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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 can’t 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 aren’t 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 fund

  • 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 report’s analysis is organized in terms of 18 findings, among them:

  • 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 society’s 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 study’s 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 nation’s 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
Amherst, Massachusetts USA

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