In a sense, science shops are both shop and embassy. Rooted in the local community and working hand in hand with universities, they place research and know-how at the service of needs on the ground. Citizens, associations and NGOs make up their ‘clientele’, whose concerns they meet by carrying out audits, studies, investigations, research and sometimes even proposing innovative technical solutions. Originating in the Netherlands, this ‘science and society’ formula has now spread to much of Europe.
The idea was inspired by a French initiative launched at the end of the 19th century which is still alive today: boutiques de droits. Based in working-class neighbourhoods, they comprise centres staffed by volunteer lawyers who offer information and social and legal advice free of charge. In 1908, at Delft University in the Netherlands, the first ‘science’ variation on the model opened its doors. This pioneering centre initiated the idea that citizens could contact students and graduates to ask them to look into issues of concern to them, in the field of health, working conditions or any other aspect of society.
The wind of ‘68 It was also in the Netherlands that, in the seventies, the concept took on a new lease of life and started to spread to many other countries. May ’68 gave rise to a spirit of revolt and a quest for justice and equality. It was a time of protest against a research that was seen as too profit-oriented and of demands for access to knowledge for all and a research response to the needs of communities or bodies with limited financial resources. In 1974, the first science shop opened.
Over the next 20 years the idea gained ground throughout Europe. Each ‘shop’ has its speciality, its own approach and its own clientele. But they share the common objective of bringing science and society together. Some of them initiate original research, while others act as intermediaries between those who ask the questions and those who are able to provide part of the answer. Their activities cover very different disciplines – medicine, the environment, the social and human sciences, as well as requests linked to development co-operation. Despite being called ‘shops’, they are not businesses and do not charge fees, except a strict minimum for organisations in a position to contribute.
The sociologist Alan Irwin of Brunel University (UK) believes that the science shops experience shows that, when it comes to responding to citizens’ concerns, the divide between pure and human sciences is much less clear-cut than in traditional scientific work(1). Could this be one of the reasons for the reluctance in certain scientific circles to acknowledge the importance of their work? “We sometimes have to fight to show that a study carried out by a science shop is of intrinsic scientific merit, even if it is not published in the most prestigious journals,” explains Caspar De Bok, coordinator of the biology science shop at Utrecht University and active member of the ISSNET European network (see box).
A showcase for universities
In Zijpe, in the Netherlands, pesticides are used in agriculture and floriculture. By studying a collection of dust samples, Utrecht University’s biology science shop was able to evaluate their potential nuisance.
The universities – and indirectly scientists – tend to be the natural home for science shops. Although, as is the case in Germany and Austria, some of them are linked to NGOs and financed by public bodies, most are rooted in an academic structure. “For universities, their science shops are an interesting public showcase, allowing people to discover how they can be useful to their local community,” explains Eileen Martin, one of the managers at the Queen's University science shop in Belfast.
Opened in 1988, this is quite a success story. “We receive more than 200 research requests a year. The most difficult task is to find enough students and teams ready to follow them up. We are able to respond to just over half of these requests, carrying out research of a guaranteed high standard. Most of this research is in the field of sociology, political science and the environment.”
In most countries, students can enter details of their work for science shops to earn course credits. “This is often a very positive experience,” continues Ms Martin. “Some students discover a field of interest in which they would like to work in the future. Or, on the contrary, they realise that a particular direction is not for them – also useful in terms of deciding which direction to take.” Based on a bottom-up approach, research carried out by science shops can also open up new avenues of knowledge that can be of interest to the scientists themselves. Zijpe, a small coastal town in the northern Netherlands, provides one such example. A local residents’ association had questions about the worrying use of pesticides in cereal farming and intensive bulb culture. Utrecht University’s biology science shop launched an impact study, carried out in co-operation with one of its research units and managed by one of its doctoral students. Dust samples were collected in local homes and farm buildings to assess the potential nuisance of pesticides. “In addition to the analysis results that confirmed the exposure of residents – especially farmers – to the harmful ingredients in the products used, the protocols used for collecting the samples were innovative and convincing,” explains Caspar de Bok. “The validity of the methodology is now being cited in discussions with a Dutch parliamentary committee. It is enabling us to ask the minister concerned to develop a large-scale study on the subject, in co-operation with the residents and farmers.”
The InterMEDIU network in Romania.
From the Netherlands to Romania A useful project for civil society and one that also attracts the attention of researchers, brings progress to scientific methods and has an impact at policy level… It is an ideal case. The long tradition of the Netherlands in this field makes it something of a pilot country. Its 13 universities each have up to ten specialised science shops which receive thousands of requests a year in the most diverse fields. This dynamism is not due solely to the desire of students and researchers, but also to a political authority that is attentive to its universities and citizens.
It was, moreover, with the logistics support of Groeningen University’s chemistry and biology science shops, that it proved possible to sponsor the launch of this formula in Romania, with the support of the Dutch Government. Eight science shops, under the InterMEDIU label – médiu meaning environment in Romanian – now exist at the universities of Bacau, Bucharest, Brasov, Iasi, Galati, Oradea and Ploeisti. The first studies undertaken by InterMEDIU concerned water quality (drinking and bathing water) and environmental education. Romanian researchers and students hope to be able to develop other initiatives of this kind in the health field.
The Europe of Knowledge 2010 conference, Liège (BE) – 2004.
A mix of ‘clients’ Although the environment and health are clearly major subjects of concern to the population, some science shops find themselves confronting more specific issues. In Spain, for example, a competition launched by the Arquitectura y Compromiso Social science shop at the Seville School of Architecture culminated in a concept for ‘customised’ housing for Romanies. Consultation between representatives of their community, NGOs, architects and sociologists made it possible to develop projects for fixed homes that took into account their outdoor lifestyle and scrap-recycling activities.
In France, the recently opened science shop at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure in Cachan, just outside Paris, looked at the question of agricultural practices and water management, especially in the face of floods. “Shrinking pastures, the reduced organic-matter content of soils, and compaction under the weight of heavy equipment are reducing soil porosity and thus decreasing their permeability,” explains Fabien Amiot. “The role of the science shop is to set up co-operation between a group of farmers and a group of civil engineering students to make a study on the interests of these users who are not very familiar with the devices of scientific production.”
Two recent Belgian initiatives, launched by the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) and Antwerp University, started up after consulting various NGOs and associations to gauge the situation on the ground. The aim was to evaluate the fields in which such organisations could be interested in contacting a science shop. Based at the universities, these science shops act as ‘intermediaries’, directing ‘clients’ to the relevant faculties. “The studies are carried out by students and supervised by scientists,” explains Sofie Van Den Bossche of the Brussels Wetenschapwinkel. “At present, there are a lot of requests concerning socio-economic questions. This enables students to become aware of the needs of the society they live in and to consider the question of how their scientific practice can meet them. Conversely, our work makes it possible to increase public awareness of the benefits of scientific research.”
(1) Irwin, A. Citizen Science – A Study of people, expertise and sustainable development. London and New York, 1995.
Science shops supported by the Union
In its Science and Society action plan, the Commission views science shops as a very useful tool in reducing the divide between the general public and the scientific community. Initially, the Union supported the SCIPAS (Study and Conference on Improving Public Access to Science through science shops) ...
In its Science and Society action plan, the Commission views science shops as a very useful tool in reducing the divide between the general public and the scientific community. Initially, the Union supported the SCIPAS (Study and Conference on Improving Public Access to Science through science shops) project, which ran from 1999 to 2001. This involved evaluating the opportunities, the conditions and the potential social impact of a network of science shops. The SCIPAS carried out a number of studies on optimising the work and organisation of a science shop, the launch of an international magazine and the compiling of a databank with free public access. The role and benefits of science shops for research, education and communication were also studied. In January 2001, a first conference entitled Living Knowledge was attended by more than 100 participants from 19 countries on every continent.
In 2003, this was followed by Commission support for the launch of the ISSNET (Improving Science Shop Networking) workshop. Coordinated by the University of Utrecht, this aims to enable science shops to meet, debate, and share experiences. Living Knowledge is the name given to the ISSNET liaison newsletter, which also manages an interactive databank providing information on science shops, their projects and priorities, and permitting the exchange of know-how.