"Science Shop?"

What is a Science Shop?

The Science Shop Vienna involves citizens in research. What does the Science Shop Vienna understand by a participatory approach to research?

What is a Science Shop?

Science Shops are research and consulting institutes that carry out scientific research on demands from citizens and civil society by involving those who are concerned.

In 1974, when the first Dutch Science Shop was established at the University of Utrecht (Netherlands), nobody would have anticipated that the idea of creating a research and counselling centre for NGOs would evoke such an international response one day. All over the world there are about one hundred Science Shops in Austria, Germany, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Norway, Romania, France, South Korea, the USA (where they are sometimes called “Community-based Research Centers”), Canada, Australia, and other countries. In interaction with similar initiatives and in adaptation to local conditions the original model expanded to an amazing diversity of organisational structures and ways of working.

Some Science Shops are university-based, some are organised as independent research organisations cooperating with universities. Some Science Shops work exclusively for non-profit organisations, some are cooperating with enterprises or local communities, too. At Dutch Science Shops mostly students do consulting and research, but in other countries this work is often done by postgraduates and other professional researchers. Some Science Shops always demand a fee, some take only fees from financially strong clients, some work principally free of charge, others charge fees differentiated by their clients’ finances. While some receive their budgets from a university, others finance themselves – partly or completely - by project funds, governmental grants, or services. In general, Science Shops are research and consulting organisations, which deal with issues that are non-commercial and of public interest and involve those who are concerned. They communicate research results, which they – if necessary - translate into a language, which can be understood by non-experts, they focus their own research on issues demanded by NGOs and on topics which are important to their clientele and of interest for a broader public.

That way Science Shops give non-profit organisations (citizen initiatives, self-help groups, unions, and the like) access to science and research in order to contribute to the solution of practical problems. With the Science Shops´ work science and research are employed to solve challenges that are relevant to society in order to contribute to the further development of our society.

In Austria the Science Shops Graz, Linz, and Innsbruck were evaluated by an independent research advisory board. The Science Shops were very positively assessed.

The Science Shop Vienna involves citizens in research. What does the Science Shop Vienna understand by a participatory approach to research?

Usually citizens cannot (co-)determine, which questions science and research should deal with. The Science Shop Vienna gives citizens the possibility to introduce their for society relevant questions to science and research. In cooperation with citizens we clarify for which of their issues research can be useful and which disciplines are appropriate for dealing with them. When citizens demand it, they discuss with researchers, who conducted research on their behalf, how the results could be put to use. This is how we generally understand a participatory approach to science and research.

Sometimes participatory approaches to research are understood in a way that citizens and NGOs should or have to perform research. This often neither makes sense nor is it desired by the concerned, especially because they lack research capacities or because they explicitly wish to receive an external perspective. As a participatory method mostly action research is named, which aims at the change of social realities and at processes of development during the research, and where the roles of “subjects” and “objects” of research intermingle.

In a broader sense all methods of social sciences which involve people as interviewees or participants in group discussions could count as „participatory”, because in fact those people actively participate in research. Social research traditionally takes the participating individuals serious and sees them as experts of their own concerns from whom researchers learn. Social research is obliged to present the statements of interviewees, respondents of questionnaires or discussion participants exhaustively and in a balanced way. The researcher must not value or pick out the opinions one person gives on a topic and leave out or downplay the views of others. Hence the often postulated hierarchy between those who do the research and those who are researched is not quite true in the social and cultural sciences, because these disciplines thematise hierarchies and power, and so researchers should be well aware about it.

Nevertheless in social and cultural research these methods are rarely called “participatory”. Most times those methods are called “participatory”, which attempt to make disappear the distinction between the roles of researchers and the roles of non-researchers. Sometimes this makes sense, but not always. Furthermore experts consider the dissolution of roles as not fully realizable: In the end the researchers write reports, minutes of meetings, analyse and lead the processes of research. For the concerned non-researchers this processes costs much time and should pay off for them. Additionally, participatory methods principally do not allow participants to stay anonymous, an advantage that many non-participatory methods offer and which can be crucial to get answers to many social and cultural research questions. The often postulated hierarchy between researchers and non-researchers should not be exaggerated: It is not always the socially disadvantaged who are involved in such projects, but also people with real power, such as politicians or managers in enterprises, and often it would be worthy of discussion how researchers rank in the hierarchies of their own projects. Last, but not least we think that the distinction between “researchers” and “laypersons” is principally not quite correct, because all experts are as well laypersons in other disciplines than their own (surgeons usually do not know much about of archeological excavations.)

At the Science Shop Vienna involving citizens in research does not amount to citizens conducting research by themselves. Involving citizens also does not imply specific research methods. We select the research methods we consider the most appropriate and most practicable for the demanded issues. Thus, we apply the same general criteria of good research practice as other research institutes and aim at research results that are as objective and independent as possible.

In the Proceedings of the 12th International Public Communication of Science and Technology Conference (PCST 2012), pp. 374 - 376, you can find a paper by Science Shop Vienna staff members on a new recruitment scheme for European Awareness Scenario Workshops. The proceedings are available for free download: http://www.pcst2012.org/images/PCST2012_Book_of_Papers.pdf (6,83 MB).