Feature: Centres of attention part one: Centre for Life
12 August 2010. By Chrissie Giles
"Everyone is the audience," says Linda, without hesitation, when I ask her if there's anyone out of the reach of her organisation.
The majority of people who visit the Centre currently are families and school groups - staff there deliver 40 000 educational experiences each year. Now, Linda and her colleagues are reaching out more to others, including preschoolers, young adults and the over-55s.
In May 2010 the Centre celebrated its tenth anniversary. What is she most proud of from the last decade? "Before 2000, the UK didn't have many science centres. If you lived in Inverness your chances of going to a national science institution in London were not high.
"What the Millennium Commission did was to help create about a dozen or so science centres so now most people in the UK are within reasonable travelling distance of one. Some 17 million people per year go to them - that's a big collective achievement.
"There were one or two high-profile failures in the early days but, given the scale of the investment, I reckon the success rate has been pretty impressive," says Linda.
A decade of Life
But even for the centres that remain open in 2010, the last decade has not been easy, particularly as much of the funding that supported their opening was short-term. "It was patently obvious to me that a science centre without regular sources of income was never going to be able to run itself, let alone replenish itself," Linda says.
"Before 2000, most of the science centres were approved on the basis that they would be financially self-sustaining," she adds. "There was a fundamental misunderstanding of how science centres generally operated. While some people saw them purely as commercially driven visitor attractions, they are essentially mission driven with a remit to make science accessible and understandable to everyone."
Typically, just 30-60 per cent of operating costs are covered by admission charges  so centres have had to find other ways of making enough money to survive. At the Centre for Life they've created a science village which houses Newcastle University's Institute of Human Genetics, two NHS clinics, bioscience companies, a conference business, three pubs and a nightclub.
"Yes, they all pay rent, but the different activities on site are not simply cash cows. I'm particularly proud of the way in which we have pioneered new ways of working, bringing together people who would not normally sit alongside each other.
"We have researchers, clinicians, educationalists and business men and women exploring, explaining and engaging in science from a single site right in the heart of the city."
She thinks that this set-up sends out a very strong, positive signal that science is part and parcel of everyday life. "It's not something that's tucked away on an anonymous business park where you can only go if you have a white coat and a PhD."
Unlike science museums, science centres do not have permanent collections of objects, and they do not receive on-going support from the government, in England at least. Centres in Wales and Northern Ireland are supported by their respective Assemblies.
"I can't see science centres receiving regular funding for a very long time, partly because they've actually proved that they are innovative and imaginative when it comes to raising their own money. They've had to be. We need to concentrate on doing what we do better than anyone else and, ultimately, persuade government of our value," says Linda.
With this in mind, does she think that you need a business mind to head a science centre? "I do," she says. "Some people think you can't run a centre unless you've been steeped in science communication, but I don't subscribe to that view.
"You have to make your product appealing, attractive and relevant to the people you hope will want to experience it. We're selling science communication, and are no different to any other business."
The Wellcome Trust supported the building of: At-Bristol, Birmingham Thinktank, Dundee Sensation, Glasgow Science Centre, and the Centre for Life, Newcastle. See more on the Public Engagement Capital Awards made.
A brief history of Life
The Centre for Life, Newcastle, which celebrated its tenth anniversary in May 2010, currently attracts 225 000 visitors each year. The centre is part of a science village that is focused on life sciences and employs around 550 people, from 35 countries. In 2005, scientists there were the first in the world to successfully clone a human embryo.
The Wellcome Trust contributed £3.3 million core funding to Life, and also supported the Centre through the ReDiscover fund - a £33 million partnership with the Wolfson Foundation and Millennium Commission to renew exhibition spaces between 2002 and 2006. Linda Conlon has been involved in the project since its inception, and was appointed CEO in 2007.
- Centres of attention: At-Bristol
- Public Engagement Capital Awards
- Wellcome Trust Enquiry into Science and Discovery Centres (2007) [PDF]
- ReDiscover grants awarded, round 2 [PDF]
- 2002 news story
- 2000 news story on opening
Top image: Centre for Life exterior view.
 Fidler P, Science and Public Affairs, March 2008.