The Science Shops, past and present
‘Many thanks for the particularly fine treatment of my question about silverfish. Finally, someone who knows what it’s all about and who is willing to make an effort’. Anyone poking around in the archives of the Groningen Science Shops is sure to come across many messages of this kind. They speak volumes: citizens or organizations with questions that appear to be salient, but that are not always taken seriously. Since 1979, the Groningen Science Shops have been working to link society’s questions to research. What were the origins of science shops? Where are we headed?
Democratization of science
In the Netherlands, science shops emerged in response to a period of so-cial movements in the 1960s and 1970s. Many students and progressive staff members found that the universities were at too great a distance from society. This gave rise to the notion of a science shop: a ‘shop’ where supply (from researchers) could be brought together with demand (from citizens or organizations). The words of the initiator at the University of Groningen, Hans Reddingius, speak volumes: ‘“Ordinary people” are also curious at times, and they may also be walking around with questions that could be solved by scientific research’. The ‘democratization of science’ was shaped in practice through interactions between citizens and researchers.
How did that work in Groningen? In 1979, the University of Groningen start- ed with five science shops. Later, new ones emerged, existing ones merged, some succumbed to budget cuts and others were assimilated into other organizational units. At present, six science shops are active in Groningen. The choice for this decentralized organization was (and still is) intended to ensure good service for the myriad of societal questions. Also, faculty specific science shops ensure short lines with the expertise of researchers and students. For example, the Science Shop Physics focused on questions relating to noise pollution on the A7 motorway (conclusion: the measurements were incorrect, and the existing sound wall needed to be raised), and the Science Shop Chemistry joined forces with action groups to address the stench emerging from the waste water from potato starch factories (conclusion: factory processes can and must be cleaner).
Many science shops are inseparably bound to societal trends. Following the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, the Science Shop Physics published an important brochure on the dangers of radiation. In the 1990s, increasing streams of refugees led the Education Shop to conduct a study of migrant children in the classroom. In response to a growing focus on women’s empowerment, the Science Shop Pharmacy is conducting a research project on the representation of women in drug testing.
Science shop projects can also expose certain developments within society. A question submitted to the Language, Culture, and Communication Science Shop on culturally specific care for elderly Turkish people created a precedent for issues that will emerge soon: How will we ensure a good life in old age for people with a migratory background?
Thorn in the side
Not everyone is always happy with Science Shop work. For example, the Science Shop Physics performed measurements of noise levels during Defence Department shooting exercises in proximity to the Marnerwaard nature preserve. The results indicated that the noise level was too high, thus preventing the construction of a second shooting range. This was quite a loss for the Defence Department, which dismissed the shop’s investigation as the work of ‘incompetent students’.
In some cases, research at the ‘frayed edges of society’ can lead to curious scenes. The Economics and Business Science Shop once conducted a study on the cultivation of silty vegetables, an expensive product and thus a lucrative enterprise. The study brought the former University of Groningen Rector Magnificus Elmer Sterken to the warehouse of the ‘trader’ Zwarte Jopie: ‘We obviously made a mistake by going to Zeeland in suits. The whole business had a slight air of illegality and wild harvesting of silty vegetables might not have been legal everywhere’.
Trend followers or trend setters, figure- heads or meddlers: the science shops remain an important link in the exchange of knowledge between the University and society. They do this by improving environmental permits, combatting low literacy, enhancing the sustainability of coffee cups, but most of all, by being an ambassador for the University’s role in our society. As the icing on the cake, the Science Shops of Groningen have the honour of hosting the ‘Living Knowledge’ international science shop congress in June 2022.
|04 April 2023 4.23 p.m.