Established by UNESCO in 2001, the World Science Day for Peace and Development is celebrated on the 10th of November every year; it has the lofty aim of trying to demonstrate to the general public why science is relevant to their daily lives, and in doing so attempts to engage them in debate on scientific issues. Each year has a specific focus, and the theme of this year’s celebrations is Celebrating Science Centres and Science Museums.
In the UK, Science museums and science centres operate according to different funding models, which means that science centres tend to charge an entrance fee, whereas science museums are free to the general public. This is not to say that science centres would not also like to be free for entry, but they are not currently funded in a manner that would allow them to do so. For a more detailed explanation of the differences between science centres and museums, perceived or otherwise, please see this excellent article from the Studies in Science Education Journal.
The Museum of Science and Industry (Photo Credit: David Dixon)
The Science Museum Group (SMG) oversees the running of the Science Museum in London, the National Media Museum in Bradford, the National Railway Museum in York, and the Museum of Science and Industry here in Manchester. According to the SMG’s Annual Report and Accounts for 2015-2016 in the past year alone over five and half million people have visited these museums to learn about science, and they haven’t had to pay a penny for the privilege. The SMG is mainly sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), which means that it is subject to the decisions of the UK Government in terms of funding streams. This extract from the Science Museum Group Plan 2016/17 nicely summaries the current position of that funding revenue:
“SMG, in common with other museums and galleries sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), was subject to a real-term decrease of 30% in core Grant in Aid (GIA) between 2010/11 and 2015/16. GIA for 2016/17 – 2019/20 was announced in the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) in November 2015. The outcome was better than anticipated; instead of severe cuts, GIA is to be frozen at 2015/16 levels. This, together with savings already achieved, allows SMG to invest in some much-needed improvements to the digital and physical infrastructure in 2016/17. However, GIA will still fall year-on-year in real terms due to inflation. Furthermore, the possibility of unanticipated cuts to GIA must be borne in mind; in-year, post-agreement cuts have been imposed in recent years.”
The SMG has therefore been forced to look for alternative funding streams if it wants to continue to give visitors the opportunity to find out first-hand the ways in which science is relevant to all of their daily lives. In 2015 the SMG were able to sell the Post Office Building to Imperial College for £30 million, whilst in October of this year they announced Wonderlab, a new paid for attraction (£17.50 for a family day-ticket or £30 for a family annual pass) at London’s Science Museum. This means that whilst entry to the museums is now free, there are a growing number of exhibitions and activities that cost money to experience, for example IMAX 3D Theatre and simulators. With these charges there is a risk that the museums will start to operate on a tiered system, and that people from certain socio-economic backgrounds may be excluded as a result of this. This seems like an incredible shame, as science is something that should be accessible to all, and science museums have traditionally been a great standard bearer for this ethos. When I think back to my own childhood in Yorkshire, there was not a single school holiday or half-term when I didn’t go to the Railway or Media Museum (or both!), and the chance to interact with science in such an engaging and innovative way undoubtedly had a large effect on my later academic and career pathways.
A free activity about the story of antibiotics, run by Manchester Met staff and students at the Museum of Science and Industry.
It is my opinion that the UK Government should provide more support to the DCMS, so that science museums can remain an innovative and inclusive place of inspiration. I think that this would be a wonderful way of encouraging the general public to discover why science is so relevant to their daily lives. As such, on the 10th November I will be visiting the Museum of Science and Industry, not only to show my support for the World Science Day for Peace and Development, but also because I know I’ll have a grand old time.