STEM Subjects: Science and Discovery Centres — [Mrs Maria Miller in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:25 am on 24th March 2021.

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[Mrs Maria Miller in the Chair]

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke 2:30 pm, 24th March 2021

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practices to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate, and there will be suspensions between each debate.

I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of the debates in Westminster Hall. Members are expected to remain for the entire debate. I must also remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerk’s email address.

Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and, please, when they leave the room. I remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall, except of course when people are participating in the debate. Members attending physically who are in the latter stages of the call list may use the seats at the back—I do not think that will be a problem for us in this debate.

I will not need to set a formal time limit for this debate, but I encourage Members to be aware of the call list and the time. I will call Front-Bench speakers from about 3.28 pm. With that, let us move on to the main debate.

Photo of Ben Spencer Ben Spencer Conservative, Runnymede and Weybridge 2:31 pm, 24th March 2021

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the Science and Discovery Centres’ support for education in science and careers in STEM subjects.

It is a pleasure to speak with you in the Chair, Mrs Miller, and to have the opportunity to discuss this vital subject.

The debate is timely, as we talked this week about the road map to recovery and our ambitious plans to consolidate the UK’s position as a world leader of science and innovation. I start by thanking the Association for Science and Discovery Centres for its work and support, in particular Dr Penny Fidler, Chas Bishop, Linda Conlon and Professor Alice Roberts for their work and for their discussions with me, and every staff member, volunteer and everyone who teaches and inspires science. I will talk about science’s role in our society before moving on to the role of science and discovery centres and support for our education, workforce and careers in STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths.

Science brings hope and progress towards a better future. Throughout the pandemic, we have seen that the solutions and the way out have been driven by science. Now, we talk about new vaccines and new treatments, built on the back of thousands of hours of research and development and an immense scientific and engineering workforce. Throughout history, the UK has been central to many scientific innovations and discoveries, from Jenner’s work on the smallpox vaccine to Watson, Crick and Rosalind Franklin’s discovery of DNA—the seed that grew to offer hope today in our world-leading genomic sequencing programme surveying new covid variants.

Science also offers hope for the future when we look at the broader challenges that we face. For climate change, we look to science to clean up our pollution and to provide sustainability. For novel threats, we look to science to respond and defend us. For economic pressures and dropping productivity, we look to science to innovate. Even for how we talk in this debate, with Members appearing on Zoom, we look to science to keep us connected.

Scientific method is founded on the principle that one can never prove, only disprove, which means that we always strive for better understanding, ever challenging and changing, and ever improving. Science is a deeply human endeavour that dares, with uncompromising audacity, to hope that nothing is beyond the reach of mankind’s understanding, that knowledge can be gained and the world and the universe understood with the tools of hard work, discipline and careful observation. Each discovery builds on the work of others, all part of this great human endeavour—striving, yearning, learning and progress.

We depend on science for our future prosperity, for our health and wellbeing, and for our very survival. We need a future workforce ready to build on the work that we do today, to make new discoveries, build the machines and buildings, and offer new hope for generations to come. We must invest in science and ensure that it sits centre stage in our national plans, beginning with education and reaching right through our social, cultural and economic policies.

The Government have rightly made science, innovation, research and development the backbone of their plans for economic recovery and sustainability, to turn us into a science superpower—or, I would argue, to return us to being a science superpower. We must celebrate science and we must teach it to our children, but most of all we need to build and consolidate our scientific workforce for the future.

We know that women and people from disadvantaged backgrounds are under-represented in science, technology, engineering and maths—the so-called STEM subjects. Stereotypes and social barriers can mean that many young people are not exposed to science, or consider it alien. Science, maths and engineering can be portrayed as “unfeminine”; sadly, Hansard cannot record me tutting in disgust at the nonsense of that statement, but there we are.

This is where science and discovery centres come in, playing a vital role in breaking down these barriers. Science and discovery centres—community hubs of science engagement—showcase the wonder of science. They take a lead role in our nation’s engagement with science. They are places where people of all ages can learn and discover for themselves what science is, and they also support schools in bringing the science curriculum to life.

Science can often be seen as dry and intellectual, and —dare I say it—geeky, but at its core is the experimentation with and observation of the world and its natural phenomena. Science and discovery centres reintroduce this link and its wonder in a way that is interesting and exciting, but above all accessible. As with all engagement activities, it is the staff and volunteers who are the beating heart of the institutions, transferring their wonder at science on to the next generation. That can come through launching a water rocket, touching a lunar lander or building an earthquake-resistant tower or through something as simple as watching leafcutter ants demolish a plant.

Science and discovery centres allow us all to discover science and nature. Pre-pandemic, over the course of a year they showed almost 10 million school-age children the wonder of science. They inspired disadvantaged and under-represented groups into education, and set the path to careers in STEM subjects.

Of course, science engagement is not limited to science and discovery centres. In my constituency, Royal Holloway, University of London, and Brooklands College do great science and engineering engagement activities respectively, and today I want to celebrate all centres of learning and science engagement. In particular, I call on the Government to support all these centres as we open up again, and as part of our plan for the recovery of education after covid.

The covid pandemic has hit everyone hard, and science and discovery centres, like many other charities, have had to close their doors. Many of their staff have been made redundant. Some centres have shifted their offering online, but it is just not the same as being in the centre and seeing science in action, up close and personal.

We have heard a lot about the impact that the covid pandemic has had on children’s education, and rightly the Department for Education has focused on how we can ensure that our children do not become the covid generation. We have worked very hard over the years to support and broaden access to careers in STEM to disadvantaged groups. The Minister for School Standards has rightly worked hard to increase uptake in STEM subjects at A-level for women. Science and discovery centres are a key part of our educational offering, enriching the school experience and inspiring people to consider the opportunities of a career in science.

I have spoken many times about the pandemic being a pandemic of inequality, as it has accentuated existing health inequalities; those who were already worse off in our society are being hit the hardest and sadly, that is also the case in education. I regularly hear from teachers in my constituency their worries about the differential impact on children, and that those who are already disadvantaged will have the inequalities they experience entrenched.

That situation also affects the enrichment offered by science and discovery centres. With school trips called off and centres closed, teachers have to make careful financial decisions, given the costs of education during the pandemic. Of course those pressures will be highest in deprived areas, where the need for educational enrichment is greatest and where visiting a science and discovery centre could be the spark of wonder that leads someone on to a different path towards a career in science, technology, engineering and maths.

Science and discovery centres have benefited from the main headline financial support schemes, such as furlough, but many of them have missed out on sector-specific support as a result of not being seen as cultural institutions. Consequently, they are really struggling. They need to open their doors again to all of us, but in particular to schoolchildren.

I ask the Minister, who I know is passionate about ensuring equality of opportunity for all and the role of education in achieving that aim, to ensure that in a world of competing pressures the vital work that science and discovery centres do is supported within our plans for the recovery of education.

This debate is very personal to me. As a young boy growing up, I was inspired by the wonder of science by my parents. This was nurtured and reinforced by the trips I took to science museums and nature reserves, many of which would now be seen as science and discovery centres. I try to pass on the wonder of science to my own children, be it through watching tadpoles turn into frogs or seeing dinosaurs and space rockets at the science and discovery centres.

The debate today is a celebration of the amazing work of our science and discovery centres, and all those who inspire a love of science across our communities. It is also a plea to ensure that the current generation of school children do not miss out on these amazing opportunities to discover and explore the possibilities that science offers, to pursue careers in STEM subjects and to be the ones to lead future innovation and provide hope and inspiration for future generations. Every child needs the opportunity to discover science. We cannot let the pandemic extinguish science’s spark of wonder for our next generation.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Labour, Halton 2:41 pm, 24th March 2021

I congratulate Dr Spencer on securing this important debate.

The Catalyst Science Discovery Centre in my constituency is a unique hybrid, combining a museum and a science centre. It plays an important role in promoting STEM—the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths—and learning to young people. I will concentrate mainly on that in my speech today, but we also have the brilliant Sci-Tech Daresbury in the borough of Halton as well.

Catalyst is on the cusp of dramatic changes that will transform lives and create a new and exciting visitor attraction for the north-west of England and beyond. It will have a Liverpool city region-wide impact, and draw in visitors from across the country and internationally. I am pleased that the city region Mayor, Steve Rotheram, is a huge supporter of Catalyst.

It all began in 1982 with an exhibition in the old town hall in Widnes to celebrate 100 years of the Society of Chemical Industry. The museum finally opened in the old Gossages building in the West Bank area of Widnes in 1989 as the Museum of the Chemical Industry. The Catalyst building stands tall on the banks of the River Mersey, looking towards Runcorn and close to our three magnificent bridges—the silver jubilee bridge, the new and huge Mersey gateway and the historic railway bridge. A stunning glass observatory was added to the top of the Catalyst building, giving spectacular views across the Mersey. It has a unique collection and has won many awards over the years.

The Mersey is about much more than just Liverpool. The heritage of the towns of Runcorn and Widnes, and their chemical industry, is tied to that great river, just as much as the city of Liverpool. There is a strong case that in Widnes and Runcorn we saw the birth of the chemical industry in the UK, an industry that since the 19th century was responsible for many innovations, inventions and products that improve all our lives.

ICI became the largest Halton chemical company, but it has now gone. Today, the largest chemical company is INEOS, whose operations at the Runcorn site are of strategic national importance to the UK and which is also a strong supporter of Catalyst. For a long time the chemical industry provided thousands of jobs, many taken up by immigrant workers, mainly from Ireland and eastern Europe, as well as workers from other parts of the UK moving to Halton. In fact, my own family’s heritage has huge connections to Ireland and many of my relatives worked for ICI, including my dad who was a process worker. The industry also brought its problems, with dangerous working conditions and pollution. Catalyst does not shy from that part of our heritage.

The chair of the friends of Catalyst, my constituent Professor David Hornby from the department of molecular biology and biotechnology at the University of Sheffield, wrote to me and said:

“The Catalyst SD&HC is a unique repository of historic documents and artefacts relating to the Industrial Revolution in the UK. The contribution of the Chemical Industry sector to the UK’s dominant global economic position over the period up to and including WWII is remarkable in itself.

In addition, following Fleming’s discovery of antibiotics and Florey and Chain’s translation of penicillin for the treatment of bacterial infections, the Chemical Industry paved the way for the Pharmaceutical sector, which remains one of the UK’s most lucrative sectors. Without which, the battle to overcome the current pandemic would have left the UK (and the world) much more exposed.”

So, no Brunner Mond, no ICI; no ICI, no AstraZeneca. He went on to say:

“The parallels between the last 50 years in Silicon Valley, California and the first 50 years of Halton’s chemical industry are compelling.

Both have arisen from the coalescence of a small group of highly educated and cultured pioneering individuals around a set of favourable geographical and logistical factors together with the rapid deployment of a largely migrant workforce.”

The conversion of Catalyst’s paper archive into a digital one is critical to secure the amazing legacy of the place for the future. I pay tribute to the museum’s trustees and friends group and the staff who have worked tirelessly over the years to keep it going through many financially challenging times. I pay special tribute to Chris Lewis, who recently stepped down but was the longstanding and highly effective chair of the friends of Catalyst.

On what Catalyst can do to promote STEM, I could not do better than quote Dr Diana Leitch MBE, chair of the trustees of Catalyst and one of its most longstanding supporters. She says:

“We at Catalyst strive to inspire younger generations to become scientists and engineers and believe in themselves and their futures through improving their education and their well-being.

By a combination of heritage and vision of the future, we can achieve much and put the Catalyst as a ‘Visitor Experience’ at the heart of Halton and NW England’s great developments.”

It is important that funding is secured for Catalyst’s future. Last year, the Government awarded it a grant of £162,000 as part of the £1.57 billion culture recovery fund, and the National Lottery Heritage Fund awarded it £8,600. However, it continues to face a real financial challenge. Martin Pearson, its chief executive, told me:

“We play an active role in supporting all the STEM subjects that schools do not have the ability to teach any more and work closely with industry partners to stimulate young people into work in our area.

However, being an independent Science Centre and Museum means we are totally reliant on visitor income and local company sponsorship. Our own estimates show that the income stream for 2021/22 will be 50% of that in the 2019 pre-Covid year. We are not out of the woods yet. We employ 18 staff and have a small but dedicated group of volunteers.”

Catalyst is a brilliant interactive museum and science centre. It is vital to our heritage and to encouraging future generations of our young people to take up careers in science, research and engineering, and we need to support it. I leave the final words to Professor David Hornby, who wrote to me and said:

“It seems to me to be vital not only to acknowledge the importance of Halton to this country’s manufacturing past but to support the Catalyst in stimulating a younger generation to become creative scientists who will be vital to this country’s future success.”

Photo of Chris Skidmore Chris Skidmore Conservative, Kingswood 2:47 pm, 24th March 2021

I will be brief. If hon. Members can hear any background noise, it is because I have a 16-month-old baby in a high chair next to me watching “Paw Patrol”. I am hoping she will be okay. I want to make some comments both as a former Science Minister who recognises the importance of science and discovery centres and as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on museums. We have seen the impact of the culture recovery fund and what that has meant for keeping museums afloat over the past year. Science and discovery centres have been unable to access the culture recovery fund. I wrote to the Minister about that, but it was not possible to achieve change.

I want to talk about We The Curious, the science and discovery centre in Bristol. I remember it as the Exploratory from when I was growing up, and I have vivid memories of the wonderful experience I had visiting it several times. I would be taking my children to We The Curious if it were open now. Before covid, it had 300,000 visitors a year, of which 70,000 were school visits, so Bristol schoolchildren had huge opportunities to visit this centre right in Bristol city centre. However, it has lost £2.7 million of revenue since the pandemic began. It has had to restructure, making 46% of its education team redundant. The restructuring of staff has led to £1.1 million-worth of savings, but it is in dire straits.

We need to recognise that there were 60 science and discovery centres in the national network across the country. There have been several closures as a result of covid, but they had 25 million visitors a year, 11 million of whom were schoolchildren. Of those 11 million visits, 20% were organised through the STEM curriculum directly delivering lesson plans in science, physics and chemistry. We have seen an enormous loss over the past year, and we have to make sure that this loss is not compounded by the closure of centres, which means that children in local areas will miss out on the potential for science and discovery centres to enrich their curriculum and inspire the next generation of scientists.

Some will be unable to access the cultural recovery fund. I say to the Minister that this is the year of COP26 and this is the generation that is going to actually deliver on net zero. I have young children—a five-year-old and a six-year-old—and they have talked about the coronavirus and are acutely aware of science on the back of the pandemic. We have an opportunity to train the next generation of scientists. Science and discovery centres must play a key role in that, but they cannot do so when they are on their knees. The Government need to support these centres. Perhaps this year alone we could set them a specific mission with regards to COP26. It would help plug a funding shortfall if we were able to task the centres with local missions to engage young people on the back of an educational recovery plan that is needed for schools.

Whether it is the Department for Education, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport or the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, I urge the Government to look at the opportunities that COP26 provides for sustainability. Ultimately, science and discovery centres are well placed to teach the lessons and the science of sustainability, and to train up a future generation of new scientists and responsible citizens who will take the future of the planet incredibly seriously. Science and discovery centres can help them achieve that.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office) 2:52 pm, 24th March 2021

It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under you in the Chair, Mrs Miller. I thank Dr Spencer for securing this incredibly important and timely debate, and for his passionate opening contribution.

I will focus my remarks on the Eureka! national children’s museum, which I am incredibly proud to say is located in my Halifax constituency. I am an ambassador for Eureka! and in my maiden speech I spoke about my memories of its opening back in 1992. I was six years old, so hon. Members can imagine my excitement at the time. It is a real privilege to advocate for Eureka! as an adult, with no less enthusiasm than I had for it as a child.

As I am sure hon. Members will agree, science and discovery centres play a crucial role in inspiring the next generation of scientists and researchers, as well as in broadening access to STEM subjects by making them more accessible. That is absolutely essential for people from disadvantaged backgrounds and more marginalised communities. If it was not already obvious, the past year has shown just how crucial it is to nurture the next generation of scientists and big thinkers. Without them, the covid vaccine would simply not have been possible.

Eureka! is the only fully interactive museum for nought to 11-year-olds anywhere in Britain. Prior to lockdown, Eureka! attracted 315,000 visitors every year, with my two-year-old and me regularly among them. Significantly, however, 19% of those visitors were from areas with high levels of deprivation. Having recently met Leigh-Anne Stradeski, the chief exec of Eureka! it is clear to me that although every attempt has been made to be diligent and to build up reserves and financial resilience for the future, the museum will be in trouble in the next few weeks. It has been unable to access support during the pandemic and has received no Government recognition of the role it plays and the important work it does.

Up until now, the museum has spent more than £1 million of its available reserves. It has reduced the workforce by more than a third, through a redundancy programme, and it has been forced permanently to close the Eureka! nursery and, significantly for the current debate, the education department. Based on the current plans to reopen on 21 May, and assuming it will be able to remain open thereafter, it forecasts visitor numbers of 127,000 through to the year end and a drop in reserves to just above the amount required by the board to support the costs of winding up, should that become necessary. If for any reason the museum is unable to open as planned, that will inevitably result in a further deterioration of the financial outlook, so we can see what an anxious time it is for all involved at Eureka!

It was able to take advantage of some of the local government covid grants, the furlough scheme and reduced VAT rates for hospitality businesses but, like all other science museums, it has remained ineligible for any significant support. It has, however, applied for a grant of £112,00 via the most recent round of DCMS funding through the Heritage Lottery Fund, on the basis that we have heritage assets on the site with a significant cultural and economic impact on our region, so I very much hope that the decision makers for that fund are taking note of the debate.

The reason that the loss of the education team at Eureka! is so worrying is that prior to the pandemic just 15% of scientists were from working-class backgrounds. We are faced with an attainment gap that is increasing for the first time in 10 years, and it is clear that science and development centres such as Eureka! are more important than ever. STEM-based education programmes are delivered to an average of 32,000 key stage 1 and 2 children every year on school visits to Eureka! and the visits are undertaken by schools from across the region and beyond.

Another exciting project under way is Eureka! Mersey, a second Eureka! children’s museum in the Wirral, which is set to open in 2022. That project is secure, but retaining and utilising the expertise of the Halifax staff will be instrumental if we are to assist in unlocking the potential of even more children in that part of the world as well as our own.

Eureka! is the national children’s museum, and if any museum ever deserved support it is surely the national children’s museum. It does not receive any funding from the Government. I have met various Ministers about the issue and several have visited. Some genuine dialogue about that in the long term would be welcome. Right now, if the Government are serious about enhancing the accessibility of STEM subjects, which will be vital to the country’s future, they would not get a better return on their investment than by backing Eureka! the national children’s museum.

Photo of Paul Howell Paul Howell Conservative, Sedgefield 2:56 pm, 24th March 2021

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mrs Miller. I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Spencer on bringing this important debate. I do not have a science and discovery centre in my constituency. I wish I did. However, I am sure that the vast majority of the residents are well aware of the fantastic Life centre in Newcastle. My daughter went many times to Eureka! in Halifax.

My constituency has a fabulous university technical college at Newton Aycliffe, supported by great companies such as Hitachi and Gestamp, as well as an amazing science and innovation-led business park at NETPark—the North East Technology Park—in Sedgefield. We are the home of such innovations as the first passenger railway, introduced almost 200 years ago by George Stephenson. I am absolutely convinced that it is through the stimulus of places such as the Life centre that young local minds can be open to considering careers in such exciting areas as research and innovation or engineering and science. We have all seen, in recent months, the difference that scientists can make to our life on this planet. The more young minds we can encourage, the better off we will be.

My constituency’s businesses and colleges are the opportunities through which young people can develop and grow and have stimulating and fulfilling careers and lives, but it is places such as the Life centre that open the first door on that route. It is difficult to overstate their importance. Whichever primary school I visit, the importance of aspiration and the opening of a mind to a world of discovery is precious. Those things can be the catalyst for aspiration to a life that youngsters could not previously have imagined. Later this week I shall be at Ferryhill Station and Bishopton Redmarshall primary schools and will make that point again.

Young minds engaged in STEM through science and discovery centres are stimulated regardless of gender, and that adds enormous value to the scientific community. For example, Universal Technical College South Durham inspires young women to go into science, technology, engineering and maths. A STEM-focused curriculum and experiences with employers put aside traditional stereotypes and allow youngsters to divine their own career path. Some 75% of the young women who go through the UTC have gone on to degree-level STEM apprenticeships in design, engineering or accountancy, or have done STEM at university.

I have visited many of the businesses in Newton Aycliffe and Sedgefield. They are all enhanced by the supply of young people with an interest in STEM subjects. It is through places such as the Life centre that seeds are planted to grow our scientists, engineers and mathematicians. I cannot overstate my desire that we support their efforts.

Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 2:59 pm, 24th March 2021

It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate under your chairmanship. I congratulate Dr Spencer on bringing this important debate to the House. It goes without saying that our nation’s regional science and discovery centres play a crucial role in the country’s STEM success, delivering inspirational science learning to schoolchildren and families, and working in partnership with schools, teachers, universities, businesses and local communities.

As a London MP, I know that many children in my constituency have been inspired on visits to the very popular Science Museum in South Kensington. Indeed, our own Mayor excelled at science and maths at A-level, and his original desire was to be a dentist. Look what happened to him: he is now the Mayor of London. Such inspirational visits have helped herald a generation of children and young people captivated by science and intent on a career in the UK’s promising scientific industries. It is these scientific industries we need to be doing our utmost to foster and support right now. I know this all too well as a recipient of the Oxford-AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine. Professor Sarah Gilbert from Oxford University, who invented the vaccine, would have been inspired by the Science Museum, and I wonder whether she visited as a girl.

Many of those involved in the Oxford vaccine pipeline will have come through the state education sector and will have been inspired to pursue their dreams through visits to science museums, but I am deeply concerned about their future. Due to covid-19, science centres have mainly been closed since March and have had to make 50% to 80% of their education teams redundant in order to protect the long-term survival of their charities. These closures and redundancies have come when we most need our regional science centres to help with the educational recovery, to reduce inequality, to inspire young people from our most disadvantaged communities into science, and to encourage our young people into science and technology careers to support our industry and our learning.

At the same time, the Government have abandoned any pretence of having an industrial strategy and, as the Chair of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, Greg Clark, has made clear:

“It is deeply concerning that at the very moment when the whole country recognises the importance of scientific research… that the science budget should be facing immediate and substantial cuts involving the cancellation of current research.”

We know that these cuts will undermine UK productivity. Every pound spent on research in the UK reaps a return of £1.60, and any cuts end up costing our economy millions.

Rather than saying, as the Prime Minister has done, that we have a successful covid-19 vaccine due to “greed” and “capitalism”—which could not be further from the minds of people such Professor Sarah Gilbert—the Government are well placed to recognise the contributions of British science and address the myriad challenges facing the sector. This must start with restating an industrial strategy with science, research and development and international collaboration at its heart. It must also have a holistic approach, recognising the challenges to the pipeline if science and discovery centres are unable to reach out and inspire the next generation of scientists.

British science has played a key role in shining a light out from the darkness and despair of this pandemic. Without action, we risk extinguishing the lights that will show us a path away from future challenges before they even begin.

Photo of Sarah Atherton Sarah Atherton Conservative, Wrexham 3:03 pm, 24th March 2021

May I first thank my hon. Friend Dr Spencer for securing this debate, which gives us a brilliant opportunity to champion the impact of science centres in our constituencies?

In Wrexham, we have a brilliant science discovery centre called Xplore! It was formerly called Techniquest and I took my child there many times when he was growing up. In September last year I was honoured to be invited to the Xplore! rebrand event at its new location in Wrexham town centre, and to see at first hand its brilliant facilities and demonstrations. I saw children and adults wide-eyed, laughing, playing and learning—indeed, I was one of them. The most accurate analogy I can think of is being let loose in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Xplore! has myriad interactive installations akin to Wonka’s chocolate factory—for inquisitive minds but without the calorie count.

I am proud that Wrexham has one of the 29 golden-ticket interactive science and discovery centres in the UK. Particularly for Wrexham, it is critical that these centres survive and thrive post covid. Science centres such as Xplore! are essential not only in promoting and inspiring the next generation into STEM careers, but in aiding the teching up of our older generation. It was only a few weeks ago that I stood in the main Chamber and asked the Prime Minister whether he agreed with me that Wrexham is an excellent hub to lead the charge for the STEM revolution. There are very few positives to have come out of covid, but the production and roll-out of the UK vaccine is one of them—a Union vaccine, created in England, trialled in Northern Ireland, bottled here in Wales and distributed in Scotland and across the rest of the Union—which means that this is a unique moment in time to promote and invest in opportunities and jobs in STEM sectors.

I would like the young people of Wrexham to learn and remember that Wockhardt in my constituency has bottled the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. I want them to be inspired by that. We have numerous pharmaceutical companies here on the Wrexham industrial estate. We have a major hospital, the Maelor, for those who seek a career in healthcare, and brilliant higher education facilities at Wrexham Glyndŵr University and Coleg Cambria, which are able, keen and willing to facilitate STEM education. And we have Xplore! to provide the perfect foundation for the promotion of those careers from an early age.

The science centres are more important now than ever. Not only should we be using them to promote STEM; we should also be using them as a key component for educational recovery post covid. The majority of children have had a limiting year learning at home. Within our collective aim to build back better, there must be an element of recapturing the lost hands-on education. For those children who are tactile learners, home schooling is hugely detrimental and utilising the centres for educational recovery will be vital.

With science and discovery centres having the potential to be such crucial players in the covid recovery education system, their funding model needs to reflect that importance. Over the past year, science centres in Wales have struggled. Xplore! has received minimal covid funding from the Welsh Labour Government. Ordinarily, Xplore! receives funding via the Welsh Government’s school programme in order to offer reduced cost visits and workshops. Thankfully, that funding scheme, which was due to end this month, has been extended until early next year. That is most welcome, but what happens in 2022? The fear is that children will lose out not only in terms of the catch-up agenda but on ongoing interactive learning which in turn promotes the take-up of STEM subjects. There is a domino effect.

We have the opportunity to be forward thinking in our approach to protecting our science and discovery centres. I urge the Welsh Government to contractually embed school visits within the national curriculum for the benefit of future generations of Welsh children.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 3:07 pm, 24th March 2021

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Miller. I am delighted to speak in today’s debate and I thank Dr Spencer for calling it.

As people step inside the National Railway Museum, which is undergoing its biggest refit since first opening 50 years ago, their passion for engineering will be ignited. Steam, engineered almost 200 years ago, captured global attention and was soon used to advance trade, travel and engineering. In 2023, the museum opens its new Wonderlab in the heart of York. We believe it will catch global attention once more, not just displaying the achievements of a great engineering past but birthing a new generation of great engineers who will one day rival any the world over.

The UK’s economy, already facing an annual shortfall of around 59,000 engineers and technicians, is dependent on science and discovery centres to engage young people to reach into a new world of possibilities. While the dissected Ellerman Lines engine shows how steam-powered trains, through combining heat and water, drove forward the engineering of the past, the new Wonderlab, which is part of the museum’s £55 million upgrade, will enable young people to explore modern engineering, equipping them with the curiosity to find solutions to pressing critical and global challenges.

I do not want the experience to be just a memory; rather, I want it to be a journey for young people. The National Railway Museum’s “Future Engineers” programme is a start to that. How we continue to engage all who visit will be key. Nurturing a passion for engineering, from the moment of the first visit into a movement of budding engineers, is the next step for science and discovery centres. Does the Minister see that ongoing relationship as a central pillar of this work, especially for local children?

I also want to see the centres secure stronger links with local universities and colleges. Imagine what could be developed in fostering a young engineer. A significant programme focusing on inclusion could ensure that future engineers are representative of the country we live in. Those who would otherwise write themselves off might embark on a path into engineering. As so many others have said, those who have struggled with their education this year might re-engage in the curriculum. Girls, as much as boys, might realise the opportunities that engineering opens up. I want those sparks of imagination to catch fire.

Engineering is not theoretical but practical, so the way science and discovery centres link to the economy is also vital. In York, we are fortunate to have some of the greatest rail engineers in the country, working for predominantly specialist small and medium-sized enterprises, designing stations, rail systems, future infrastructure and high-tech digital rail. York is also home to one of Network Rail’s operations. Imagine one of our young engineers experiencing that.

The National Railway Museum is the centrepiece of the York Central brownfield site adjacent to York Central station, which is about to undergo major development. It opens up new opportunities, so rather than suffocating the site with luxury apartments, it must be used to build York’s future economic footprint, including a national engineering hub, not least because that was the heart of the site when British Rail engineered carriages there.

Imagine stepping out of the science and discovery centre and walking into an engineering company. That is what we should be striving for: not just investing in science and discovery centres, which are desperately needed now, but building science and discovery communities and consolidating engineering, with young residents, museums, schools, universities and industry all working together to create a pathway into engineering.

Will the Minister commit to working towards building science and discovery communities and providing seed funding for that work, so that we can build for our future? If we are serious about investing in science and discovery centres, and about growing our economy with the necessary skills, the Government have to get serious about growing the whole pathway, from Wonderlab to wonderful global engineers.

Photo of Steve Brine Steve Brine Conservative, Winchester 3:12 pm, 24th March 2021

I welcome the debate and congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Spencer on making the running and on his excellent opening remarks.

I will not detain the House for long, but I want to make a few comments about the Winchester Science Centre, which I am very fortunate to have in my constituency. It is an independent educational charity that receives no statutory funding from local authorities or Government and raises more than £3 million every year to supports its core purpose of sparking curiosity in STEM. Many of your constituents will no doubt have visited it over the years, Mrs Miller.

It is all the more disappointing, then, in the context of the debate, that the Winchester Science Centre will lose an expected £2.5 million in revenue because of this dreadful pandemic. I place on record how incredibly grateful we are to the Government for their support with the furlough scheme and the many other support packages for businesses, which, it is no exaggeration to say, have prevented what could have been a much worse outcome. The Winchester Science Centre charity, however, has been excluded from applying for additional Government support—namely, the culture recovery fund, which I have spent a lot of time scrutinising as a member of the DCMS Committee. Other organisations in the local area that do similar activities have received large grants, which has created an uneven playing field.

Some excellent research published by University College London in 2017 clearly states that informal science education must start at primary school age, which is good, because the Winchester Science Centre has been focusing on five to 12-year-olds since 1986. That means that almost 4,000 children, who might otherwise not have had the opportunity, have taken part in free, informal science activities this past year, thanks to the centre’s widening participation in STEM outreach programme.

The facts speak for themselves. Some 170,000 visitors enjoy live science, hands-on activities, and an immersive 360° planetarium show each normal year—it is a fantastic show. Forty-five thousand school visitors engage with the activities every year, from 16 different counties across the south-east. That includes, of course, constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge.

Just to touch on the careers part of what we are discussing today, we in Winchester have strong STEM relationships across the extremely sci-tech rich M3 corridor, including a multi-year partnership with Airbus, memorandums of understanding for public engagement with the University of Southampton and the University of Surrey, which is in Guildford, and many collaborations with industry through, among others, the Enterprise M3 local enterprise partnership.

Going back to covid—as, regrettably, we always must—I know that the BBC gets all the plaudits for singing its own praises for its home learning work in the past year, but I would argue that science centres have more than done their bit. Winchester’s digital Science@Home campaign reached over a million people during a crisis where many organisations were not able to operate at all. Almost a quarter of a million children from across the UK watched a digital Christmas coding pantomime—it sounds such fun. That was developed as part of our “Get with the Program”, and promoted through Winchester’s schools network in last December.

We have heard today about the Association for Science and Discovery Centres, and I suspect that the Minister will be aware of that organisation. Winchester is, of course, a respected member of it, regularly participating in special interest groups to share best practice for the things they are doing. I know that, during the first lockdown, the Winchester team co-created a new website offering other science centres around the country best advice on how to make their experiences more accessible to all.

The future should be very positive and strong. We have not come this far to go down now. I know the team at Winchester, led by the excellent Ben Ward, are determined to move on from covid and come back stronger.

The truth is that, whatever the restrictions say, the school trips are not coming back any time soon, possibly not even in September—no matter my view on the over-caution that that would represent—so I would like the Minister, when she sums up, and colleagues across Government and at the Department for Education, to make the positive case for school trips later this year, and to give school leaders the confidence to get back out there.

As we have heard today, science centres will benefit from that because their main customer base is back, but the country will also benefit because of their obvious support for education and careers in STEM subjects—and boy, has the past 12 months shown how much we need them.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

We now move to the Front-Bench speakers. I remind the Minister that, when she makes her contribution, she will need to wind up by about 3.58 pm to enable Dr Spencer to make his winding-up speech.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education) 3:18 pm, 24th March 2021

The debate has given lots of Members the opportunity to speak fondly of science centres in their areas. I congratulate Dr Spencer on bringing forward this debate.

We have heard today from Members talking about Eureka! the national children’s museum in Halifax, Xplore! in Wrexham, the National Railway Museum in York and the Winchester Science Centre, among others. We are painting a picture of the role science centres can play in highlighting STEM opportunities to young people.

As we look to economic recovery post covid, we need young people with STEM expertise to play an active role. According to the all-party parliamentary group on diversity and inclusion in science, technology, engineering and maths, 65% of the STEM workforce are white men, so any initiatives we can take to improve diversity will be of economic benefit to us all.

The Scottish Government are determined to improve the take-up of STEM subjects in schools and to encourage diversity in STEM careers, and we are making progress on that. Compared with 2007, we now have 20% more female undergraduates and 36% more female postgraduates in STEM courses. However, a 2017 survey commissioned by the Scottish Government found that young people from the most deprived areas were 20% less likely than those in the least deprived areas to choose to study STEM courses. There is a continuing need to reach out to young people in whatever way we can, with a focus on girls, black, Asian and minority ethnic students and those from deprived backgrounds.

With that in mind, the role of science centres in Scotland is key and they work in partnership with local authorities to provide outreach and programmes that complement the school curriculum. That is recognised by the UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres, which states:

“The arrangement in Scotland seems particularly fruitful, whereby Scottish Science Centres have an agreement with the Scottish Government to reach children in schools and support teachers and families with inspirational STEM as part of the National Science Engagement Strategy. The Scottish Government particularly wants to reach families and communities from its most deprived areas… especially now, and contracts science centres to do this for them, as they already have the relationships, the centres, the science, the activities, the means and the passion.”

That is something that we have to see more of. I would like to talk a bit about Glasgow Science Centre. The centre is 20 years old and I first visited it as a physics teacher when I took youngsters there to enjoy it, which they did. It was a great day out and they had fun. At that point, there were a lot of activities that did not really lead to anything; it was not joined up. Over those 20 years, much more has been done and there has been great development in linking better with the curriculum and linking activities to careers and opportunities, so that it is a much more holistic experience for young people rather than just a fun day out.

The work of the centres during the pandemic has continued, albeit in a different format, and I will talk about some of the activities taking place at Glasgow Science Centre over the last challenging year. When lockdown first commenced, the centre committed to broadcasting new science content for every day of lockdown. By the end of the first lockdown, it had created and broadcast over 100 pieces of new science video content, which has been viewed more than 1 million times on social media. The centre created a printed magazine of science activities called The Spark, which was included in care packages and distributed to vulnerable families. It broadcast weekly on Sunny G and Paisley FM radio.

With no organised school visits possible, the centre developed a learning lab with lesson plans, experiments, videos, homework activities and “meet the expert” sessions, which are all packaged together to create a fully supported and interactive eight-week programme in STEM. Already nearly 3,000 pupils from 72 schools have taken part, with 77% from deprived areas. The centre has adapted its employability programme, STEM Futures, for online delivery and initiated a foundation apprenticeship programme to provide opportunities for young people when they need it most.

The Scottish Government have continued to support the work of science centres throughout the pandemic. Scottish science centres have received £2 million in emergency funding from the Scottish Government in addition to their usual contributions. To see centres in England excluded from the arts and heritage rescue package is concerning. We hear that 96% of science and discovery centres say they will not be able to cover costs when they reopen, and the Science Centres for Our Future campaign warns that the sector is at “imminent risk”.

The UK Government must support the science and discovery centres in England and ensure their success. Not only are the Government failing to support science and discovery centres, but they have removed other opportunities for STEM research through Brexit, whether through the Erasmus programme or faffing about with the funding for Horizon Europe. Catherine West was right to highlight the brutal cuts to the science budget.

I am sure that hon. Members have gathered that Glasgow Science Centre is one of Scotland’s most successful and loved visitor attractions. As the world recovers from covid-19, visitors will return, but we need to look at a blended approach between in person and digital content that better serves our communities. Science centres can create long-term and sustained relationships with young people and build supportive ecosystems in schools, families and communities. Those centres are much more than a good day out, but they need support. I hope this Government, which professes to support science, will support those vehicles that are driving our future talent.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Opposition Whip (Commons) 3:25 pm, 24th March 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Miller. I congratulate Dr Spencer on securing this important and timely debate. I agree with his comments on the differential impact on young people of the pandemic, particularly in education. I agree, without exception, with the contributions from around this virtual Chamber on the challenge and opportunities that the pandemic brings, and the impact on these centres.

We heard about the impact on the Catalyst Science and Discovery Centre from my hon. Friend Derek Twigg; on the National Railway Museum from my hon. Friend Rachael Maskell; on the Xplore! Centre from Sarah Atherton; on the Winchester Science Centre; on the Eureka! Centre in Halifax, and on the Bristol Exploratory Centre, which Chris Skidmore discussed. I was not aware of its being known as “the Exploratory”, but I did once visit it when it was known as At-Bristol.

All those centres, as we have heard, provide the spark that encourages young people to think about the world around them. I quote a particular individual who said, “Be curious”. Those are the words of the late Stephen Hawking in that powerful moment of opening the Paralympic games in 2012, when the world’s gaze fell on our country. His message was somehow amplified by the sight of his crumpled frame, because he did not just encourage us, he urged us. To quote him fully,

“look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.”

It was a rare public appearance for someone so famous in the scientific community, but less well known beyond. His global message sought to inspire the world through hope and optimism. That invitation—that urgency—was to create a brave, new and better world for everyone by challenging perceptions and stereotypes that limit the potential of the human body, mind and spirit. It was a special moment.

If we needed telling—and perhaps we did—science is all around us. It is only a matter of opening our eyes, of what we are able to see, what we are trained to see, or what we have the innate talent to see. For some, such as Stephen Hawking, that talent was able to flourish. It may have developed in the classroom, but it was his observation of the universe that made him wonder. So much great scientific thinking has come from observing the world around us and asking why or how. Those reflections can spur deep thought as we ponder the natural world and have spurred, through the centuries, the work of Archimedes, Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci, and, closer to home, that of Newton, Mary Anning, Charles Darwin, and countless others—all by asking the simple question of why.

The UK has a proud history of science and innovation, though many scientific discoveries, including penicillin by the Scot Alexander Fleming and the structure of DNA by Franklin, Crick and Watson. UK inventions include Stephenson’s steam engine, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for York Central; the television, by another great Scot, John Logie Baird; the jet engine by Coventrian Frank Whittle; the World Wide Web by Sir Tim Berners-Lee; the modern bicycle; the flying wing that led to the development of Concorde and ultimately the stealth fighter; the jump jet; the lithium-ion battery; graphene—all British or co-developed with other nations. I could go on.

Through time, these discoveries have helped to improve our understanding of the natural world and the science that forms it. So much of that has originated from the observations of curious minds: Newton observing how apples fell perpendicularly to the ground; Boyle observing in a laboratory as those early scientists sought to explain the relationship between pressure, volume and temperature that would ultimately lead to the development of power and engines; Baird, who built what was to become the world’s first working television set, using items including an old hatbox, a pair of scissors, some darning needles, a few bicycle light lenses, a used tea chest, and sealing wax and glue that he had purchased; and Sir Frank Whittle, who became fascinated by the gas engine and the work of pistons in his dad’s small workshop in Leamington—those observations ignited his interest in propulsion and ultimately led to his work in developing the jet engine. Few of us have those workshops or garages, or the courage, in the case of Baird, to conduct experiments in the kitchen or lounge. In fact, Baird’s landlord threw him out of his rented property when he discovered what he was doing.

For all these reasons, having places to observe and appreciate the physical and scientific world is so important, and that is why the value of centres of science and discovery cannot be overestimated. Some 15 years ago, I visited the discovery centre—that was how it was known —in Bristol. It was a triumph, appealing to young and old minds and demonstrating the fascination of physics and the workings of the natural world. In total, the UK boasts a network of almost 60 science and discovery centres, including science museums, science centres, discovery centres and natural history and environment centres. Rather impressively, some 19% of the UK population said that they had visited a science and discovery centre once or more in 2019, with 33% claiming that they had visited a science museum.

These centres do a terrific job in stimulating young minds, as so many hon. Members have commented. That is important, particularly in encouraging the uptake of related subjects in our schools. I will just look at the statistics for England, if I may. The proportion of A-level students entering for any maths or science subject has increased from 35% in 2015-16 to 46% in 2019-20. That increase in interest is important if we are to build on our established reputation, renowned around the world—a reputation that underpins a science sector that is worth £63.5 billion and provides jobs in research institutes and universities and in businesses of all sizes across the country.

As my hon. Friend Catherine West said, we have only to look at the leadership of Dr Sarah Gilbert and her team at Oxford University and its tie-up with AstraZeneca to understand how important this is and how vital it is that we attract more women, and indeed black and minority ethnic students, into the sector.

The centres themselves are threatened, as so many Members have said in the debate. According to a survey conducted by the UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres last June on the impacts of the pandemic, some 96% of science centres felt that they would not be able to cover costs at 30% capacity. Revenues are down by 50%, as my hon. Friend the Member for Halton mentioned. There are staff cuts across the board. In the case of the Eureka! centre, as my hon. Friend Holly Lynch said, the staff are down by one third.

The financial uncertainty was underlined by the Government’s announcement that these centres would be largely excluded from the arts, heritage and culture rescue package of £1.6 billion. In October 2020, the UKASDC, chaired by the brilliant Professor Alice Roberts, wrote to the Government and called for £25 million of emergency financial support for the sector. The letter, signed by 160 professionals working in STEM, said that the sector was at imminent risk; 62% of the facilities have said that they could cease to be a going concern in the next 18 months.

Let me turn briefly to the wider issue of this country’s recent record on science, where unfortunately the Government’s warm words have often not been matched by deeds, and where their industrial strategy seems to have been mothballed. Indeed, the Chancellor of the Exchequer did not even mention such a strategy in either of his Budget statements. That failure has seen the UK lose during the past decade a significant amount of its world-leading pharmaceutical manufacturing capabilities—capabilities vital for drug and medicine development. And the failure has resulted in the north receiving less than half the life science investment per head in the south of England, despite having great teaching hospitals and significant health inequalities. In the midlands, the investment is as low as £16 per person.

This is not simply a question of geographic inequality; there is also inequity by gender and ethnicity. Presently, 65% of the STEM workforce are white males, and more directly the STEM workforce has a lower share of female workers than the rest of the workforce—27% versus 52%. It is therefore striking when we hear of those women who have broken through and excelled in their field, such as Professor Sarah Gilbert. Just the other day, we heard of the latest young woman engineer of the year, Ella Podmore, who spends her days pushing the boundaries working in material composites at McLaren. But they are sadly rare in the science sector, with women representing only 9% of people in non-medical STEM careers. Elsewhere, BAME men are less likely to work in STEM than white men, yet we face a shortfall of 173,000 STEM workers, costing the sector £1.5 billion a year.

This gap was highlighted last year by the all-party parliamentary group on diversity and inclusion in science, technology, engineering and maths, which published a report following a 15-month inquiry on whether the education system and schools provide equal opportunities for students of all ages to learn STEM subjects in England. Its recommendations included the need for a Minister responsible for adjusting inequity in the education system; STEM education that is more relevant to the lives of all young people; and greater action to address teacher shortages in STEM subjects. We can therefore understand why the centres that we have discussed today are so important.

We must invest in a science future and not rely on this Government’s science fiction, where promised research investment has been cut. We need to ensure that young people have the opportunities to be curious to discover in the classroom. This is why Labour is more ambitious than this Government. We would build on the UK’s science successes and ensure that we continue to be an innovation nation by spending 3% of our GDP on research and development, because it is a no-brainer for our economy.

The Campaign for Science and Engineering has shown that, for every £1 invested by the Government in research and development, we get back 20p to 30p each and every year. Likewise, research by King’s College London and Brunel University London has shown that for every £1 invested in medical research, we get back 25p to the economy each and every year. The Labour party would also seek to champion our universities as engines of regional progress, strengthening regional economies by rebalancing R&D investment. We would address the shortfall of STEM workers by helping to encourage women and those from BAME backgrounds into STEM, starting at school level, to ensure there is the pipeline of talent we need for the future. Widening access is not just the right thing to do for individuals; by tapping this talent, we will strengthen the sector by diversifying decision making and we will encourage continuous lifelong learning and reskilling.

Labour has a long and proud history of supporting science—judge us on our record. In the first 10 years in government, we more than doubled the science budget. If we are to meet the challenges of the future, it is vital that we excite our young people in science and encourage them to be inventive in every sense. While STEM is important, I would add words of caution: we cannot all be coders or scientists and we must also value our arts, which are so important to us culturally and economically. As Stephen Hawking said: “Be curious.” To that I would add: “Be inquisitive.”

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Minister of State (Education) 3:38 pm, 24th March 2021

I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Spencer on securing this important debate. I want to reassure him, and other Members who have spoken today, that this Government are absolutely committed to having a strong STEM workforce and in fertilising the pipeline for that workforce. As a Back Bencher, I ran the Wiltshire festival of engineering and manufacturing, which targeted primary schools to encourage and inspire local children to engage in these areas, and to seed a thought about aspiring to a career in those sectors. In my constituency we are not lucky enough to have a science centre, but I encourage constituents to visit those in neighbouring areas, including the fantastic We The Curious science museum in Bristol, which my right hon. Friend Chris Skidmore rightly spoke extremely highly of.

It is absolutely imperative that we challenge the negative stereotypes that some young people might associate with STEM, including any notion that these should be male-dominated careers. Some of the centres even have programmes to do just that, including the Catalyst Science Discovery Centre in the constituency of Derek Twigg, which holds free careers events for years 8 and 9 to inspire the next generation.

It is also vital that we ensure that the education system feeds the skills shortage. On that point I disagree with Matt Western, whom I welcome to his post, because it is far from the case that the Government have simply offered words and not deeds. In fact, we have spent the past 10 years seeking to do just that with the EBacc; reforms to further education, including the introduction of T-levels; higher technical qualifications; the internet of things; and a drive to raise quality and investment in STEM in higher education. That said, we recognise the value and importance of working in partnership with communities and our treasured community assets, especially science discovery centres.

The Government were elected on a manifesto to level up. We absolutely believe that anyone, regardless of their background, should have the opportunity to pursue a rewarding career in STEM. My hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge and others pointed out how much of a role the science discovery centres play in that objective, especially in encouraging those from disadvantaged backgrounds to discover a love of science and STEM more broadly. My hon. Friend Paul Howell put it correctly when he said that they can be a catalyst for aspiration. They not only bring science alive, but make it accessible for all. When I was at school, I had several trips to the Eureka! centre. I completely agree with Holly Lynch on how amazing and inspirational that is.

Science is vital not only for the economic good of our country, but for the prospects of individuals. The Winchester Science Centre and Planetarium, as my hon. Friend Steve Brine outlined, runs innumerable fantastic initiatives, including workshops for primary schools, with computer program classes where children case use code to explore solutions to deep-sea noise pollution, getting the next generation not only able to progress skills in these areas, but excited about saving the environment. As my hon. Friend pointed out, they have had various initiatives to reach out to more than 1 million during the pandemic. I agree with my hon. Friend Sarah Atherton that it is vital that these centres survive and thrive post covid, including the Xplore! centre in her constituency.

As hon. Members have explained today, the network of publicly accessible UK science and discovery centres provide an important role in inspiring people of all ages to discover the vital role that science has played in creating the world we now live in, and how it can help to create the world that we want to live in in future. They also offer invaluable support to schools, colleges and universities.

The pandemic has challenged us all, and science and discovery centres have certainly not been immune. That is why the Government supported all the science centres, which are accredited museums, that applied for funding in England through the culture recovery fund. The £1.57 billion support package is the largest ever one-off investment in UK culture, and we have continued to support national museums and galleries with £100 million of targeted support for national cultural institutions. That support was announced last year, and a further £90 million was announced at the recent Budget. Also, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport sponsors numerous museums that are also members of the ASDC.

Visitor attractions, which are not categorised as museums, will continue to benefit from the reduced rate of VAT, which the Government have temporarily applied to visitor attractions, as well as the pan-economic measures such as the coronavirus job retention scheme, Government-backed loans and business rate deferrals. I am sure that my counterparts in DCMS will meet Members to discuss the cultural recovery fund in more detail, and I am sure BEIS will respond to the ideas illuminated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood. I am more than happy to co-ordinate and lead a meeting with any Members who would find it useful.

As I previously stated, covid-19 has had a profound impact on the country. Despite the progress that we have made, research published by Engineering UK suggests that the pandemic has disrupted our efforts to widen the demographic and encourage more people to pursue STEM subjects and occupations. Demand for jobs in science, research, engineering and technology are going only in one direction. To meet the demand, it is crucial that we not only attract the brightest and best in these jobs, but improve the diversity of our workforce to meet the demand for the skills that will underpin the UK economy’s recovery and our mission to build back better.

In fact, engineering-related sectors contribute at least £280 billion in gross value added to the UK economy, some 20% in total. In 2018, however, EngineeringUK reported an annual shortfall of 59,000 engineering graduates and technicians to fill core roles. In 2018-19, only 17% of engineering and technology undergraduates were female, meaning that the vast majority were male. That translates into the engineering workforce, where women represent only 12% of those in engineering and technicians, and ethnic minorities represent just 8%.

We know that studying engineering and technology degrees leads to increased employability and earning potential. In 2015-16, the earnings of those who had studied engineering and technology were 18% more, on average, for first-time degree graduates in the first six months of leaving university. Carol Monaghan was right to say that we must encourage the next generation to consider STEM-related pathways, especially those in under-represented groups.

Science and discovery centres can play a key role in that but, as we know, remote teaching for children and young people has been substantially impacted during the pandemic. It is crucial to ensure that our children can catch up, so that no child is left behind as a result of the pandemic. To address that challenge, the Prime Minister has committed to developing a long-term plan to help schools support pupils to catch up on their learning over the course of the Parliament.

We have appointed Sir Kevan Collins as education recovery commissioner. He is engaging with parents, pupils and teachers in the development of this broader approach, and is reviewing how evidence-based interventions can be used. We have made available £1.7 billion funding to support the education recovery, which began in June 2020. We have announced a £1 billion catch-up programme, including a national tutoring programme and a catch-up premium for this academic year. In February 2021 we committed a further £700 million to fund summer schools, the expansion of the tutoring programme and a recovery premium for the next academic year.

We are also funding programmes to increase the take-up of maths, computing and physics, and to support improved teaching in schools. That includes more than £80 million for computer education, through the National Centre for Computing Education, and more than £100 million for teaching for mastery programmes. The Government also fund STEM learning to deliver a national network of science-learning partnerships, providing high-quality continuing professional development for science teachers.

As has been raised in debate, last year, for the first time, girls made up more than half of the science A-level entries, and there was an increase of more than 30% in girls’ entries to STEM A-levels in England since 2010. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, girls continue to make up relatively small proportions of entries to maths, physics and computing at A-level. We are therefore funding research programmes to investigate ways to tackle the gender balance in those subjects.

I agree with hon. Members that science and discovery centres can play a part in the catch-up mission, by enhancing learning and reigniting that love of learning, which may have waned while some have studied predominantly online throughout the pandemic. I can confirm to my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge and other hon. Members that I shall raise the role that those centres can play directly with Sir Kevan Collins and the Minister for School Standards, my right hon. Friend Nick Gibb.

I also look after opportunity areas, including Opportunity North East, and I pledge today that I will raise the points made in this debate with the chairs, including the value that those centres can play in raising attainment in STEM subjects and career aspirations.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge and others that we must seize the opportunity to do everything we can to encourage more people to study and take up careers in STEM, especially where they are from under-represented groups. Science and discovery centres should play an integral part in that. They already inspire 5 million schoolchildren and their families with science every year. Their curriculum-linked STEM workshops support more than 1.5 million students.

I will end by urging all parents and schools to consider visiting their nearest centre, when restrictions allow. Many are free and, as detailed by hon. Members today, they can bring science to life in innovative and exciting ways.

Photo of Ben Spencer Ben Spencer Conservative, Runnymede and Weybridge 3:49 pm, 24th March 2021

I thank the Minister for her speech and, in particular, for reaffirming the importance of science and discovery centres, and for the points that she will take forward. I would very much like to take her up on the offer of the meeting that she agreed to convene.

As an aside, I noted the comment of Matt Western about the separation of arts and science. Personally, however, I see that as a false dichotomy—what is Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” without the invention of a piano; and what is rock and roll without the pickup and the amplifier? For so long, we have differentiated and created artificial divisions, but at their core, arts and science are one and key to us as human beings and to our society.

I thank Members for their fantastic contributions to the debate. What came out for me and, I suspect, for the people watching at home who work in the science and discovery centres and who inspire and teach children about science and discovery, was the personal stories that so many Members brought out—bringing their children to science and discovery centres. Hearing about the National Railway Museum, it is difficult not to conjure up images of steam trains, with the smells and seeing the pistons, thinking back over the changing industrial age. Science is such a personal experience, and what makes science and discovery centres—what makes them special—is not just the machines, the ants, the space rockets or all the different bits of tech or kit to be seen when there, but the people. It is about the volunteers and staff who work in the centres, who are passionate about science, teaching, learning and innovation —as passionate, or more passionate, as the Members who took part in the debate, who talked with such love about their science and discovery centres and about the role of science in our society going forward.

The centres are so important to all of us, to our future and to our future workforce. They need to be open, and they need the financial support and backing to stay open. My hon. Friend Steve Brine made such a strong point—the centres should not just be open; we have to ensure that kids get back into them, and as soon as possible. Particularly over the next few months, that will be such a challenge—inspiring the confidence and getting back into the centres, back learning and having the great experience and opportunities that they offer.

In wrapping up, I again thank Members for taking part in this important debate. In particular, I thank everyone who works in science and discovery centres and everyone who inspires our next generation about science.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the Science and Discovery Centres’ support for education in science and careers in STEM subjects.

Sitting suspended.