Science Shops Wales

Steven Harris advocates a bottom up approach to supporting participation in the knowledge economy

Science Shops Wales is now in its fourth year of operation as one of the leading community-university partnerships in the UK. Established at the University of Glamorgan in 2006 with support from the Higher Education Funding Council of Wales, it offers citizens’ groups free or low-cost access to scientific and technological knowledge.

Science Shops Wales has eight full-time staff based at University of Glamorgan and a network of contract researchers. Between 2006–9 it engaged with around 6,500 individuals, and more than 250 Welsh organisations. Its community research database contains at least 100 individual research questions; access to the database is via the website which contains project reports, handbooks, leaflets and other publications.

At any one time between ten and 15 short-term and three or four major projects are underway, with partner organisations making contact either directly through the “hub” at Glamorgan or through one of twelve contact points in community buildings across south east Wales. Clients and collaborators include community and voluntary groups of all types and sizes, from mother and toddler groups and schoolteachers to regeneration trusts, environmental associations and Communities First partnerships.

The principal activities of Science Shops Wales are to match student researchers with external organisations to work on accredited research projects. We look to the following criteria when making these connections:

  • Projects much have clear research questions that are practicable within available resources. Science Shops Wales offers support in developing projects which is often a useful learning exercise.
  • Organisations must not have the full financial means to access research expertise by other routes. Science Shops research services are intended to complement, rather than compete with more conventional knowledge transfer routes.
  • The results of Science Shops research will be freely available for use by all.
  • Priority is given to projects that promote social, environmental and cognitive justice.

Many Welsh organisations are attempting to replace or supplement their dependency on grant funding with more sustainable forms of income from community social enterprise. Some are also trying to build local resilience to threats such as climate change and peak oil. For example, Science Shops Wales projects have engaged with a number of sustainable community food production initiatives across south-east Wales, including:

  • A ground-breaking feasibility study on a proposed indoor, hydroponic vertical food production centre in the Garw Valley.
  • Permaculture design initiatives.
  • Renewable energy feasibility studies on schools, pubs and community buildings within a whole valley.
  • Support for a consortium of organisations to plan, build and then run two  recycled biodiesel distribution points in the Cynon Valley and Rhondda Fach.

Science Shops Wales has also gained experience in supporting community biodiversity audits, working in partnership with wildlife and conservation experts to upskill local citizens’ groups. We have been working with the Welsh Local Government Association on a Changing Climate, Changing Places project with local authority staff; with National Museum Wales to produce a climate exhibition, now touring Wales. We have also delivered workshops to housing associations and voluntary organisations and distributed a wide range of literature on scientific, technical, social and economic topics.

The international Science Shops movement to which Science Shops Wales belongs brings together organisations in more than 34 countries around the world, all working with science in its broadest sense. Supported by the EU under successive framework programmes, the Science Shops process provides an effective means of generating new, socially-relevant knowledge and of adapting and combining existing knowledge to specific economic and cultural contexts.

Civil society organisations extend their capacity to engaged with problems and benefits also accrue to the universities that host Science Shops.  Student researchers use their community-based research to fulfil coursework commitments – typically through Honours or Masters’ projects – greatly enriching their student experience and subsequent employability. Academic staff generate data, publications, and novel research topics and directions, while gleaning a rich harvest of case studies to support their teaching. Science Shop activities fulfil a university’s core ‘missions’ of research, teaching and strengthening links with local communities.

The relatively late development of Science Shops in the UK reflects a lack of engagement with civil society. Since devolution Wales has forged ahead in this respect, although there is still a long way to go before we have a truly pluralist political culture. Access to knowledge is indispensable to democratic participation. Science Shops Wakes supports the emergence of ‘bottom up’ knowledge and expertise, offering a contrast to more “top down” approaches.

At the national level, Science Shops can facilitate public engagement with science, technology and innovation, allowing citizen’s voices to be heard in an arena all too often dominated by state and corporate interests. Of course, Science Shops can be difficult to finance. The multi-faceted and interdisciplinary nature of their work means they do not easily fit into neat funding categories. The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales has led the way enabling a pilot service that already far outstrips provision in other regions of the UK. Is it too much to hope that in the future Wales will emulate other advanced democracies such as the Netherlands and Canada by establishing a permanent, national network of Science Shops in our Welsh universities?

This post first appeared in the spring volume of Agenda, the IWA’s quarterly journal.

Steven Harris manages Science Shops Wales at the University of Glamorgan

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