Protecting MOSI

Last week I was fortunate to be granted by the Speaker a 90 minute Westminster Hall debate on the Future Funding of the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Manchester.  There has been huge concern expressed across Greater Manchester after the Chief Executive of the Science Museum Group stated that one of the three northern museums (MOSI, National Railway Museum at York and Sheldon, or the National Media Museum in Bradford) would have to close if the Government imposed a 10% budget cut.

The Manchester Evening News had started a petition which attracted over 40,000 signatures and MPs from across Greater Manchester expressed their concerns about the possible closure of Manchester’s greatest tourist attraction.  A couple of days before the debate, the Culture Minister stated that the Government cut would be less than 10% and so no museums in the Science Museum Group would have to close, but this was a good opportunity to get this commitment on the record and showcase the excellent work undertaken by MOSI.

My speech is copied below and the full debate can be read here:

Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady.

Let me set the context for this morning’s debate. The Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester—MOSI, as it is affectionately known—is part of the Science Museum Group [SMG], which consists of five museums: MOSI; the Science Museum in London; the National Media Museum in Bradford; the National Railway Museum in York; and the National Railway Museum in Shildon, County Durham. The SMG has an international reputation. Collectively, its museums attract more than 5 million visitors every year—mainly school groups, but also individuals and families. I certainly remember taking my daughters to MOSI when they were little. I also remember my mum taking me to the Science Museum in London; that really brought science to life for me, and it was one reason why I ended up taking biochemistry and physiology as my first degree.

MOSI became part of the SMG in 2012. It is feared that today’s comprehensive spending review will announce a further 10% funding cut for the group, on top of the 25% real-terms cuts it has suffered over the last spending period. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell), who cannot be here today, because she is on maternity leave, has campaigned doggedly on this issue; she even visited MOSI last weekend with her family—they start young in the Powell household. She has determined that, in 2011-12, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport grant to MOSI fell to £3.9 million from £4.88 million the previous year.

The SMG felt that if that was to be the level of the funding cut for 2015-16, the only option would be to close one of its museums outside London and to scale back provision in London. The ratio of taxpayer to commercial funding in the SMG’s existing funding model is approximately 60:40, and reversing—in fact, more than reversing—that relationship in such a relatively short period threatens the SMG’s viability. I appreciate that, in the light of the high-profile campaign to save MOSI, which has support from, among others, fellow Oldhamer Professor Brian Cox, the Minister seemed to have a change of heart last week, and the threat to our regional museums has been lifted, but I would be grateful if he could confirm that in his closing remarks.

As past and current leaders of the museums said in a letter to a national newspaper last week, the SMG museums not only hold collections of international significance, but are vital to their host cities, providing cultural, educational and economic benefits across their regions. The economic importance of Manchester’s science and innovation base cannot be overestimated, and it is confined not just to the city centre. Greater Manchester is one of the fastest growing city regions in Europe, generating £47 billion of gross value added [GVA] each year, and accounting for 40% of GVA for north-west England.

That recent growth has been driven by knowledge-intensive and high-growth firms. Manchester has been at the forefront of scientific development since the industrial revolution of the 19th century. Inventions such as Samuel Crompton’s spinning wheel, which was exploited by Richard Arkwright, helped to establish Manchester as the centre of the global textile industry. More recently, a small-scale experimental machine—nicknamed “Baby”—created by Alan Turing was the first stored-program computer to run a program, and it was the forerunner of the modern computer.

There are many other famous Manchester scientists I could talk about, but I will mention just a few. They include John Dalton, who did work around atomic theory; Ernest Rutherford, the physicist; and Tom Kilburn and Freddie Williams, who commercialised Alan Turing’s work. Of course, the first commercial railway in the world also ran from Manchester to Liverpool, and MOSI is located on the site of the old Liverpool Road station.

Today is no different. With our excellent universities and the development, for example, of a regional science centre for 16 to 18-year-olds, in my constituency, Manchester is once again being seen as a world-class centre for research—a status reinforced by the Nobel prize-winning discovery of graphene. The translation from research to the commercialisation of such discoveries is aided by Manchester’s science parks. As we have seen with the development of industrial hubs, such as the digital sector in silicon valley, in California, the closer research and development are to industry, and the closer the links between them, the greater the opportunities for the growth of new, innovative knowledge-based industries.

Manchester has a world-class biotech cluster, and the digital, creative and information and communications technology sectors are growing faster than those anywhere else in the UK, outside London. The country’s second-largest media hub is based at MediaCityUK.

Those are our new industries. From those developments, our 21st-century manufacturing base will grow. MOSI is part of that. It showcases the city region’s economic and scientific strengths, as well as their development potential, promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics and inspiring the next generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians.

Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab): I strongly support the case my hon. Friend is making. Of course, I have an interest in this issue because the National Railway Museum is based in my constituency. She has, several times, made the important link between the museums and exciting the public—especially young people—about science. She has also mentioned the museums’ contribution to a science-based economy. The National Railway Museum has established a rail academy, which is basically a training school in craft skills for the railways. Will she join me in asking the Department to provide enough money not only to keep the museums’ doors open, but to ensure that the collections are properly conserved, added to and explained to the public?

Debbie Abrahams: I am grateful for that intervention, and I wholeheartedly support what my hon. Friend says. We must see our museums not as archaic, but as part of inspiring the next generation, and we must see the potential that has for our economic growth and the regeneration of our regions.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, which is important to all of us, including you, Mr Brady. Does she agree that museums also need to be resourced to carry out outreach into communities that might be less willing and able to come through the museums’ doors? We would be very sorry if we lost the good work museums in Greater Manchester have done to reach out to disadvantaged communities.

Debbie Abrahams rose

Mr Graham Brady (in the Chair): Order. Before the hon. Lady replies, I should clarify one point for the record, since my status as a Greater Manchester Member of Parliament has been mentioned. While I may have my own strong views outside the Chamber, my only view for these 90 minutes is that we should have orderly debate.

Debbie Abrahams: Thank you, Mr Brady. I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, and I wholeheartedly agree with her. Outreach work is one of the things MOSI is doing. The potential threat to the work done in our schools is a real issue.

The museum hosts a range of high-profile events promoting science and innovation. They include the Manchester science festival, which, in 2012, included MOSI’s first citizen science project—Turing’s Sunflowers. The project drew participants from 13 countries and generated the largest ever data set investigating Alan Turing’s hypothesis about the mathematical patterns in sunflowers—we will all know about that, and we will be discussing it over tea later. There is also the FutureEverything art exhibition and conference—a ground-breaking mix of cutting-edge digital technology, art and music. Those are the types of programmes MOSI puts on, and they are so accessible for such a wide range of groups.

MOSI also runs tailored programmes for schools and colleges, reaching 75,000 young people a year. Through MOSI’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics network contract, high-quality, innovative projects are delivered to volunteers and schools. Over the past year, the STEM ambassador programme has placed ambassadors in 140 schools in Greater Manchester, working with 450 teachers and providing at least 100,000 instances of engagement with pupils in face-to-face activity.

Of course, we must not forget the under-six programme, which allows the children of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central and others to explore and find out first hand about the magic of science.

I am looking forward to visiting the exhibition on the brain that is coming to MOSI next month.

Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making excellent points, and I congratulate her on securing the debate. In our debate last week, we focused on the point that the funding threat to a much loved museum is a matter of huge concern to people in the region who work in science and engineering, such as the astrophysicist Tim O’Brien. He has said that he has no doubt that places such as the museum make our future scientists. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital to our future productivity, as well as providing excellent learning outside the classroom?

Debbie Abrahams: I totally agree with my hon. Friend. The activities and exhibitions can inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers, as I have mentioned.

We must not forget that MOSI also directly makes a key contribution to the region’s economic prosperity. A recent study of its economic impact shows both direct and indirect impacts. It is one of the top two visitor attractions in Greater Manchester and generates a direct gross value added benefit of more than £7 million as an employer and through procurement, but there is also nearly £28 million in off-site expenditure, generating a GVA of £8 million. MOSI’s development plans have the potential to increase those impacts.

As I have mentioned, after the 25% real funding cut in the last spending round, there is the prospect of a further 10% cut in the comprehensive spending review this afternoon, and the SMG has made it clear that if that happens a tipping point will have been reached and activity will have to be cut dramatically. That will include the closure of one of its regional museums. SMG has proposed a different approach. It has suggested, for example, moving the group from the responsibility of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and protecting the current funding level for both revenue and capital. That would provide a foundation on which the group would seek further major revenue and capital investment from the private sector. I should be grateful if the Minister commented on those proposals, as well as confirming that the CSR does not threaten MOSI or the free access to museums introduced by the Labour Government. To introduce such a threat would, as my hon. Friends have said, be myopic, to say the least, and bring into question the Government’s commitment to fairness, growth and the regions.

I am immensely proud of Manchester’s contribution to the world’s science knowledge base. Through our entrepreneurs and industrialists, the applications of that knowledge have changed how we live. MOSI not only inspires future generations to become the new Geim, Novoselov, Turing or Dalton, but, as curator of those achievements, protects our cultural heritage and contributes to our cultural identity. That is something that we should honour and celebrate, not destroy.

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