Public Engagement with Research And Research Engagement with Society
On May 1, 2010, the Institute of Baltic Studies (IBS) started a four-year project called PERARES (Public Engagement with Research and Research Engagement with Society), which aims to try to establish science stores in Estonia (sometimes called “science shop” or “Research market”).
Science and society
Behind the slightly confusing name of the Science Store, the idea of community-based science is widespread in Europe. The public and social function of colleges has changed over time. Science has always shaped the future, but the more time goes on, the more we depend on scientific results. It is therefore essential that there is a close and trusting relationship between higher education institutions and society. This is needed both for the advancement of science and for science to reflect the concerns of society.
Often the relationship between science and society focuses only on the promotion of new scientific achievements. In addition, research has often been strongly linked to the needs of the productive (industrial) sector and has overshadowed the exploration of broader issues in society.
Research is funded by public authorities from tax revenues and the business sector, as well as by grant schemes. There are certain risks to all options: there is a risk that knowledge will be applied to maximize entrepreneurial income rather than to meet social needs; there may be pressure to direct research in line with current policy concerns; the grant system may shift the focus of researchers from their main job to raising sources of funding. This makes the emergence and development of coherence between science and society even more important.
All these developments and considerations have resulted in a number of initiatives and activities that have sought to bring higher education institutions and the public closer together. One initiative is the idea of science stores, which began in the 1970s in the Netherlands.
The Science Store is a place to help build links between the public and universities – despite the commercial meaning of the “store”, it is usually free. It is important that the research question does not only express the interest of one or two people, but is important for the wider target group. It is also important that the issue is not investigated in order for the narrowly defined target group (company) to profit from this solution. Thus, the purpose of science stores is to stimulate the launch of research that benefits society at large. And the very fact that science shops reflect the needs of civil society for expertise and knowledge distinguishes them from traditional knowledge transfer initiatives.
The “third sector” is a term used to denote civic associations, i. organizations that are not established by the state and do not conduct business, but are established to act in the public interest (NGO, SA, Society). And like companies and industry, they often need access to the scientific world to make their work better. Often, however, they lack the resources – time, money, expertise – to research the science issue themselves. And to balance the mainstream that seeks to harness research excellence in providing new solutions for business development in the business sector and to communicate to the scientific community, research shops are seeking to harness research excellence for civil society development and communicate the needs of nonprofits to higher education institutions.
What does this look like in practice?
Issues at very different levels may be relevant to non-profit organizations. Many of them require decades of costly interdisciplinary research, and sometimes there are questions that are appropriate for a master’s or a good supervisor, even for undergraduate research. And there are students and academics in higher education who would like to do something that is of real benefit to society. Mostly, the science shop does not do science itself, but takes on a mediating role and seeks to connect civil society organizations with the scientific world and wants to develop inclusive science and provide research support to non-profit organizations.
In practice, this is done through the contact of a non-governmental organization with a research shop for a specific question. Equal collaboration between a civic association, a science shop and a university will create new knowledge, or at least combine and adopt existing knowledge.
Example: “Science shops” at the University of Groningen
The University of Groningen in the Netherlands has created 9 “science shops” in 5 faculties, which must answer questions from citizens, NGOs, etc. on the environment, consumers, health, social issues, etc. Citizens’ groups may ask the research shop to provide independent scientific opinions on local issues, the impact of the local plant on health. Such scientific advice can help resolve issues that have arisen in the local community.
The science shop may be located at a university or be an independent organization. IBS’s goal is to conduct pilot projects and see what format science stores could be set up in Estonia.