Brussels, 14 Mar 2005
Science shops are defined as 'a unit that provides independent, participatory research support in response to concerns expressed by civil society', and today the concept can be found in action in numerous European countries, from Denmark to Spain, France to Romania.
The first science shops emerged out of the student movement and counter culture of early 1970s in the Netherlands, when a group of Dutch chemistry students decided to use their expertise to help not-for-profit clients solve scientific problems. Since then science shops have spread across Europe, and the concept has adapted and evolved to fit specific local needs.
Despite their international dimension, however, science shops remain essentially local organisations. But in order to make the most of their limited resources, help new science shops to emerge, and provide an effective voice for the local communities they represent in the research debate, the European Commission felt that some form of representation at European level was required.
As a result, it established the 'improving science shop networking' (ISSNET) network with a 400,000 euro grant under the Human Potential section of the Fifth Framework Programme (FP5). CORDIS News spoke to the ISSNET coordinator, Caspar de Bok, from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, and asked him to elaborate on the role of science shops and the purpose of the ISSNET network.
'Our activities are aimed at establishing an international network,' revealed Dr de Bok. 'Both through our website and publications [which are produced under the title 'Living Knowledge'], and through pilot actions to bring together local actors to scale up their activities.'
Through such efforts the science shop concept is spreading, ensuring that more people have access to scientific knowledge. 'There is a participatory element to science shops, which conduct research in cooperation with the community group at all stages, not just at the end through dissemination activities,' explained Dr de Bok.
To cite an example, Science Shop Vienna in Austria was approached by a single mother on the verge of quitting her university studies because she could not cope with both her workload and childcare duties. This prompted the science shop to launch a study of the conditions faced by single mothers at universities in Vienna.
'The research showed that extended childcare facilities, extended financial support, and adapted schedules at universities are necessary to meet the demands of student [mothers],' said team member Regina Reimer. The findings led the government to take action to improve conditions for single mothers, and initiated similar research in other parts of the country.
But while such activities undoubtedly benefit the local community, Dr de Bok is also keen to underscore the added value they offer the scientific community, which is increasingly keen to make its work relevant to ordinary people. 'When scientists know about the views of the public from the outset, they can take them into account during their research,' he said.
On 11 March, Dr de Bok was representing the ISSNET network at a Commission conference on science and society in Brussels. 'Science shops are small entities, so the network is important for creating critical mass, i.e. for representing them at an event like this,' he told CORDIS News.
Looking ahead, Dr de Bok says that ideally he would like to see ISSNET playing a role in introducing new research themes to the EU agenda driven by the needs of local communities. 'In FP7 we would like to see civil society representatives involved in the agenda setting [...] with sufficient support for small scale themes as well as large. In science, research and the Lisbon agenda, for example, the economy should not always play the leading role - we also need to keep an eye on social capital.'
Support from the Commission, particularly financial, has certainly helped to open doors for science shops, says Dr de Bok. 'I think the Commission is moving in the right direction, and I'm not saying this just because it is what the Commission wants to hear. It started with science and society, moved to science in society, and now it is moving towards society in science, based on cooperation and partnership.'
As Rainer Gerold, director for science and society at the Commission's Research DG, confirms: 'Recognising the crucial role science shops play in the local community in raising scientific access and awareness. The European Commission has been helping this movement evolve and reach critical mass. By cutting away the layers separating science and society, science shops are helping to pave the way towards 'science for society and 'society for science'.'
Dr de Bok certainly agrees that to improve local participation in research is essential, but he understands that the Commission cannot do it alone. 'It requires intermediaries such as the ISSNET network and others. When science and society interactions are discussed, there are still many traditional ideas put forward - science weeks, science museums etc. These are important, but we also need the real participation of society in EU science.' With their idealistic origins and cooperative approach, it appears that science shops are set to play a crucial role in that process.