So, the university center recruited Scott Bernstein and 19 other
students on its Evanston, Ill., campus to scout for root causes of the neighborhoods
medical problems. They began by sifting through a years worth of medical
recordssome 22,000 filesfrom the west-side communitys two hospitals.
The students eventually identified the top 10 reasons for hospital visits, a list that
allowed the community to focus on projects that held the prospect of quick payoffs for
relatively small investments.
Such as the number-two health problem: traffic accidents.
The ministrys neighborhood, home to 80,000 people, averaged almost 55,000 traffic
accidents per year. The Northwestern students pored over police records to identify the
hot spots and then monitored those intersections.
"We witnessed a system out of control," Bernstein says. "Nobody was
keeping up the stop signs, traffic lights were mis-timed or not working, curbs were
crumbling, and potholes were everywhere." Armed with site-specific data, community
leaders met with the citys traffic-safety commission not only to address specific
problems but also to change how the city channels traffic through the neighborhood. Local
traffic-accident rates fell.
More importantly, Bernstein argues, the community learned it could take charge of local
A quarter-century later, Bernstein has become famous in Chicago for attacking many of
the same types of problems on a metropolitan scale through his Center for Neighborhood
Technology. Hes still mapping problems and analyzing their underlying
causesthough now with a paid staff of 20 and an annual budget of about $2 million.
Working with government and industry power brokers, the center is also helping devise
low-cost incentives for reinvestments in inner cities beyond Chicago.
Its but one of dozens of small centers that have sprung up around the country
using community-based research to address local problems. The Netherlands, home to several
dozen such research centers, is widely credited with pioneering this type of institution
and its generic moniker: the science shop. Its model has spawned centers in France,
Northern Ireland, and Austria, but most of the centers in the United States developed
Until recently, most of these groups have toiled in relative obscurity, notes Richard
E. Sclove, president of the Loka Institute in Amherst, Mass. His organization hopes to
change that by knitting them all into a worldwide network and "increasing their
public profile so that people who could benefit from them can also find them."
¨ ¨ ¨
The first Dutch
science shop opened in 1974 at the University of Utrecht. Others quickly followed,
evolving into politically popular centers through which federally funded institutions of
higher learning could fulfill a social-service mission.
Collectively, the Dutch centers now perform about 2,000 research projects annually for
community groups, unions, schools, and individuals. Some have developed into the
equivalent of consulting companies, undertaking contract work, even for industrial
customers. While public projects are conducted free of charge, commercial commissions must
be financed by the client.
The larger shops, often staffed by 4 to 10 people, serve as centralized doorways to a
universitys research community. They work with neighborhood groups to hone public
inquiries into something students can address, then find faculty members who will
supervise the student investigators. The more numerous smaller shops tend to be
thematically focused and more likely to oversee directly any research project that they
The University of Groningen has nine such decentralized science shops. In even its
biggest, the Chemistry Shop, a typical project lasts only about 4 weeks and usually
amounts to little more than an intensive state-of-the-art literature search, explains its
director, Henk A.J. Mulder. Yet, these projects can prove practical and substantive, he
Among the "green chemistry" projects undertaken by Dutch chemistry shops are
research that identified vegetable oilbased substitutes for harmful organic solvents
and a literature search that uncovered methods to produce polycarbonate window plastics
without chlorinated chemicals.
Danish universities have embraced many aspects of the Dutch model for their federally
funded science shopssuch as relying on students to perform research. At the
Technical University of Denmark, outside Copenhagen, research needs are publicized in an
annual catalog mailed to all students and faculty members, notes Michael S. Jorgensen, who
runs the universitys science shop. Though student participation is voluntary, he
says, perhaps 25 of about 35 projects described in the catalog are completed each year. In
addition to receiving university credit for their work, "students receive real-life
experience in problem solving," he observes.
shops, in contrast, have developed individually, usually at arms length from any
universityand without any explicit government encouragement. Moreover, notes Sclove,
until 3 years ago, most were "virtually clueless to each others
It was at about that time that he described the Dutch centers in an article in the
March 31, 1995 Chronicle of Higher Education and challenged educators to create a
U.S. community of science shops. He then received letters from several dozen people who
noted that they were affiliated with something that might be considered a science shop. In
pursuing each lead, he created the first catalog of U.S. community-based research centers,
some 50 institutions.
Last July, Loka published a report contrasting these centers with their Dutch
counterparts. Most of the U.S. science shops are young and affiliated only loosely with a
university, but they have little else in common. Some are made up of scientists who
respond to research requests from the local community; others have scientists who
collaborate with communities around the country to conduct research; and a few are
populated exclusively by people who have been drawn into research within their own
The Alaska Boreal Forest Council in Fairbanks is an example of the last of these. It
began 5 years ago as an ad hoc group of families living in the Tanana River Watershed, an
area about the size of Pennsylvania. As the state and federal governments negotiated deals
that would allow commercial timber companies to log the area, residents raised questions
about whether the programs would employ methods to sustain the forests.
"We arent against logging," explains Jan Dawe, the councils
executive director. "We just want to get more jobs per board foot cut" and
ensure that the logging is done in a way that wont unleash another
"boom-and-bust cycle" that plunders the environment.
So, over the past few years, this group of some 120 families has recruited volunteers
to interview experts. Their goal has been to understand the big picture, learn what
questions to ask the logging companies and leasing agents, and know
how to evaluate any answers they give. Though the council "initially focused on
identifying information gaps," Dawe says, "more recently, weve been trying
to help fill those gaps" by doing surveys and ecological field research.
¨ ¨ ¨
The Childhood Cancer Research
Institute (CCRI) that Dianne Quigley runs also has a very narrow focus: empowering
communities near U.S. military facilities, especially Native American tribes downwind of
the Nevada Test Site, to investigate risks they might have incurred from exposure to
Though affiliated with Clark University in Worcester, Mass., Quigleys 10-year-old
science shopwith a staff of three half-time employeesperforms most of its work
at distant sites, such as Ely, Nev.
When area tribes noticed what seemed to be an unusually high incidence of cancers and
thyroid disease, they contacted the shop to help them probe a possible link to fallout
from decades of aboveground, nuclear-weapons tests. Using federal grants, CCRI set up the
Citizen Advisory Committee in Ely, staffed by Native Americans.
The committee has begun training some members of the local Shoshone and Paiute tribes
to teach others about radiationsuch as explaining that boiling did not detoxify
foods that were contaminated by fallout in the 1940s and 1950s, as was widely believed.
The committee is also interviewing tribal members about former cultural practices that
might have resulted in an exposure to fallout. CCRI and the committee are also planning to
investigate jointly whether perceived excesses of disease reflect actual excesses.
Which they may notas residents of one community learned with the help of the JSI
Center for Environmental Health Studies. This 9-year-old Boston science shop was created
by epidemiologists who met while serving as expert witnesses for plaintiffs in litigation
alleging that polluted water in Woburn, Mass., triggered a cluster of leukemia deaths. The
case has been described in the book A Civil Action (1995, Jonathan Harr,
Vintage Books) and will be the subject of an upcoming movie.
When residents of another Massachusetts town became alarmed that "they were going
to too many funerals" and that most of the deceased had lived downstream of a
landfill where industrial wastes had been buried, neighborhood volunteers began
systematically plowing through their towns death records. After jotting down
addresses for all town residents who had succumbed to cancer since 1969, "they came
to me to find out how they could analyze the data to see if cancer rates around the
landfill were higher than the towns average," recalls Richard W. Clapp, who
heads the science shops staff of six.
Meeting with community residents, who called themselves the "Death Squad,"
Clapp encountered a retired engineer who offered to enter the data into a spread-sheet
program on his home computer. Clapp helped him figure out how to compute the odds of dying
from leukemia relative to where a person had lived.
"And that answered their question," Clapp says. "It turned out that
there was no excess of leukemia deaths around the town landfill."
Because the Death Squad volunteered so much of its labor, the science shops
financial burden was relatively small. Many projects, however, prove quite costly. Without
grants or benefactors to cover them, such projects are usually rejected by science shops.
Though many European science shops get at least minimal federal funding, often
channeled through a host university, their U.S. counterparts are largely independent of
the federal research and development enterprise.
Research needs of communities "tend to be very problem oriented," observes
Loka board member Daryl Chubin of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Arlington, Va.
Moreover, he points out that while community concerns tend to be small and
multidisciplinary, federal research agencies prefer to focus on "big problems that
come neatly packaged by discipline."
Sclove sees another reason for science shops low visibility to funders.
"Only the producers of science and technology get representation in R&D policy
decisions," he says. "It is a bizarre aberration of the democratic
process." Putting more money into community-based research could help redress the
inequity, Sclove believes.
In fact, "we have been dithering around trying to figure out what the
postCold War [federal] research agenda should be," observes Anne C. Petersen,
senior vice president for programs at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Mich.
"Many have been arguing that theres a great need to focus on societal issues. I
cant think of a better way to do that than to invest in community-based
research," she says.
Indeed, shed like to see for community research the creation of "something
analogous to the agricultural extension service."
Chubin thinks U.S. universities should also consider making support for science shops
an explicit part of their mission. Because every university is part of its local
community, he says, "One might ask, how it is serving that community?" At a
minimum, he argues, it should consider making its staff available to the public.
An advantage of a strong university tie for science shops is the credibility it can
confer, says Gabriele Bammer of the Australian National University in Canberra. Its
something she learned the hard way as a founder of Australias first science
shopa $20,000 venture that lasted just 27 months.
"Starting a science shop is not that hard," she maintains, "because
theres often seed money available." The challenge is securing its future. The
center her team started in Canberra tried to remain independent of a university. In
retrospect, she says, "I think if we were tied to the university, we would have
looked more respectable to funding agencies." Certainly, she says, "If we were
foolish enough to try and start something like this again, wed look for bigger
grants" and higher-profile projectsones that could be widely publicized upon
These are lessons Bernstein, of Chicagos Center for Neighborhood Technology,
learned long ago. He is now working on a three-city project in conjunction with the
Federal National Mortgage Association (see sidebar).
Sclove says networking science shops could be the most important lesson of all.
"Once they begin sharing such hard-won experience, they wont have to make the
From Science News, Vol. 154, No. 19, November 7, 1998, p. 298.
Copyright Ó 1998 by Science Service.