Beyond the one-off: embedding university and science centre partnerships

Posted in: Thinkpiece

During the Association of Science and Discovery Centres’ annual conference in Glasgow, I hosted a conversation that explored the value of collaborations between universities and science centres, here are some of the key takeaways.  

ASDC National Conference 2022

Taking place each year, around September, the Association of Science and Discovery Centres’ conference is an opportunity to share practice across the sector and explore new and emerging ideas in informal science learning and engagement. 

Held in Glasgow this year, I hosted a conversation about partnerships between universities and science centres. We had three partnerships to explore: Centre of the Cell / Queen Mary University of London; National Space Centre / University of Leicester and We The Curious / University of Bath. Each relationship was different – from the individual and institutional drivers, the level of maturity, and how the work was funded.  

The session generated lots of interest, with over 50 people joining us with some great questions, comments and thoughts. During the session, we wanted to unpack these relationships to explore what the benefits to the organisations and staff are, and from that, get a handle on how the partnerships are being sustained.  

Before I reflect on the conversations I thought it would be helpful to add some context and describe the three relationships.  

Centre of the Cell / Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) 

The Centre of the Cell is believed to be the world's first science centre in a working lab, the Blizard Institute of Cell and Molecular Science. Established in 2009, the partnership between the Centre and the Blizard Institute provides content for the shows and workshops from the research at QMUL. During the session, Rebecca Hill, Centre Manager, described how the expertise of the visitor-facing staff at Centre of the Cell has been used in the CHILL research project which is looking at the impact of air pollution and the introduction of the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone and its impact on children’s health. The Education team have created a workshop allowing children to explore the science underpinning the research.  

Funding: QMUL fund a proportion of the staff costs through research grant funding, core institute funding and their Higher Education Innovation Funding allocation. Visitor entrance fees cover the other running and staff costs of the Centre of the Cell. The CHILL research funding paid for the development of the schools' workshops.  

National Space Centre / University of Leicester 

From the National Space Centre, Josh Barker (the Centre's new Education and Outreach Officer) talked about the efforts getting the National Space Centre and the University of Leicester to work better together for regional development through Space Park Leicester. Leicester has a very long tradition of space industry and research and the local authority is keen that space careers are accessible and desirable for the young people of Leicester.  

Funding: evenly split between both organisations  

We The Curious / University of Bath 

Nathalia Gjersoe, a researcher in the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath, has been involved with We The Curious for many years. Working with the team at We The Curious, Thalia has developed activities to effectively collect data from visitors in a way that is robust enough for academic publication and creates a meaningful visitor experience for those coming through the doors. (We also have a connection because I used to work at We The Curious and still have professional friendships with staff from that time.)   

Funding: staff time from core funding. More recently We The Curious secured funding from Wellcome and the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 to create the Open City Lab 

What did I take from the discussion?  

  • Navigating the university is hard. Universities are complex, with different departments having different priorities and associated reporting requirements, success criteria and funding mechanisms. It was clear that many science centre practitioners in the room were unaware of the different opportunities for collaboration. So many acronyms!  
  • There are many opportunities for science centres in collaborations with universities. The opportunities for science centres were diverse and included content provision, enhanced visitor experiences by encountering research and researchers, and opening up alternative funding mechanisms.   
  • For universities, working with a science centre created opportunities for research as well as engagement.  It was clear that researchers felt the collaborations offered opportunities to; enrich their research (from broad discussions about research topics to shaping research questions and conducting research); for knowledge exchange; for civic engagement; for social impact, for stakeholder engagement and for public engagement with research.  
  • The relationships all outlined above are funded differently meaning that some are stronger and more resilient than others. Each one is tailored to its context but has only come about because people in the institutions have seen an opportunity.  
  • Real mutuality and complementarity were evident in the relationships. It wasn’t just about one organisation providing a service to the other, it was about recognising the different skills and experience that each staff member brought to the partnership.  
  • New ideas emerge through the process of open and genuine collaboration. The collaboration at We The Curious had to develop research and ethics protocols so that the data collected could be published in an academic journal. The team at We The Curious has also been developing a wider set of ethical guidance for other researchers conducting research in their centre. They have also noticed that when people visit a science centre they come with a particular mindset of being a visitor who consumes science which is very different to participating in research. If we want people to shape science or take part in it when they are in a science centre, how do we prepare visitors (and non-visitors) for this different role in science? 

What struck me about these collaborations is not only how vital the people are in creating and sustaining the relationships between science centres and universities but the unequal investment in the two types of institutions.  

Since 2009 UK universities have had a significant financial and cultural boost to develop positive cultures of public engagement; alongside the impact agenda and an ever-increasing want to demonstrate public good through civic activities, it is not surprising there is an appetite from universities to collaborate with science centres.  

Over the last decade, significant investment has been made into science centres, covering infrastructure and capital projects (such as Wellcome’s Inspiring Science fund) and programmes (including through research councils such as schemes from the Science and Technology Facilities Council). However, science centres have not had similar culture change initiatives or incentives to collaborate, meaning that it felt like these relationships have developed despite the system, rather than because of it. 

Huge thanks to Rebecca, Josh, and Thalia for sharing their experiences and thanks also to ASDC for providing the opportunity for what felt like an important discussion. 

Helen Featherstone is Head of Public Engagement at the University of Bath. 

Posted in: Thinkpiece


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