The Dome won't be the only place to celebrate the millennium, a range of science visitor centres are also planned for the occasion.
INTERESTED in science? Then forget the Dome. More than pounds 600m - only a little less than the price tag for the Millennium Dome at Greenwich - is to be spent on science and technology visitor centres for the millennium. Of that, pounds 270m comes from the Millennium Commission, while the rest is made up from matching funds from Europe, local councils and commercial sponsors. In all, it is nearly twice as much as the annual amount awarded by the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council, the largest research funding body.

The question is, will it be money well spent? Certainly, this big push will enable Britain to catch up with countries that have traditionally done better at presenting contemporary science to the public.

At Leicester, for example, the National Space Science Centre will incorporate the first "Challenger Learning Centre" outside North America. The centres, developed with backing from US space agency Nasa, enable children to develop their maths and science knowledge by playing at astronautics. The International Centre for Life in Newcastle will feature "superlabs", where real researchers will teach some experiments too advanced for schools to undertake - an idea borrowed from the outreach programme of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, New York.

Birmingham's Millennium Point - at pounds 112m the grandest of the projects - with a discovery centre and a technology innovation centre, looks to France's Futuroscope, which already advertises its attractions in British Sunday newspapers. Like many of the projects, it will exploit existing academic strengths. Ian Forrester, project manager for X-Site, Glasgow's planned national science centre, speaks for many of the projects when he says: "Most other countries have science centres. Glasgow doesn't, but it does have world-leading universities."

Fourteen projects around the country are supported by the Millennium Commission covering a range of sciences, from astronomy to geology to biology. Like Millennium Point, most of the centres also focus on technology or innovation, and some have an element of local heritage to show their relevance to potential visitors.

Many of the schemes are experiencing the same agonies as the Millennium Dome - for example, whether their purpose should be primarily to educate or to entertain. Most of the larger centres will have "white-knuckle rides" which, while of limited scientific merit, are seen as essential to draw visitors. "To market science you can't present it pure," says Forrester. "The clever bit is between getting you drawn in and getting you to understand. You have to excite and enthuse before you can engage."

Some may never get that far. Those responsible for Island 2000, the Isle of Wight's proposal for a pterodactyl-shaped dinosaur museum and improvements to nearby botanical gardens, were too disorganised to return my calls. The pounds 91m National Discovery Park in Liverpool has no literature for distribution. Magna, a steel heritage centre in Rotherham, themed somewhat misleadingly around the four ancient "elements" (earth, air, fire and water), is already being scaled down after consultants calculated that its exhibits could not be afforded.

The Weather Watch Centre in Bracknell, a town council initiative with the nearby Meteorological Office, has not raised the bulk of its matching funds, and has been denied permission to miss certain "milestone" dates for progress on the project set down by the Millennium Commission. Meanwhile, the town council member whose idea it was has departed. "If the Millennium Commission doesn't support this, we may, together with the Met Office, redo it in networked form, using government money to bring IT into schools," says borough engineer Chas Davison, into whose lap the project has fallen.

But at least a handful of the new centres will undoubtedly be spectacularly successful. The most original and authoritative must surely be Newcastle's International Centre for Life. Its trust chairman, science author Matt Ridley, has assembled a pantheon of science communicators as advisors, including Richard Dawkins, Susan Greenfield, Steve Jones and James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA.

Unlike physical sciences and technology, which rely largely on past glories for their appeal, many of the breakthroughs and most of the applications yet to come are in genetics and molecular biology. This is one field which does not have to labour to spell out its relevance: it is about us. "The driver is an intuition that this is a science where the public are going to get much more involved than ever before," says chief executive Alastair Balls. Accordingly, the International Centre for Life incorporates its visitor centre - the Helix - and a genetics institute for fundamental research in the same building.

Such synergy with local academia features in a number of schemes: The Deep makes use of the University of Hull's work in environmental modelling; the Dundee Science Centre benefits from the city university's leadership in cancer research. The public witnesses authentic science as it happens, for example with on-line links to remote telescopes at Leicester.

But what's in it for the academic institutions? Professor Alan Wells hopes to see an increased recruitment to Leicester University's undergraduate course in space science, which already bucks the nationwide trend of falling numbers of students taking physics. Others hope that bringing their researchers into direct contact with the public will build bridges. "A lot of people have an interest in following the groove we've started to make. The drugs companies need to take the public with them; food companies and insurance companies, too," says Balls.

A critical perspective is a conscious feature of several leading projects. Birmingham plans a theatre for debating issues in science. Glasgow's X- Site is "trying to create a neutral view of science, with core themes of creativity, exploration, and the social setting of science", according to science exhibitions manager Dr Graham Durant. At the International Centre for Life, a visitor area called Choices will pose ethical questions, register visitors' views and display the changing consensus, showing that "this is not a static subject with static opinions", says Balls.

"The decisions will not just be for science and government, but practical decisions for ordinary people on the street," he adds. "To what extent do people want to involve themselves in genetic enhancement of any sort? If we can change the species, it is important everyone is involved and can make rational decisions, and we don't just play King Canute with this new knowledge. A Disney-like visitor attraction would be mealy-mouthed."

Those Millennium science centres in full

Name Topic Location Aiming to open Millennium and matching funds Web site (prefix http://)

Millennium Point Science and technology Birmingham Autumn 2001 pounds 50m + pounds 61.6m

Bristol 2000 Science Bristol Spring 2000 pounds 41.3m + pounds 54.7m

X-Site National Science Centre Science and technology Glasgow Autumn 2000 pounds 35m + pounds 74.5m

International Centre for Life Genetics Newcastle Easter 2000 pounds 27m + pounds 27m

National Discovery Park Media technology Liverpool Unknown pounds 27m + pounds 64.4m

National Space Science Centre Space exploration and astronomy Leicester February 2001 pounds 23.2m + pounds 23.2m

Magna Steel industry heritage Rotherham Easter 2000 pounds 18.6m + pounds 32.1m

The Deep Ocean sciences Kingston upon Hull April 2001 pounds 18.5m + pounds 18.5m

The Dynamic Earth Earth sciences Edinburgh Spring 1999 pounds 15.1m + pounds 18.4m

The Big Idea Invention Ayrshire Spring 2000 pounds 5.3m + pounds 5.3m

Intech 2000 Technology Winchester 31 December 1999 pounds 4.8m + pounds 4.8m

Island 2000 Botany and palaeontology Isle of Wight No information provided pounds 2.2m + pounds 2.2m

Dundee Science Centre Life sciences Dundee During 2000 pounds 1.6m + pounds 1.6m

Weather Watch Discovery Centre Meteorology Bracknell Unknown pounds 1.5m + pounds 2.1m