Science Oxford – future plans

On Wednesday evening this week I was at Science Oxford (SO), invited to take part in a discussion forum about their plans to open a new science and innovation centre in Oxford. The new centre, to be designed by Foster + Partners, will be on the site of Macclesfield House on New Road next to the Castle Mound.

There were about 20 people taking part, plus some representatives from SO and the market research company they have retained to run the public consultation. It was well organised and lasted three hours (including a refreshment break, thankfully) with a mixture of open discussion, presentation, and group discussions.

SO’s current thinking is for the centre, provisionally called The Magnet, to consist of a number of different areas including a free-to-enter reception/shop/café. Other areas will be aimed at different audiences: under 12s, older schoolchildren etc. A 3D theatre/planetarium on the roof, a roof garden/terrace, and a ‘science live’ gallery are all part of the current mix.

I think this is a really exciting project, not least because I like Norman Foster’s work and am looking forward to having a major Foster building in Oxford. I came away from the discussions feeling optimistic, but there was a general consensus about the problems that will have to be overcome.

First, ‘science’ is such a vast concept that the centre will inevitably be highly selective in what it can show. It will be important that they change their content regularly. People also felt it was important that the centre should explain ‘what science is’, a highly successful way of looking at the world, asking and solving problems about how everything works.

Another common view was that the centre shouldn’t just be aimed at children and young people. What most of those present wanted was the opportunity to hear about current research from the people actually doing it. Whenever I’ve had the chance to do this it’s always been interesting and exciting. Another point was about accessibility – not just for people with disabilities but also recognising that there are many working people who can only enjoy and benefit from a centre like this in the evenings.

Lastly there was a plea that the centre shouldn’t rely entirely on computerised on-screen and interactive demonstrations to get its message across. Adults of a certain age can still be intrigued by pressing buttons and seeing things flash up on a screen, but most children are now completely used to this and are not necessarily impressed or interested. Having real live people on hand to explain things and answer questions would be a great feature.

There were plenty of other things covered but these are probably the most common thoughts that came out. An interesting and successful evening.