Science shops provide independent, participatory research support in response to concerns experienced by civil society (Gnaiger and Martin 2001). Science in this context refers to all organized investigation, including the social and human sciences and arts, as well as the natural, physical, engineering, and technological sciences.
The concept of science shops was developed by students at universities in the Netherlands during the 1970s. This development was assisted by faculty and staff seeking to democratize the disciplinary hierarchies of the traditional university system. But arguably science shops are a manifestation of a movement stemming at least as far back as Thomas Jefferson's defense of the principle that "ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe" (Jefferson 1813, Internet page).
The science shop concept spread worldwide in two waves. The first, in the late-1970s and early-1980s, was triggered by articles in Nature (Ades 1979) and Science (Dickson 1984) and led to initiatives in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Northern Ireland, France, and Germany. The mid-1990s saw a resurgence based in large part on fast, inexpensive, and reliable communication technologies, such as the Internet. This growth led to new activities in England, Israel, South Korea, Malaysia, and New Zealand. Similar types of organizations have also been founded in Australia, Canada, South Africa and the United States but are referred to by other terms—Community-University Research Alliances, Community-based Research Centers, or Tecknikons.
There is significant variation in organizational structure among science shops, although three models dominate. The first is the university department model, where the science shop is attached to a disciplinary framework such as chemistry, biology, law, or physics. The second, most common model is the independent civil society organization, housing technical experts or brokering relationships with university or government researchers. The third model is the virtual alliance between partners in public, private, and not-for-profit sector institutions that jointly work on issues of mutual concern and benefit.
Despite differences in structure, Andrea Gnaiger and Eileen Martin point to six common elements found in all science shops. These include providing civil society with knowledge and skills through research and education; providing services on an affordable basis; promoting and supporting public access to and influence on science and technology; creating equitable and supportive partnerships with civil society organizations; enhancing understanding among policymakers and education and research institutions regarding the research and education needs of civil society; and enhancing the transferable skills and knowledge of students, community representatives, and researchers.
Science shops are closely associated with social justice, environmental, and community activist movements. The dominant research methodologies used include research mediation, participatory research, and participatory action research. The strengths of these approaches allow for the inclusion of the unique understanding of individuals and communities of their own local contexts, which helps establish causality of problems in a complex and diverse framework rather than in a reductionist manner. There is great adaptability and flexibility that allows for quick turnaround in problem identification and solving. The methods give people strong influence over both policy and practice at the local level. Local to global focus allows for scaling up of issues, providing grounded perspectives for national and international policies.
The principle weaknesses of the science shop methods are fourfold. Despite being a cost effective way of generating research, science shops suffer from chronic funding and resource shortfalls. With very few exceptions, unless funded through a philanthropic organization, government agency, or university, they spend almost as much effort on raising funds as they do performing research and advocacy work. Second, given their strong social justice tendencies, there appears to be institutional prejudice against working with corporations, governments, and intergovernmental agencies, or other organizations perceived to have a large foot print. This gap results in the absence of community partner and science shop perspectives in policy negotiations. Third, with the exception of the Netherlands, the lack of coordination among science shops and their relative absence from the dominant scientific communication streams means that there is a lack of comparability and a failure to generate commensurable information. This is currently being addressed by the creation of an International Science Shop Network, funded largely by the European Union. Finally, science shops have been accused of producing biased science, constructed to support the arguments of the clients they serve, a critique which is also aimed at scientists performing research for corporate clients. This criticism has been met by submitting research outputs to the same peer-review firewall that all scientific publication undergoes.
Science shops have proven to be an efficient and effective model for generating small-scale scientific and technological knowledge on issues of immediate and local concern. They provide a gateway for communities in gaining access to specialized data, information, and knowledge at a relatively low transaction cost. There are high residual effects within participating communities, leading to better understanding of science and technology as well as a critical capacity to assess the impact of scientific and technological issues on local social, economic, cultural, and environmental circumstances.
Ades, T. (1979). "Holland's Science Shops for 'Made To Measure' Research." Nature 281(18): B10.
Dickson, David. (1984). "Science Shops Flourish in Europe." Science 223: 1158–1160.
Gnaiger, Andrea, and Eileen Martin. (2001). SCIPAS Report Nr.1, Science Shops: Operational Options. Study financed by the European Commission DG XII Programme, "Improving the Human Research Potential and the Socio-Economic Knowledge Base (IHP), Strategic Analysis of Specific Political Issues (STRATA)" (HPV1-CT-1999-00001). Utrecht, Netherlands: Science Shop for Biology, Utrecht University.
Leydesdorff, Loet, and Peter Van Der Besselaar. (1987). "What We Have Learned from the Amsterdam Science Shop." In The Social Direction of the Public Sciences, Sociology of the Sciences Yearbook, Vol. 11, ed. Stuart Blume, Joske Bunders, Loet Leydesdorff, and R.D. Whitley. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Reidel.
Mulder, Henk; A.J. Thomas auf der Heyde; Ronen Goffer; and Carmen Teodosiu. (2001). SCIPAS Report Nr. 2: Success and Failure in Starting Science Shops. Study Financed by the European Commission-DG XII Programme, "Improving the Human Research Potential and the Socio-Economic Knowledge Base (IHP), Strategic Analysis of Specific Political Issues (STRATA)" (HPV1-CT-1999-00001). Utrecht, Netherlands: Science Shop for Biology, Utrecht University.
Sclove, Richard E. (1995). Democracy and Technology. New York: Guilford Press.
Jefferson, Thomas. (1743–1826). "Letter to Isaac Mcpherson Monticello, August 13, 1813" In The Letters of Thomas Jefferson: 1743–1826: From Revolution to Reconstruction. An .Html Project, Department of Alfa-Informatica, University of Groningen, The Netherlands. Available from http://odur.let.rug.nl/~usa/P/tj3/writings/brf/jefl220.htm.