The Ring

Q&A: Henk Mulder on European science-shop movement

Wed, 2012-11-07 16:32

Henk Mulder, University of Groningen, Netherlands

Academic leader and science professor Henk Mulder of the University of Groningen, Netherlands, has been a science-shop coordinator since 1989. On Oct. 18, Mulder visited UVic to talk about the science shop phenomenon.

He is one of the initiators of the international science-shop network, Living Knowledge.  The Dutch system itself is recognized as the inspiration behind science shops across Europe and in Canada.

Last month at UVic, Mulder led a panel organized by the Office of Community-Based Research. It was chaired by Budd Hall, UNESCO Co-Chair in Community-Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education and a professor in UVic’s School of Public Administration.

Mulder spoke to The Ring a few days later.

What is the Science Shop movement?

Mulder: Community organizations and non-profits often need information to achieve their goals. For instance, think of a women’s shelter that wants to evaluate and advance its services; or an environmental group needing a report on improving recycling or making their region more sustainable generally; or an organization of parents of children with Down’s syndrome that wants to improve the care for daily life.

Usually, such organizations cannot afford to hire researchers to study these issues. However, they usually do have a good sense of the context of the issue and have a lot of practical data and experiences. To support these citizen groups in their research, many universities—in Europe but also in Canada and elsewhere—make research capacity available to them.

A “Science Shop” is defined as ‘a unit that provides research support in response to concerns expressed by civil society.’ They are not shops in the sense that you always have to pay. The word comes from the first-ever office space for a Dutch Science Shop; an empty shop building in Amsterdam.

The Science Shops can offer their research support without financial barriers, if they are able to obtain subsidies or grants, but most easily if a student can do this as part of his/her curriculum. In many countries, either universities or government programs finance these staff. Students learn by doing, get social skills, and become the context-aware professionals that society needs. Moreover, students love the fact that ‘somebody’ out there is really waiting for their results and intends to use them. Staff in turn get new insights and angles on their topics of study, and can further develop theories based upon the case studies they do in partnerships – which can all lead to the publications in scientific journals they need to produce as part of their job. Finally, universities also get good publicity from this – thus showing their connection to their community.

When did it start?

Mulder: Science Shops developed in The Netherlands in the 1970s, from staff and students who wanted to change the purely theoretical teaching at universities and wanted to apply their knowledge for the public good. In Utrecht, they started project groups, which would work with citizens groups on soil pollution – the first environmental problems coming up in the mid 70s.

The Dutch origin is visible in the word ‘science’, a translation of the Dutch word wetenschap, which encompasses both natural and social sciences. There are differences in ways Science Shops operate in different countries, but the many similarities made them form the Living Knowledge Network, with strong input from The Netherlands, Germany, the UK, France and Canada as well. Currently, the European Commission is the main supporter for the Living Knowledge Network.

What role do universities play?

Mulder: As said, many universities sponsor the Science Shops (e.g. my salary fully comes from the university). Graduates need many skills that are not taught in traditional university curricula. With current mass education, most graduates will end up in a job in industry or in the third sector, and do not become an academic. Moreover, society is facing large challenges, such as sustainability and healthy aging. To help tackle these issues, multidisciplinary skills are needed and graduates need to be able to see the context of the problems they study -- and need to learn how to communicate about them.

It takes visionary university leaders to maintain and advance this at their own institutes.

What has surprised you most over the years about this movement, or is most memorable?

Mulder: What I find most fascinating is that to whatever university I go, I will always find someone already doing these participatory, engaging projects. It is so good to connect to them! As an example, I remember one time, three people from the same city (Barcelona) met at the Living Knowledge Conference in Seville; all involved in community based research, but unaware of each other.

That’s why this Living Knowledge Network is so good, it brings people together, to share and learn from experiences, and get inspiration from each other. The larger our network grows, the more policy influence we have, to further advance the options for research for citizens to get support and finance.

What is the future of the movement?

Mulder: In my view, the movement has gained critical mass, and the various networks around the world are teaming up. For this reason, I am very happy with the GACER network (Global Alliance for Community-Engaged Research), which was set up by the now UNESCO Chairs Budd Hall (UVic) and Rajesh Tandon (PRIA, India). It’s a network of networks, which will allow more people to learn and inspire each other, and give more citizens access to research. This global teaming also allows us to jointly try to tackle challenges, such as the reward system for university staff to participate in community-engaged research.

For funders, this is still a challenge: how to measure societal impact? Here, the UK is leading the way with their Research Excellence Framework and the Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research. From 2014, it will be much clearer how all that works out.

That year will also have the first projects under Horizon 2020, Europe’s new research framework program (80 to 100 billion Euro over 7 years), which has 'Responsible Research and Innovation' as key words.