Creating the citizen scientist

July 21, 1995

Public Participation in science policy is relatively unknown in the UK. But, as Jon Turney discovers, the Dutch and the Danes have long been pioneers in this area, while Alan Irwin makes the case for continental 'science shops'

A group of residents in one part of Belfast is concerned about the contamination of nearby land on the old gasworks site. Is it a safe place for the local kids to play? Reassurances might be offered from city hall, but where can they go for an independent account? At the Urban Farm in Knowsley, there is another practical problem. Food is donated to the farm from a number of sources - but how can they turn this motley assortment into a balanced diet for goats?

In each case, the group in question was able to approach its local science shop; the Northern Ireland Science Shop is just down the road from the gasworks site, the Merseyside science shop (now called Interchange) covers Knowsley. The two shops are closely linked to the higher educational institutions in their region - drawing upon the two Northern Ireland universities and three higher education institutions on Merseyside and both supported by the Nuffield Foundation as an experiment designed to assess their wider applicability.

While the science shop model may be new to the United Kingdom, it is well known abroad. Science shops have been around since the late 1970s when socially-committed postgraduates and lecturers in the Netherlands wanted to break down the barrier between local communities and universities. Science shops in the Netherlands have now become such an established part of university operations that Dutch colleagues find it hard to accept our lack of familiarity with them. Given the interest in science communication and the demand for such a service from community groups, the question must be why such schemes have not flourished across the UK.

These are unusual shops since nothing is bought or sold: they specifically cater for those unable to pay for advice and assistance (which may begin to explain the reluctance of universities to get involved). And the term "science" is misleading. The majority of requests to the Northern Ireland Science Shop have involved social sciences, law and business - although disciplines like engineering, computer science and chemistry are also represented.

The fundamental concept is nevertheless simple enough. Science shops offer a means whereby members of the public who need expertise - but who cannot afford to pay - can gain access to the necessary resources. These may take the form of student projects linked to externally-generated concerns (as happened with the gasworks site) or include the direct involvement of academic staff (veterinary scientists at Liverpool University came to the assistance of the Urban Farm).

Both projects won the approval of community organisations. But we still seem very far from the Dutch situation where every university has at least one science shop. So what could encourage their growth?

In the first place, we need to consider the institutional costs involved. If the science shop is to work properly, then it will cost staff time across every department. So a small amount of central government support could provide a massive incentive. There should also be dedicated members of the university prepared to negotiate with all parties, and each institution has to be mindful of its own character and that of its locality. What works in Northern Ireland or Merseyside may not be applicable elsewhere.

Next, acknowledgement must be made of the difficulties of carrying out community-based research. In addition to the pressing practical matters of finding the right researcher and at the right time, there can be fundamental disagreements over what the research is for. And staff and students need to be properly credited for the hard work involved. This cannot, as one academic put it, just be an exercise in "altruism".

Finally, and most fundamentally, institutions need to reconsider the significance of such activities to both teaching and research. Science shops obviously boost teaching. The more challenging debate concerns the research. It can only be to the long-term benefit of researchers to have an open line of communication with nearby communities. Research cannot afford to isolate itself from the needs, knowledge and questions of the wider community - not least because the quality of research will ultimately suffer through declining public support.

Science shops, far from representing an exercise in altruism, may therefore have an important part to play in establishing institutional excellence in both teaching and research.

Alan Irwin is a reader in sociology at Brunel University. His book Citizen Science will be published by Routledge in September.

Public participation in science policy is relatively unknown in the UK. But, as Jon Turney discovers, the Dutch and the Danes have long been pioneers in this area, while Alan Irwin makes the case for continental 'science shops'

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