Speaker by Various Artists

Science Shops

by Mary Gardner

I am sitting in a room with three dozen people from fourteen different countries. We hardly notice the cool grey rain outside. We are all concentrating on the presenter, Henk Mulder, who is struggling with a bad cold. But he is here anyway so he can explain the day to day efforts of a revolution in science at his university of Groningen, the Netherlands.

“We call it a science shop. But it can go by any name. It’s a group that provides research support in response to questions brought by citizens. The research is independent. It is also participatory. The researchers work with the citizens. It costs the citizens little or no money at all. The results are high quality and public. They are used by the citizens and by decision makers from local to national levels here in the Netherlands. “

This is the beginning of a three day residential workshop at the prestigious summer school at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. Some of us are here on behalf of employers such as a university in Turkey, Romania, or Ireland or a government department such as one called the Promotion of Science in China. Some of us are students or volunteers, members of an activist group in Portugal, Italy, Japan or Germany. Some of us are members of other Science Shops or similar, in the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and USA.

We all look pretty ordinary but for our enthusiasm. Our experiences have led us to support a different approach to the practice of science. We take Henk’s criteria for science shops as a good expression of what seems obvious to us. We are here to learn how to spread the revolution. We are set to talk with each other nonstop for the next three days.

Me, I am all ears. I am here as a freelance science worker from New Zealand. I don’t know of any organizations in NZ which match up citizens with researchers so they can to explore questions together and build knowledge which is then shared publicly.

But I have sat at many public meetings in New Zealand, organized in response to citizens concerns where experts are presented to answer questions. The first question to them all is “who do you work for?”

Citizens ask because they expect who is paying has great influence on the researcher. Independence and integrity are not to be expected to go hand in hand with research.

In NZ, like many other places, most researchers are employees of a university or government, a consultancy or a business. Often, in our little country, researchers work a bit for everyone at one time or another.

As employees, the researchers work for their employers to certain financial goals and within confidentiality restraints. A citizen or community group or an NGO wanting to research a question has to network and fundraise to get the attention of a researcher. In our little country, that worker is often putting a career on the line by getting involved with community interests.

Last I heard, a science worker on behalf of community interests in the Happy Valley case was gagged and could not appear as an expert in court because of conflicts arising from what is now the working reality of science in NZ.

The problem is not unique to NZ. Mae Wan-Ho, head of the Science in Society Institute in London, describes the “unholy alliance” of science with commerce. A writer from the USA coins a new label for the people in these roles – “biostitutes” – from “biology” and “prostitutes”.

Henk is now outlining the three fold mission of Dutch universities: education, research and interestingly, service to society. He quotes an article from the constitution which says “they (the universities) transfer knowledge on behalf of society...”

Later, Gerard Strearer, from Wageningnen Agricultural University and Research Centre, refers to this mission. He describes how the university supported its researchers' freedom to be involved in a controversial science shop project in spite of considerable government pressure.

Casper de Bok, of Utrecht University, talks about the role of students in science shops. Some students show us the chemical pollution testing their science shop does for free on behalf of citizens. Another woman, from Tilberg University, tells about how she is paid to work in their science shop. This started her on research about family care givers. She produced not only papers for a thesis, but a book for families and also a training course for providers and support agencies.

I thought of NZ science workers I know, myself included, who put together community based projects and programmes. The effort? Usually volunteer, squeezed in between everything else. The resources? A bit of number eight wire. The amazing effort and positive responses of the local people involved.

Imagine putting quality time, resources and institutional support behind the projects. And giving students meaningful projects which have clear links and feedback with community. This could be also be really good news for departments wanting to provide better opportunities for more students.

How science is done and who does it is hugely important. When the Dutch science shop collaborated with Romania in an urban project, the student researcher from the Netherlands was asked to set up the study with the Romanian students. What he found was that the Romanian students had no experience in setting up research questions: their expertise was solely based on being able to implement a teacher’s directives. This research project developed not only new knowledge but a totally novel skill for the students. The teachers learned. Now, the science shops have become quite important to Romania for practical, academic and ethical reasons.

We hear many other stories where knowledge and unexpected resolutions to controversies come about because of a question from the community, developed in cooperation with the community. Often results are unexpected and require all parties to adjust. The resolutions are novel. An industry accepts tighter pollution controls but ends up welcome in the town as a new employer. A city garden club gains new respect as a community asset but also opens up new access for the public in general. Fears of cancer provoked by a horticultural industry prove to be unfounded but new savings are identified by modifying spray programmes, which pleases all parties in the end.

Over the three days, we meet with people from 5 different styles of science shops. Most are based within a university, either at the main office or within different departments. There are coordinators who manage the service as both an outreach programme for citizens and also as an incubator for meaningful projects for the universities' students. Other science shops are run by students within their university. Still others are independent non-profit groups which provide specialist services to fund their suite of research programmes, which bring together researchers from various institutions.

The leaders from the different shops talk frankly about the problems the science shops face. Threats to funding come with internal politics. Contestable funding rounds often leave important projects unsupported. Some shops close. Others open. One breakthrough example is the Brussels network, where the government funds a science shop coordinator within each university.

The science shop approach seems to be a happy revolution. It helps citizens to use science research, students to learn new skills in exciting meaningful projects and researchers to extend their research. The EU university support, although based on the third mission of their charters, is also good publicity for them. When push comes to shove, the science shop approach also upholds the independence and dignity of their researchers.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, all of these are issues for our society. On the last day, we all talk about the international support gained by a worldwide network. The EU supports setting up science shop type services. There are programmes like this workshop and a major conference in Paris. There is finance for the Living Knowledge website, which is an extensive resource. There is a new fund for projects.

Many participants describe how they can see their groups back home taking the next step in setting up a science shop. I wonder what could be even the first step for NZ universities. Well, I can at least email a few people I know….

For more information from the network: www.livingknowledge.org
For questions, information and presentations: email Mary Gardner mgardner@mgardner.info