Saturday, 12 December 2009

Lift off! Science centres and the voyage of discovery

When I was a lad and you could have a day out in London for tuppence ha'penny, the Geological Museum galleries in South Kensington contained rows of oak cabinets stuffed to the brim with enough mineral specimens to delight any Victorian geologist. Over the past few decades that style of display has practically disappeared, with only the Minerals Gallery in what is now the Red Zone of the Natural History Museum left as a reminder. Besides a dynamic, multi-sensory approach, museums today frequently provide hands-on activities specifically aimed at children, such as the Science Museum's ever-popular Launch Pad. Their aim is simple: to persuade children that science is interesting, comprehensible, and relevant, a message that British schools don't seem to manage too well.

As well as the long-established public science collections, a new type of attraction has emerged in the past few decades: science and discovery centres have sprung up across the UK; ranging from the broad-spectrum Cardiff Techniquest to the specific-themed National Space Centre in Leicester. In addition to providing a permanent base for hands-on activities, some centres also share travelling exhibitions and supply lecturers to schools, purposefully relating material to the National Curriculum syllabus.

Although any science fan should be pleased with this new phenomenon, the downside is that unstable funding means the majority face an uncertain future. Of the eighteen centres that received capital grants from the Millennium Commission, a lack of viable long-term funding has already led to two closing down and another severely reduced in scope. Most centres have charitable status so rely on commercial activity and small amounts of corporate sponsorship, in stark contrast to the well-established collection-based institutes such as the Science and Natural History Museums which receive the majority of their budgets from the State. Westminster, whilst admitting the usefulness of the discovery centres in motivating children towards careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, clearly differentiates between the two categories. English centres fare the worst, whilst some of those in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are allocated funds by their regional governments.

Unfortunately we are seeing yet another example of attitudes exacerbated by the current economic climate, with long-term research projects and support for the next generation of scientists deferred in favour of fulfilling goals within the lifetime of the current administration. This is despite recent reports highlighting the continuing 'brain drain', with lower salaries in the UK meaning science graduates, physicists in particular, are seemingly destined to leave Britain in order to continue their studies and gain employment abroad.

Though we live in a mistrustful society far removed from the na├»ve Victorian belief in scientific and technological progress, surely the need to 'engage' and 'enrich' all segments of society (to use Government phraseology) is greater than ever? The many regional events taking place during this International Year of Astronomy only serve to show that with a little effort science can be successfully promoted outside of the classroom, a step in alleviating the tide of scientists leaving the country. Science and discovery centres help fill the gaps between museum and school, promoting science to children whilst possibly motivating their parents too.

With draconian public sector spending cuts on the horizon, it is unlikely that these centres will receive future official support. Yet science collections have come a long way since T.H. Huxley argued that the Natural History Museum should be reserved for professional researchers rather than the public; after all, he claimed, what would the latter gain from seeing endless species of beetle? If you have visited the likes of the Eden Project or National Space Centre, you will know that there are still plenty of things out there for us all to discover, not just beetles.