water. Science centres have closed, including two out of the ten Millennium projects - the Earth Centre in Doncaster and the Big Idea in Ayrshire. In the UK, the lack of support from smaller trusts prevents science centres from asking for help in difficult times. In the US after 9/11, it was possible to get help from those small trusts, for example.

But institutions struggling for survival are not in a position to think strategically or long term. They grasp at all the funds available, even if not directly related to their mission. This reinforces the practice of splendid isolation, where each institution counts only on its own forces to be saved. It also encourages centres to focus on activities that drive revenue at the expense of their mission and visitors, placing them at risk of decline.

Merging and reorganising the field by networking it, sharing development resources and investments, and practising duplications without being handicapped by the pride of wanting to be unique: all these modern ways of working are far too little developed and encouraged. In addition, the government does not provide science centres in England with public support, as it fears an entitlement approach through which money with no relation to outcomes would be poured into the system.

But public money, used intelligently as investment capital, would be an excellent incentive for organisations to strategise, differentiate from each other without the obsession of uniqueness, share the best tools, research results and practices, and entice ambitious leadership. In turn, this will generate high intellectual impact and good-quality debate, rather than a struggling-for-life attitude. It would also mean a relatively small amount of investment compared with what state-owned organisations would require.

The government should invest in science centres because they can play an integral role in the science-learning agenda through the professional development of teachers and the building of lending libraries of equipment, as well as via interactive media-based programmes.

Science literacy has to develop among adults and science exploration has to inspire younger generations. Countries such as India and China understand this and put faith in science for the development of their economies and communities.

If there is some common ground between the US, UK and France, it is the serious decline in interest among the population, particularly the young, about practising science. While a rising number of young people are attaining the grades needed to study science at A-Level or university, they are opting not to.

This disenchantment will require far more than science centres can do to put it right. But they can play an important strategic role by creating partnerships with formal education establishments to become much more than a fun place for children to visit at the weekend.

Goéry Delacôte is the chief executive of At-Bristol

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