Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

There's a Lot of Life Left in This Project; as the Centre for Life Celebrates Its 15th Anniversary, Chief Executive Linda Conlon Tells Graeme Whitfield about Geek Chic, Making Science Fun and Winning over the Doubters

Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

There's a Lot of Life Left in This Project; as the Centre for Life Celebrates Its 15th Anniversary, Chief Executive Linda Conlon Tells Graeme Whitfield about Geek Chic, Making Science Fun and Winning over the Doubters

Article excerpt

IT is the end of the 20th century and around the country people are slightly losing their minds.

While ordinary citizens worry about the Millennium Bug and just how they are going to party like it's 1999, civic leaders have their minds on higher matters.

The establishment of a special fund within the National Lottery means there is big pot of money for eye-catching projects with which towns and cities can mark the coming of the new century.

London had the Millennium Dome, in Sheffield there was to be a national pop museum, while Cornwall went for environmentally themed giant balls called the Eden Project.

Meanwhile on Tyneside, a group of four - writer (and now Viscount) Matt Ridley, academic and doctor John Burn, plus Alastair Balls and Linda Conlon from the Tyne and Wear Development Corporation - are plotting how Newcastle will see in the new age. Their plan - a centre celebrating the emerging science of genetics that will be part-visitor centre, partlaboratory, part small business hub and part conference centre - has people scratching their heads.

The Centre for Life did not exactly fill many in these parts with millennial fervour; in our offices it became known as the Centre for Strife, convinced, as we were, that it would fail in no time at all.

Fast-forward 15 years and some of those millennium projects are best forgotten. The national pop museum lasted barely a year and is now a university students' union. The Millennium Dome was derided as a New Labour folly, though it has found a new life as a massive concert and sporting venue.

But in Newcastle, the Centre for Life stands alongside the Eden Project as one of the great successes of the millennium project. Record visitor numbers, a hub for emerging science businesses and the home of world-leading research mean that, as it Turn to Page 40 From Page 39 celebrates its 15 birthday, Life has very much won over the doubters.

Still there a decade and a half after its opening is chief executive Linda Conlon. She has just returned from a trip to Washington in her new position as chair of the Association of Science-Technology Centres, a trip that saw her invited to the White House and meet Sir David Attenborough.

Back in Newcastle - and before trips to Estonia, Turkey, Italy, Canada and the Czech Republic - she reflects on the journey she has been on at the Centre for Life.

"We tried to think of a project that would not only be fitting for the millennium but also capitalised on some of the strengths of Newcastle. We wanted to answer the question 'Why Newcastle?' "The idea of having a multi-purpose science village emerged and 15 years later I still think that the concept and the model for the Centre for Life are unique -and I don't use that word lightly.

"I don't know of anywhere in the world - and I have travelled the world talking about the Centre for Life -which brings together this complete circle of science: the research, the application of research for patient benefit, the small technology business, the public engagement and the ethics.

"It's a complete circle. Many countries have research and commercial companies cheek by jowl because that's an accepted model, and there's science centres all over the place, but bringing them together on an inner city site is unique.

"Most of these things tend to be on the periphery of cities, on greenfield sites out of the way. You know they're there but you're not quite sure what they do. We've brought them all together on this one site and it's right in the heart of the city.

"We're next to the station and we're close to Newcastle College -and just to add a little zest we've got three pubs and a nightclub! It's a model which is highly novel, highly innovative but, most importantly, it sends the signal that science is something that everyone can enjoy." Earlier this month, the Centre for Life opened Game On, an exhibition on the history of computer games, which is already proving a hit and is hoped could replicate the success of last year's Bodyworlds event, an exhibition of 'plastinated' bodies by famed German anatomist Gunther von Hagens. …

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