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The Community Research Network - A Brief History

 

In March 1995, Loka's Executive Director, Richard Sclove published an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled "Putting Science to Work in Communities". In many ways, this was the beginning of the Community Research Network. Over 200 people and organizations from all over the U.S. responded favorably to the article and expressed interest in learning more about the Dutch Science Shop Network described.

Recognizing the Dutch model as a viable means of democratizing science here in the U.S., the Loka Institute channeled some of the interest by initiating the internet "Scishops" discussion and action list, on the establishment of science shops in the U.S. Shortly after the listserv was initiated, the project formed a National Community Research Network Advisory Board and volunteered the Loka Institute as the network's interim central office. It became clear that a face-to-face planning meeting among some representative key players was necessary for the establishment of a national network.

The science shop idea caught the interest of John Gerber, director of University of Massachusetts Extension, who saw in it an opportunity to revitalize and renew the mission of land grant colleges in the United States. In the winter of 1996, Gerber and Sclove together enlisted the support of Paul Shuldiner in UMass' Science, Technology, and Society program and the conference got off the ground. The two UMass programs and the Loka Institute pooled ideas, funds, and staff energy to form a partnership that could make the gathering a reality.

The first face-to-face planning conference of the Community Research Network (CRN) took place July 19-21, 1996 in Amherst, MA. At this conference, the first steps were made in designing the infrastructure of the Community Research Network (CRN). Participants included advisory board members and other interested individuals who had been active on the scishops listserv. A report of the conference is available from Loka.

During the conference, notes of conference proceedings were posted to the scishops list. Responses from listserv subscribers were posted on a bulletin board in the main conference room.

Since the July 1996 Conference, the CRN has grown considerably and the Scishops listserv is now called the Community Research Network List


 

Loka's Objectives in launching a Community Research Network

In several European nations, university students earn college credit for conducting research on behalf of communities, workers, public-interest groups, and local government agencies. For instance, in the Netherlands a national network of 50 university-based "science shops" responds annually to 2,500 requests on such social and technological issues as analyzing the needs of disadvantaged minority groups, workplace safety, industrial pollutants, and all domains of public policy. Virtually every Dutch community and nonprofit organization knows how to contact this network when research assistance is needed. Thus there is a nationwide system for directing substantial research capabilities toward concerns defined by the community of organizations that constitute civil society.

Through our dialogue with community research practitioners in the United States, it became clear that there are some organizations already doing participatory and other forms of community-based research, but that:

 

  1. Relative to the size of the United States and the social need for community-based research, these existing centers and programs are few and far between;

     

  2. They are unaware of each other's work and have little sense of themselves as part of something larger--e.g., a nationwide system or social movement; and

     

  3. They are often invisible or inaccessible to those who could benefit most from their assistance.

     

In the belief that establishing a loosely structured network would increase the number of participating centers, open up the possibility for coordinated efforts, and thus broaden the availability and efficacy of community-based research, the Loka Institute announced that we would spearhead the creation of a Community Research Network (CRN). Creating such a network is particularly critical and timely now, because severe budget cuts in federal programs addressing social and environmental problems are forcing community groups and local governments to take up the slack.

The objective of the centers individually is to provide any number of constituencies--communities, workers, public interest groups, and state and local governments--with the resources to investigate social, technological and environmental concerns, and to act on them through direct voluntary effort, legal action, or public policy channels. Projects might include:

 

  • measuring and promoting equity in the provision of public services (e.g.,police, ambulance and fire service);

     

  • resolving tensions between environmental regulations and local industry needs (i.e., the need to help factories adapt to new standards in order to preserve jobs);

     

  • encouraging grassroots involvement in conducting technology assessments (an activity that has become urgent with the Congress's recent termination of the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment);

     

  • supporting citizen and public-interest group participation in crucial upcoming FCC hearings mandated by the new Telecommunications Reform Act;

     

  • facilitating worker participation in studies of workplace health and safety, in the design of workplace technologies, and in labor policy decisions;

     

  • providing research support to extant state and local coalitions advancing defense conversion or more sustainable, locally self-reliant patterns of economic development.

A central goal for the centers collectively, i.e., for the network as a whole--is to evolve into a system that will, in effect, come to represent the decentralized, democratic core of a new national laboratory system. That is, rather than acquiesce to the perpetuation of a $25 billion-per-year national lab network that is an anachronistic byproduct of World War II and the Cold War, we seek to incubate an alternative national research system that will be responsive to community and citizen concerns of the 21st century.

As an interim step toward this long-range ambition, the network will--in addition to its core research activities--also function as an organizational platform for building a national constituency concerned with diverting national research funds and research capabilities to community-based research, and thus away from military and other anachronistic or socially dubious research endeavors. (It is obviously premature to specify the precise mechanism for realizing this organizational potential. The first step is to build strong constituencies at the grassroots and a sense of common purpose. Beyond that it might involve establishing a steering committee charged with facilitating network-wide consensus-building on public policy agendas and action plans. Alternatively, individual participating groups might use the CRN as a social basis for mobilizing ad hoc public policy and social change coalitions.)

As in the Netherlands, universities are obvious research partners, although other institutions, such as research-oriented nonprofits and sympathetic researchers within extant national laboratories, will also participate. One critical benefit of university involvement--such as that fostered by Chicago's Policy Research Action Group (PRAG)--is that community research gives students practical experience in socially engaged projects. Moreover, because students can be remunerated with college credit rather than dollars, the add-on cost is relatively small. On the other hand, the joint participation in the network of community-based, research-oriented nonprofits (such as Oakland's Applied Research Center and Appalachia Science in the Public Interest) together with universities will help ensure that universities remain well grounded in actual community concerns and perspectives.

 


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