The community x-change was originally conceived in 2004, partly as a response to the government’s 10-year Science and Innovation Investment Framework and the formation of Sciencewise, a government programme to bring scientists, government and the public together to explore the impact of science and technology on our lives.
The project also emerged from a desire within the British Science Association to further explore the concept of public dialogue. The Association’s Delivering Inclusion in Science Communication (DISC) project in 2004/5 looked at the barriers between black and minority ethnic communities and science communicators. Some work had resulted from collaborations as part of this project and the community x-change offered the chance to build on this learning.
Summary of activity:
We ran a series of deliberative workshops in East Anglia and Liverpool. In each region, the citizens met for four full days spread over 3 weekends within a period of around 6 weeks. The workshops were all held in community venues. The workshops were facilitated by members of the project team with other invited contributors.
The first series of community x-changes took place in East Anglia and focused on the topic of environmental change, as well as other issues of local concern.
The 2nd series of community x-changes tool place in Liverpool and focused on health and related science issues.
Project staff guided participants through a structured deliberation process that allowed them to discuss each other’s perspectives and evidence from a range of information providers. Scientists and non-scientists took part on an equal footing. Each brought different experiences and knowledge to the process. Workshops gave the opportunity for reflection with friends and colleagues by all participants between sessions. This also gave time for the project team to reflect on the process.
A video report was produced by the participants at the workshops.
Following the first phase of the project in East Anglia we decided to have an externally-mediated review process. It became apparent towards the end of the East Anglia phase that for subsequent phases of the project to build effectively on learning from the first phase, a review would be extremely valuable.
The reviewers read all the reports and diaries, viewed the video and raw footage, interviewed 21 members of the project team and the participants, and held a focus group discussion in Norwich with five participants. Although the sample was small and unrepresentative, it was clear that the workshops were enjoyed by most participants and that most had found the experience interesting and engaging and commented favourably about the wide range of people who came from very different backgrounds. Some participants, however, would have liked more clarity about the purpose behind the workshops.
The organisers also learnt about themselves and working with project partners; that working with others requires sensitivity and openness to the views, perspectives and attitudes expressed.
What went well:
The project had some notable successes:
• Diverse communities met together and talked about their hopes and fears, finding that they share many common concerns
• Groups who assumed that their lack of scientific knowledge would preclude them from debates about science, discovered they could have a say and that their experiential knowledge was valuable
• Through the process of talking about their work, a number of scientists have changed their working practices
• Perhaps most importantly the project impacted on the project partners. It has resulted in a review of assumptions and approaches relating to working practices around diversity issues at the British Science Association
What was learned:
The community x-change has enabled the Association to recognise that public engagement can be successful if diverse publics are allowed to contribute the expertise they have gained through their life experiences on an equal footing with “experts”.
The key finding of the project was that the scientific community needs to invest much more resource in, and prioritise listening to the views of the general public.
Top tips and advice for others
• Make links with community groups that are local to your event location
• Make contact early as community groups need time to build trust with your organisation
• Use any existing contacts you may have – have other organisations got any named contacts they can recommend?
• If budget allows, employ an outreach worker to help with recruitment, especially if your project takes place in a different location from where the organisers are based (we work in London so it was good having an outreach worker based in Liverpool, especially as he was a Scouser!)
• Pre-visit the community centre or whatever the venue is to check it is flexible enough for your event
• If you are encouraging people to attend who may not normally, try and remove any barriers that may prevent people from attending – we had a crèche at one workshop and paid for child-minding at another workshop. We also booked and paid for a taxi for one participant who was on crutches and paid for an interpreter who could translate everything into Portuguese for those who didn’t speak English. We also made a contribution towards loss of earnings.