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Science centres struggle as funds run out

London

As the Millennium Dome in London stands empty and forlorn by the River Thames, doubts are growing about the future of a network of science centres set up in Britain as another part of the millennium celebrations.

Science centres such as those at Newcastle (inset) and Glasgow can't survive on visitors' money alone. Credit: KEITH HUNTER/GSC; TERRY FARRELL & PARTNERS (INSET)

A dozen or so centres — conceived to boost the public understanding of science, educate children and help to revitalize depressed urban areas — have been built over the past few years largely with £250 million (US$360 million) raised from Britain's national lottery. But with no more lottery funds available to subsidize them, many of them are already finding the going tough.

Typical difficulties are being confronted this month by the Glasgow Science Centre, which opened last summer in a striking titanium-clad building on the banks of the River Clyde. Already heavily in debt because of delays, cost overruns and technical faults, the centre's trustees agreed at a meeting last week to take £2 million from a £7-million endowment fund, originally set aside to buy new exhibits, to help balance the books.

The move buys the centre time, but some observers are warning that if public money is not forthcoming, Glasgow and many of the other centres face cutbacks or even closure.

“Without support from government, the future of science centres that do not have income streams other than visitors' spending is bleak,” says Linda Conlon, chief executive of the International Centre for Life, a science centre in Newcastle. Her centre hosts exhibitions and even theatre productions on issues across the life sciences. But it also runs a conference and banqueting business, rents space to local businesses, and hosts the University of Newcastle's Institute of Human Genetics.

“We knew that if we delivered a science centre on its own with no other revenue streams we would be dead within 12 months,” Conlon says. She estimates that only about two-thirds of most centres' costs can be met by visitors' admission fees and the money spent in cafeterias and bookshops.

John Durant, chief executive of a centre called at-Bristol, is critical of the model used to set up the centres by the Millennium Commission — the body that allocated lottery money to the projects — in which no money was set aside for future operating costs. “It was always a complete nonsense and they were told at the time it was nonsense,” he says. Durant warns that many centres could soon be forced to replace educational activities with more commercial alternatives.

Mike O'Connor, director of the Millennium Commission, says that bidders were told that there would be no long-term support and that the commission nevertheless “received applications from people who said that their centres would get sufficient visitor numbers and enough income to be viable”, he argues.

Melanie Quin, executive director of Ecsite-uk, an umbrella network for the UK centres, admits that the visitor numbers predicted by some of the centres' plans were “wishful thinking”. Quin suggests that the government could step in and pay the centres to play a more direct role in school education.

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