Lesley Lewis was chief executive officer of the Ontario Science Centre from 1998 to 2014. Nancy Lockhart was chair of the Ontario Science Centre’s board of directors from 1998 to 2006. Jennifer Martin is the centre’s former vice-president of visitor experience and founding CEO of Spark Science Centre in Calgary. Kevin von Appen is former director of science communication at the Ontario Science Centre.
What should happen to the Ontario Science Centre?
The Doug Ford government has an answer: The Science Centre should boost the revitalization of Ontario Place by moving to Toronto’s waterfront, with its current building demolished for housing.
But science – like the science centres that bring the wonder, joy, discovery and curiosity of scientific exploration to the public – seeks answers in evidence. That’s how we come up with vaccines that end pandemics and rockets that go to the moon.
As former Science Centre leaders and professionals with decades of international experience in the science museum field, we respect evidence and understand it. And we believe the evidence shows the proposal to move the Ontario Science Centre is bad science and bad policy.
The government says it will be cheaper to demolish the centre and build a new one rather than fixing what we have. No evidence has been presented that supports this argument. Kinga Surma, Minister of Infrastructure and the cabinet member responsible for the centre’s move, has said she wants to “triple-check” the figures before releasing them.
Would this work if the minister were a scientist?
If a scientist released conclusions before they were validated, her colleagues would reasonably respond that she had either not done her homework (bad) or was concealing data that undermined her argument (worse).
What we do know, based on our international experience of the cost of developing new science centres – there are now more than 3,000 worldwide, all inspired by the example of early innovators like the Ontario Science Centre – is that the proposed new, smaller Ontario Place science centre will cost at least $400-million to build and likely more. There is no scenario we can imagine – none – in which this is cheaper than renovating the Science Centre’s current home.
Decades of failure by successive governments to invest in needed maintenance at the centre have brought us to a tipping point where moving versus renovating is a valid conversation, but Raymond Moriyama’s iconic architecture can and should be saved for both economic and cultural heritage reasons.
But most important are the people the Science Centre serves. The government’s proposal of a 200,000-square-foot building ignores the size of its core Southern Ontario audience, let alone tourists who visit from elsewhere.
For comparison, in 2011, the Spark Science Centre in Calgary opened at a cost of $160-million, offered 153,000 square feet and served a regional audience of 1.5 million people. How can a new Ontario Science Centre half its current size possibly serve a growing region of more than six million? The evidence argues it can’t and it won’t.
Since opening in 1969, the Science Centre has welcomed more than 54 million people, averaging a million visitors a year – including more than 160,000 students – despite historically poor transit links. It has become internationally known for the diversity of its audience – a characteristic not often seen in museums.
The centre’s visitors reflect the face of Toronto, one of the most diverse cities in the world. It is a rare example of a successful cultural institution located outside a city core, a vibrant anchor and partner in two of Toronto’s historically underserved communities, Flemingdon Park and Thorncliffe Park. This is evidence of dynamism and success, not of a “tired” institution, as Premier Ford has suggested.
The current crisis in fact offers exciting opportunities to expand housing, retail and culture at the centre’s location using its surface parking lots while revitalizing the centre in place. With the Eglinton light-rail transit line, attendance can reach new heights. Good science and good policy go beyond either/or zero-sum arguments. Good science follows the evidence.
Finally, another word about those vaccines and rocket ships: They were created through consultation and collaboration. Lots of it. That’s also how good science – and good policy – works.
The evidence shows that the provincial government did not consult or collaborate before it announced its plan – not with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, which owns and controls the Science Centre’s environmentally sensitive ravine land; not with the communities of Flemingdon Park and Thorncliffe Park; and not with the citizens of Ontario for whom the Ontario Science Centre is a centennial gift and public trust.
That’s bad science. And bad policy, too.