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Putting Science to Work in Communities

By Richard E. Sclove

Adapted from The Chronicle of Higher Education,
vol. 41, no. 29 (March 31, 1995), pp. B1-B3.

A group of universities has devised a secret weapon to stimulate student learning and at the same time address urgent social problems. Their method is low cost, popular on and off campus, easily adapted to diverse local circumstances--and it doesn't increase faculty work loads. It has been working now for two decades. Why is it still a secret? Probably because the universities in question are in the Netherlands. The idea, however, is eminently suited to the United States. Dutch universities have established a network of 50 public "science shops" that conduct, coordinate, and summarize research on social and technological issues in response to specific questions and concerns posed by community groups, public-interest organizations, local governments, and workers. Each shop's paid staff members and student interns screen questions and refer challenging problems to university faculty members and students. The shops provide answers to several thousand inquiries per year.

The shops developed independently in the late 1970's, when small teams of interested professors and students began volunteering their time; as a result, they vary widely in structure, financing, and operational procedures. During the shops' formative years, faculty generally performed the research, but now graduate and undergraduate students do much of the work, under faculty supervision. (A few shops have the staff to conduct original research in-house, sometimes with the aid of recent university graduates.)

The students who participate frequently receive university credit, in some cases turning their investigations into graduate theses or adjusting their career plans to reflect a newfound sensitivity to social problems. Because students are doing research and writing papers, and faculty are supervising and evaluating their work, both groups are doing what they would be doing as part of their regular workloads; thus the extra cost and time are minimal. The difference is that project results aren't simply filed away and forgotten. Instead, they help people in the real world address important social problems.

For a question to be accepted by a science shop, the inquiring group must show that it lacks the resources to pay for research, is not commercially motivated, and will be able to use the research results productively. Some shops also accept socially relevant inquiries from organizations--such as national environmental groups or local governments--that are able to contribute to the cost of research. However, the shops do not pursue questions posed by individuals, thus avoiding idiosyncratic concerns unlikely to have broader societal relevance.

Over time, many of the science shops have specialized in different areas of research and now direct clients to the center best suited to address their concerns. Today, each of the Netherlands' 13 universities has between one and 10 science shops.

The system has, among other things, helped environmentalists to analyze industrial pollutants, workers to evaluate the safety and employment consequences of new production processes, and social workers to improve their understanding of disaffected teenagers. One science shop conducted a study for Amnesty International to discover whether publishing graphic photographs of victims of political torture would stimulate or repel donations. Another assessed the market potential for a proposed women's radio station.

In 1990, Amsterdam University's "chemistry shop" branched out to undertake a study of air contamination on behalf of environmentalists in the severely polluted city of Dorog, Hungary. About 5 percent of the questions are posed by Dutch organizations that focus on the problems confronting developing nations. (As these examples suggest, the questions addressed by the Dutch shops are as apt to involve knowledge and methodologies from the social sciences and humanities as from the natural sciences or engineering.)

Research projects generally result in a printed report, a summary in the shop's newsletter, and a press release. The resulting media coverage, in turn, has benefited universities. As a result of their work with science shops, some professors have conducted follow-up research projects, published scholarly articles on new topics, developed innovative research methods, forged new interdisciplinary collaborations, and modified the courses they teach. Through the shops, the Dutch university system now serves society more directly, and, inspired by the Dutch model, science shops have been created in other European nations, including Austria and Germany.

The time is ripe to try something similar in the United States. The end of the Cold War, which for decades dominated American research, presents an opportunity to think creatively about reorganizing the national research system to better serve contemporary social priorities. Establishing a U.S. network of community research centers--adapted from the Dutch model--would represent one constructive approach.

Such a network would help university research become more socially responsive. During a time of Republican-mandated budget cuts in federal programs addressing social and environmental problems, the new centers would provide community groups, local governments, and non-profit organizations with some of the support they will need to help take up the slack. By engaging the talent and idealism of youth in social service, the centers also would help universities fulfill their responsibility to educate students for citizenship.

Furthermore, community research centers would provide a healthy counterweight to professors' deepening research ties to industry, which are encouraged by both fiscal duress and government policy. Having community organizations and public-interest groups as "clients" for their own or their students' research would help faculty members maintain a balanced perspective about both the beneficial and adverse social repercussions of science and technology. Universities, for their part, would be likely to discover that more directly serving communities is an excellent way to deepen popular support for higher education.

Above all, the nation as a whole would benefit from the constructive use of what is now a colossally underutilized resource: the vast pool of faculty-supervised college and university students, whose budding research abilities could be harnessed to aid communities at very low cost.

The budget for a typical Dutch science shop is modest; the small staff is normally paid out of the university's general budget, supplemented by government and foundation grants or the fees paid by client groups that have financial resources. In this country, foundation and federal programs also could help support the activities of community research centers. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Policy, Planning, and Evaluation has a state-and-local-outreach program, and the social sciences division at the National Science Foundation has several programs that can support community-based research projects examining issues in science, technology, and democracy. Universities could contribute directly by granting interested faculty members short periods of release time to help start a community research center.

Depending on local needs and funds available, community research centers could perform a variety of useful functions. Some might contribute to regional planning for defense conversion or for environmentally sustainable economic development. Others might organize community forums on public policy or help citizens participate in public- or private-sector research-and-development projects.

Encouraging members of the groups asking the questions to collaborate in research projects can help insure that their creativity and concerns are integrated into the process. Including them also can help minimize costs. For instance, some U.S. communities, concerned about the risks of exposure to chemical or radioactive wastes, have teamed with scientists to conduct their own epidemiological studies. Using community volunteers to help administer surveys or to conduct environmental sampling can dramatically reduce direct research costs.

The impetus for a U.S. network of community research centers could, in principle, come from any level of government. But individual universities--indeed, individual faculty members and students--can help begin one on their own. Some university models already exist. The School for Workers, sponsored by the extension division of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is advising the national labor-management committee of the custom-woodworking industry on ways to include workers in designing and applying computer-aided production methods. The aim is to enhance productivity without compromising workers' skills, wages, or safety. Universities could alert potential clients to their centers' existence by including representatives from those groups on the centers' governing or advisory boards.

To promote the idea of community research centers, the Loka Institute, a public-affairs research-and-advocacy group concerned with the social effects of science and technology, has begun forming an interuniversity committee. It is headed by Patrick Hamlett, director of the Program on Science, Technology, and Society at North Carolina State University. The committee already includes experienced staff members from several Dutch science shops, who, using the Internet, are prepared to share their expertise in organizing successful centers.

While universities' resources and responsibilities position them as obvious locations for such research centers, other institutions also could become partners. For instance, Tennessee's non-profit Highlander Research and Education Center has a track record of involving citizens in research on local environmental issues and on the social consequences of regional dependence on military spending. Similarly, a group of scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory is currently investigating methods for reclaiming Brooklyn's severely polluted Gowanus Canal and returning the surrounding area to productive economic use. Federal laboratories could address such concerns systematically by establishing their own community research centers.

Clearly a vast range of groups and organizations could benefit from the assistance provided by a network of university-based community research centers.

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