Blog

Sustainable Science Center Business Models

By Linda Conlon
From Dimensions
May/June 2017

Science centers are the same—but different. Look at the mission statements of science centers worldwide. They use slightly different wording, but they all focus on making science accessible, relevant, and inspiring for people of all ages and backgrounds. We are united in our quest to do this.

The scale and diversity of our sector varies from the very big to the very small, from urban to rural settings, and from mountain locations to centers surrounded by sea and sand. But our core functions are the same. We have a critical mass of hands-on interactive exhibits; we deliver programs for schoolchildren; we go into our communities to reach people who do not visit our centers; we explore complex issues that affect society—like climate change and gene therapy—through conversations and debates; and we train people to communicate and engage with our audiences.

There are also a great many similarities and patterns in our visitors’ behaviors and spending habits, our operating cost ratios, and our market penetration rates.

So we pretty much do the same sort of things the world over but we differ hugely in how we are funded to do them.

As chair of ASTC’s Board, I have traveled extensively in the last 18 months, and have been struck afresh by the innovative and varied ways in which centers raise money. I sat open mouthed at a conference a few months ago where Ioannis (Yannis) N. Miaoulis, the president and director of the Museum of Science, Boston, reported that billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, had awarded his museum $50 million to create the William and Charlotte Bloomberg Science Education Center. Bloomberg had been so inspired by his involvement in weekly classes at the museum as a boy that he wanted to help others become similarly inspired. What a way to show his appreciation! The culture of philanthropic giving seems to be thriving in some parts of the world, most notably the United States, where donations from individuals in 2015 rose 3.7% from the previous year. Charitable bequests were up 1.9%, corporate giving was up 3.8%, and grants from foundations were up an impressive 6.3%. In other parts of the world, I fear that the concept of philanthropic giving has yet to be born.

A few months ago, I returned from a visit to Parque de las Ciencias in Granada, Spain—it is both huge and hugely impressive. It is an ambitious partnership between several government departments, the local university, the city council, and the council for scientific research. Two-thirds of the center’s operating costs are met collectively by these bodies because they want to make a bold statement about their city and its future prosperity, which is inextricably linked to science. It is wonderful to see such public support, but sadly, money from the public purse is decreasing globally, despite a few exceptions.

The business model at a “science village”

There is a constant tension between mission and margin in most nonprofit institutions. But putting it starkly, there is no mission without margin. Science centers simply have to be increasingly entrepreneurial if they are not only to survive but also to thrive. My own center—the International Centre for Life (known as Life) in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, United Kingdom—was built largely with public funds, but since opening in 2000, it has raised 100% of its operating revenue.

Life is a “science village,” situated in the heart of the city, which brings together nearly 600 researchers, clinicians, business people, educational specialists, and ethicists from 35 countries. Newcastle University’s Institute of Genetic Medicine is based onsite as are two National Health Service clinics, which treat patients with fertility problems and genetically inherited conditions. Although the university and clinics do pay rent, we do not charge them a commercial rental rate because they are an integral part of the concept and also bring a welcome gravitas and credibility. Their principal focus is regenerative medicine—the world’s first cloned human embryo was created at Life—although the science center embraces all aspects of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

Only 25% of our operating revenue is from core mission activities. The rest comes from a range of income generators including the rental of property. We rent out an outdoor space for popular events such as beer festivals, concerts, and product launches, and we also run a conference and events business, a car park (parking garage), the usual cafés and shop, and an outdoor ice rink during the winter months. To add extra piquancy to the mix, we are home to the area’s most popular nightclub and three bars. Yet I have never believed that the division between mission and margin is as clear cut as it would first appear. We rent space to laboratories, cell culture facilities, and companies that reflect our overall mission but also help generate income. For example, one of our properties—the Market Keeper’s House, a historic 1842 building listed on the (U.K.) Statutory List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest—is currently home to Quantum Dx, a small company looking to manufacture inexpensive, handheld, genetic diagnostic kits, which could be used by people living in poverty in isolated areas. Life’s success comes from bringing together groups and activities that would not normally exist together on a single site—and they also happen to contribute money to keep the place going.

The model is both rewarding and challenging in equal measure. Not all academics enjoy working alongside the kids’ fun factory, nightclub, and high-energy music events, although I am pleased to say that the majority do. We have forged a very close relationship with scientists onsite and are involved in numerous joint projects with them. The clinics tell us that patients prefer coming to the friendly environment at Life for treatment, rather than going to the hospital. But most importantly, our colorful and welcoming buildings in the center of the city make a very bold statement: science is not just for clever people in white coats but is part of the cultural fabric of the city and can be shared by everyone.

A changing world

Benjamin Franklin said that there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes. I’d like to add a third: change. The world is always changing but globalization has accelerated the pace of change to an unprecedented level. People are on the move like never before, whether willingly or unwillingly, leading to radical changes in demographics. Our audiences, therefore, are also changing. How we communicate and engage with them is changing as we struggle to work out our unique selling point in a world where information flies around the globe at the touch of a button.

Science centers need to adapt and evolve in the face of such change. And that means a fundamental reexamination of all our business models.

Linda Conlon is chief executive of the International Centre for Life, Newcastle upon Tyne, England, United Kingdom, and chair of ASTC’s Board.

About the image: Guests ice skate in front of a historic 1842 building, which currently houses a genetic diagnostics company, at the International Centre for Life. Photo courtesy the International Centre for Life.