Science by everyone: Building a world-wide community
Madeleine Scammell and Richard Sclove, The Loka Institute.
Reprinted with permission from Nature
Magazine web site, Issue of 28 January 1999.
Nature © Macmillan Publishers Ltd 1999.
research' typically involves lay-people working with professionally trained
scientists in a community-driven process.
Think of a typical 'scientist' and what image comes to mind? How about a
housewife wearing blue jeans who tests local water quality when she is not
taking care of her family's immediate needs? Across the earth, a quiet
movement is gathering momentum to involve everyday citizens who may not even
have attended secondary school in conducting research projects in response to
Hog farming, for example, has become a boom business in Tillery, North
Carolina (USA), an agricultural community of 3,000 people. But when farm waste
began seeping from run-off lagoons, anxiety grew about the safety of local
drinking water supplies. In response, the Tillery Groundwater Guardian
Committee -- which includes citizens, businesspeople, farmers, educators,
University of North Carolina scientists, and government representatives --
formed to champion a groundwater testing campaign and conduct research on the
health effects of exposure to farm waste contaminants.
The test results indicated that wells in Tillery have high levels of lead
and nitrate. As a consequence of the committee's work, more local residents
have taken an interest in water quality and asked to have their wells tested.
The community has participated in state legislative hearings and educational
initiatives, and contaminated wells have been replaced with new potable water
lines. In 1995, Friends of the United Nations recognized Tillery as a
community that is exemplary in carrying out one of the UN missions: the
self-development of people.
Pioneered several decades ago by practitioners in Asia and Latin America
who challenged conventional top-down approaches to development,
'community-based research' typically involves lay-people working with
professionally trained scientists in a community-driven process. Participants
collaborate to define a research problem, conduct the research, interpret
results, and finally use the results to effect constructive social and
environmental change. Thus community outreach and education are built directly
into the research process.
During the 1970s, interest in
community-based research grew worldwide. By 1997, the Fourth World Congress on
Action Research in Cartegena, Colombia, included presentations on
international community-based research projects. One example was villagers
from Kenya, Cameroon, Nepal, Pakistan, Guatemala, and Colombia collaborating
with non-governmental organizations in an ambitious attempt to conduct
research that will strengthen community water management.
Meanwhile, the 13 Dutch universities have over the past 25 years created a
national network of 38 'science shops' that address research questions posed
by grassroots and public-interest organizations, trade unions, and local
government agencies. Faculty-supervised students conduct most of the research
projects, often resulting in master's theses and publications.
Because they are networked with one another, the various Dutch science
shops are able to share information and make cross-referrals. The Dutch shops
currently respond to about 2,000 annual research requests, and have inspired
the creation of additional science shops in Austria, the Czech Republic,
Denmark, England, Germany, Malaysia, Northern Ireland, and Romania.
The Loka Institute, a nonprofit organization in Amherst, Massachusetts,
whose mission is to democratize science and technology, has begun to build a
worldwide Community Research Network (CRN). Modeled partly on the Dutch
network, the CRN serves both communities in need of research assistance and
scientists wishing to pursue collaborative relationships with communities.
CRN members are working in exactly the kind of interdisciplinary
partnerships that will characterize science in the 21st Century. Since its
launch in 1995, the CRN has collaborated with European science shops and
inspired efforts to establish new community research centres and networks
across the United States and Canada, and in Israel and South Korea.
Despite its proven effectiveness, broad applicability, and growing
popularity among scientists around the world, however, community-based
research remains conspicuously under-funded and under-supported by most
governments and major research establishments. The Science Agenda resulting
from the World Conference on Science should include a strong commitment to
this innovative and pragmatic approach to expanding popular understanding of
science and to making science more responsive to social and environmental