Community-Based Research In The United States
An Introductory Reconnaissance, Including Twelve
Organizational Case Studies and Comparison with the Dutch Science Shops and the Mainstream
American Research System
by Richard E. Sclove, Madeleine L. Scammell,
and Breena Holland
Executive Summary (Abridged)
The United States is blessed with abundant resources, wealth and dynamism, and yet
burdened with profound social and environmental ills. "We can put a man on the
moon," goes the old saw, but why cant we empower distressed communities and
groups to help understand and address their own problems? The answer, it turns out, is not
that no one knows how to facilitate such empowerment; the organizations examined in this
study do it every day. The answer is that we arent properly investing the resources
readily available for building the social infrastructure--a nationwide community research
system--that would make empowerment-through-mutual-learning universally accessible.
"Community-based research" is research that is conducted by, with, or for
communities (e.g., with civic, grassroots, or worker groups throughout civil society).
This research differs from the bulk of the R&D conducted in the United States, most of
which--at a total cost of about $170 billion per year--is performed on behalf of business,
the military, the federal government, or in pursuit of the scientific and academic
communities intellectual interests.
This study presents 12 case studies of U.S. community research centers (one-third are
located at universities and the others are independent nonprofit organizations). Concrete
changes that have occurred as a result of community-based research projects conducted by
these organizations include:
- Energy conservation retrofits of over 10,000 low-income housing units in Chicago
- One of the most thoroughly prepared legal cases in the history of toxic waste
litigation, two companies sued for wrongful death associated with water pollution, and an
$8 million out-of-court settlement with Woburn, Massachusetts plaintiffs
- A moratorium on forest logging pending the conclusion of negotiations between Alaskan
legislators and activists
- Implementation of a new system for providing police service more equitably in the
Jacksonville, Florida area
- A requirement that scientists seek permission from a Native American community before
including them as research subjects
- Replacement of poisoned drinking water with a safe water line into a rural Kentucky
community, and a legal judgment requiring establishment of an $11 million community health
- Creation of a new health program in Chicago for refugee women
From these cases, the study develops the most comprehensive overview that exists to-date
of the U.S. community research system, comparing it with the institutionally more mature
community research system that exists in the Netherlands, as well as with the mainstream
U.S. research system. The reports analysis is organized in terms of 18 findings,
- Community-based research processes differ fundamentally from mainstream research in
being coupled relatively tightly with community groups that are eager to know the research
results and to use them in practical efforts to achieve constructive social change.
Community-based research is not only usable, it is generally used and, more than that,
used to good effect.
- Community-based research often produces unanticipated and far reaching ancillary
results, including new social relationships and trust, as well as heightened social
efficacy. It may thus provide one constructive response to the growing concern that
American civil society is in crisis and unraveling.
- There is significant demand for community-based research, and much of it is not being
met. The Loka Institute has so far been able to identify about 50 U.S. community research
centers, estimating crudely that the total number of community research projects conducted
annually in the U.S. is somewhere between 400 and 1,200. For there to be as many community
research centers per capita in the U.S. as already exist in the Netherlands, the U.S.
would need 645 centers conducting about 17,000 studies annually.
- Compared with conventional research, community-based research is cost-effective. A
typical community research project costs on the order of $10,000, constructively addresses
an important social problem, provides tangible benefits to groups that are often among
societys least advantaged, produces secondary social benefits (such as enhancing
participating students education-for-citizenship), and produces little or no
unintended social or environmental harm.
- Most U.S. community research centers find their work chronically constrained or even
jeopardized by an inadequate funding base. This studys rough estimate is that both
the U.S. and the Netherlands currently spend on the order of US$10 million annually on
community-based research, which means that on a per capita basis the Dutch are investing
in community-based research at 15 times the U.S. rate. As a fraction of each nations
respective total R&D expenditure, the Dutch are investing in community-based research
at 37 times the U.S. rate.
- While there are community research centers in the United States, compared with the
Netherlands these are few and far between, relatively inaccessible to the groups that
could most benefit from them, and do not represent a comprehensive system. To create a
U.S. community research system that would provide service as comprehensively and
accessibly as does the Dutch system would cost on the order of $450 million annually. That
is about 45 times current U.S. investment in community-based research, but would still
represent less than 0.3 percent of total U.S. R&D expenditure (from all sources,
public and private).
© 1998 The Loka Institute