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Our Director Sir Ian Blatchford shares his thoughts on sustainability and the Science Museum Group.

Last week the UK recorded its highest ever temperature, another data point collected and interrogated by scientists assessing the climate change that everyone one of us must play a role in addressing.

As a science-based institution and a museum group that offers free entry to over five million visitors each year we have an opportunity and a responsibility to be very focused on evidence both in encouraging public discussion and increasing awareness of the challenges facing society and in the ways we reduce the impacts of our own activities and buildings.

I recently updated the teams at the five museums in our Group on what we are doing to reduce our carbon emissions, as part of a broader conversation that will help us to drive further improvements in our response to this huge global challenge.

In addition to ideas drawn from internal teams, we are in regular contact with experts in a range of fields, from architecture to climate science, to understand more about the evidence and best practice in operating more sustainably.

A key contributor has been our former colleague Chris Rapley, Professor of Climate Science at UCL, who has kindly agreed to join the Science Museum Advisory Board.

By sharing more information through this blog, I know we will spark further conversations that will benefit the public programme in our museums and bring fresh impetus to our work on sustainability.

Our sustainability journey to date

Our total energy use today is 43% less than it was in 2001 and 25% less than in 2011/12.

This reduction has been achieved despite growth in the Science Museum Group (partly through new museums joining) that equates to a 24% increase in floor area.

Since 2016 we have purchased all electricity for our museums from renewable sources while energy efficiencies and renewable electricity procurement have led to a 69% emissions’ reduction against a 2011/12 baseline.

Actions that have contributed to the reduction in energy use include LED lighting, plant replacement and embracing passive design such as harnessing natural light and passive cooling.

In addition, we have solar panels at both the Science Museum in London and Locomotion in County Durham, with more solar panel projects planned as part of our work at the National Collections Centre near Swindon, which will all feed directly into our buildings.

Aerial view of the solar farm at the National Collections Centre

The Solar Farm at the National Collections Centre is a mark of our commitment to thinking differently in our approach to sustainability.

Whilst we are not directly operating the solar farm, we view this a vital use of our land. We lease 88 acres of land to an external company, which feeds 50GWh into the national grid – almost four times what we use as an organisation.

Engaging our audiences

We are uniquely placed to engage our visitors with the history of industrialisation and its effects on the environment, including climate change. The stories of our collection demonstrate how we got to where we are today and what we can do to solve the problems we now face.

Our programming in the last twelve months has achieved this in original and unique ways. The Manchester Science Festival promoted dialogue around plastics, sustainable food and endangered species.

The Science Museum’s ‘The Sun’ exhibition, now open in Manchester, explores the story of humankind’s relationship with our closest star and its potential for endless energy.

In York, the National Railway Museum’s February Half Term programme focussed on “Energy and Sustainability” and engaged families with recycling and alternative energy. School programmes across Group support environmental curriculum links including power generation, materials and design.

Visitor engagement extends to our commercial offer. The new retail space at the Science Museum is an opportunity to lead the conversation on sustainable products.

The retail team are collaborating with innovative company Pentatonic who create beautiful products from everyday waste streams, for example water glasses from smartphone screens.

The newly opened shop also has a display of collection objects along the theme of “re-use” including a toy helicopter made of Heineken Cans and a handbag made from recycled rubber tyre inner tubes.

Current priorities

To reduce our emissions further and maintain year-on-year reduction we need a holistic approach which brings together technological solutions and culture change.

We have gaps in our approach that must be addressed, among these the need for sustainable procurement guidelines and a travel plan that covers colleague commuting, business travel and visitor travel.

Our current priorities in improving our approach on sustainability are:

  • Establish a clear definition of what the Science Museum Group means by sustainability and provide a strategy and guidelines to lead the way to practical implementation
  • Identify and implement ‘quick wins’ which will positively affect our environmental impact
  • Educate and empower colleagues to embed sustainability into their everyday activities and to lead on environmental initiatives
  • Engage our visitors with our actions. Use positive messaging to communicate our policy and the science behind our rationale.

Our work against these priorities is being supported by an internal team of around forty colleagues from across the organisation who act as advocates, support environmental activities and constructively contribute to our approach, through their own unique experience of the organisation.

Progress will be assessed by our Board of Trustees later this year and shared publicly as we continue this important dialogue.

Sponsorship

Some campaigners who care about the issues I have addressed above have suggested that we should also sever our long-standing relationships with several energy companies, such as BP, Shell and Equinor.

This has been the subject of regular review by our Executive team and the Board of Trustees and the clear view has been that such an act would be unwise.

The major energy companies have the capital, geography, people and logistics to be major players in finding solutions and we are among the many organisations that regard such an approach as being unproductive.

We believe the right approach is to engage, debate and challenge companies, governments and individuals to do more to make the global economy less carbon intensive.

Through research and technological innovation in areas such as carbon capture, fuel efficiency and alternative energy, energy companies have a major role to play.

We also achieve public good with the sponsorship we receive from energy companies.

The ground-breaking Atmosphere Gallery (visited by 5.4 million people since it opened in December 2010 and publicly praised by Al Gore) would never have been possible without support from Shell.

Wonderlab Chemistry Bar with visitors taking part in experiments -® Plastiques Photography

Thanks to support from Equinor for Wonderlab, thousands of young people, from very diverse backgrounds, are inspired to be the scientists and engineers of the future. The same is true of BP sponsorship of The Science Museum Group Academy.

I am sceptical about the argument that such sponsorships are greenwashing. It would be much easier for companies to seek a quiet life by not sponsoring high profile institutions, because working with us exposes them to exceptional scrutiny.

Ultimately our visitors can – and do – make their own minds up about our approach.

Finally, it is important to point out that all sponsorships are considered in line with our ethics policy. We undertake due diligence on all prospective sponsors and in all such partnerships we retain editorial control.