Science Shop Wales
The principal motivation for developing this project was to test the effectiveness of the long-established science shops model of science communication and community-based knowledge co-creation in the context of post-devolution Wales, particularly with regard to the Welsh agendas on climate change and sustainable development. An additional motivation was to contribute toward the development of civil society and participatory democracy in Wales. A third, if lesser motivation was to contribute to the development of the international science shops and community-based research movement.
Summary of activity:
Science Shops Wales carried out demand-driven research with and on behalf of Welsh civil society organisations, using staff, contract and student researchers. The research projects were predominantly inter- and multi-disciplinary and covered a wide variety of scientific (natural and life sciences), social-scientific and technical topics. Many were concerned with local responses to climate change and most were framed within the Welsh Assembly Government’s commitment to sustainable development.
These research activities were supplemented with a range of other science communication activities: workshops, lectures, training events, exhibitions and conventional and new media publications. A particular focus was on science communication to low-literacy and numeracy audiences, a response to the demographic in the Valleys region.
The project was internally evaluated for the purposes of reporting to the funders (HEFCW) at the end of phase 1 (September 2008) and phase 2 (September 2010). In both cases the project was found to have met, and in most cases exceeded targets set out in the funding agreements (type and location of activities, number of beneficiaries, etc.).
Informal internal evaluation of various aspects of the project (e.g. student involvement) was carried out by SSW on an on-going basis. During 2008-9 one development officer was charged with creating a quality framework for the project. This was trialled during 2010, and was due to be formally adopted in 2011 should the project have continued.
In July 2008 an external evaluation of the project was carried out by science shops staff at Queen's University, Belfast. This concluded that the project had “contributed to all three core missions of the University of Glamorgan – teaching and learning, research and the third mission, and has made a significant contribution to the delivery of University of Glamorgan’s aim to contribute to local communities.”
What went well:
The science shops model of community-based, demand-driven research worked very well, and was highly rewarding for all involved. Within the Welsh context, the specific emphasis on climate change and sustainability was appropriate and effective in winning the project many clients and allies in Government and civil society.
What was learned:
• I learned that there is a high and continuous demand from Welsh civil society organisations for research support and expertise. The sector is large in Wales and has very little research capacity.
• I learned that participatory research and knowledge co-creation with civil society groups such as NGOs and community organisations is an extremely effective method of communicating about the principles and practices of science. However, we found this to be less true with regard to the social sciences, partly because of the difficulties of ensuring sufficient reflexivity among inexperienced participant researchers. In future work I would largely avoid using participatory methods for data-gathering in purely social-scientific projects and instead concentrate on working with community members on the interpretation and application of results produced by professional researchers.
• I learned that it is challenging to ensure appropriate quality of contributions from student researchers; in future I would focus only on Master's level projects and would not work with undergraduates or their supervisors again.
• I learned that despite a number of published statements and strategies, in practice the hosting University had very little real commitment to societal service and civic participation, preferring to adopt an approach to knowledge creation and transfer in which knowledge is mainly seen as a commodity to be exploited. Hopefully in conducting any future project I would be less naïve in my perception of the academy and thus better able to negotiate the intensely competitive and pseudo-corporate internal politics encountered in the University environment. More effectively arguing the case for Universities to engage with local communities on research.
The science shops model has a long track-record and immense potential. Its use should be explored by any academic organisation seriously committed to public outreach and engagement.
Top tips and advice for others
• In order for a University-based science shop to become sustainable it is absolutely essentially to have support and commitment at Directorate level, and this should ideally also be formalised through the University's official community engagement strategy.
• An effective quality framework is essential to ensure excellence of delivery to civil society participants
• This kind of project requires staff who are familiar and comfortable with interdisciplinary academic practice and who are fully committed to a 'service learning' model of academic endeavour. They are hard to find and need to paid as well as possible – this kind of work is extremely complex and demand exceptional personal as well as research skills.
• Be as open as possible to constructive criticism from external participants while being as immune as possible to internal criticism from internal colleagues uncomfortable with activities that do not fit easily into traditional teaching and research practices!