Both feet on the ground and in touch with society: that's what Wageningen UR is aiming at. The Science Shop has been at it for 25 years, bringing Wageningen's science to the people. But the customers don't call the tune - which they sometimes can find hard to take.
The questions tend to be noticeably slanted. As you would expect, says Gerard Straver, coordinator of the Wageningen Science Shop. 'We are often dealing with angry NIMBYs.' These are people who say 'Not In My Back Yard'. 'They bring in a problem that affects them strongly, and expect our research to confirm their views. But it is precisely our job to research the bigger picture and to combine practice with good science.'
So Straver denies that Science Shop research explains things in a one-sided way. 'When we visited our client 'Erp alert!', who didn't want a ring road around the village of Erp, it turned out that there was also a group of people who did want the ring road. In a case like that you involve both groups in the research. You zoom out to identify the scientific questions.'
Wageningen University alumni Andries Middag and Matthijs Timmermans know a bit about this independent role too. They researched the question of whether the N340 should be widened. Middag: 'Our client was the 'Sustainably through the Vecht Valley' foundation, a group of concerned local citizens who wanted to examine and challenge the province's plans. But we thought it was better to take a broader perspective and to come up with constructive solutions.'
That led to heated discussions, and Sustainable Vecht Valley was not happy with the choices made at first. 'But we had resolved to do what we thought best', explains Middag. 'During the research process we kept up the dialogue and explained what we based our choices on. That keeps you on your toes.' This tension between local interests and scientific theory was exactly what interested Middag. 'I see it as a test of your capacities. You have gained knowledge in an academic environment with its own paradigms, and now you have to be able to explain it in the real world.'
The project leader of the Vecht valley research was Hugo Hoofwijk of communication bureau De Groen Link. He too emphasized the independent nature of Science Shop research. 'With commercial bureaus you might be able to question it, because they are financially dependent on their clients. But at the Science Shop clients don't pay anything and therefore don't have any leverage to influence the research. So it can happen that the research results don't please the client.'
Middag and Timmermans' research must have been scientifically sound, though, because it was nominated for the cross-border Science Shop prize, awarded for the best research every second year by the thirteen cities in the Netherlands and Flanders that have a Science Shop.
It is often difficult for groups of citizens with a cause to get properly organized. Hugo Hoofwijk has worked on other Science Shop projects besides the Vecht valley research. 'These sorts of citizens' initiatives don't usually have enough clout because they don't have any research to back up their standpoint. A research makes for clear standpoints, which are then taken more seriously. This gives them more tools.'
Gerard Straver calls this empowerment: 'Municipal councils can hire advisory bureaus. Our research gives citizen groups a report by an expert too. That is fantastic.'
The Science Shop's research is cheap as well. Straver doesn't like talking about money, but he emphasizes the optimal results achieved on a small budget. 'Students are paid in study credits, and they learn a lot from doing applied research. And there is a need for it in the field; we play a role there.' There are benefits for the researchers who get involved as well. 'Not from academic publications but from media attention and articles in professional magazines', says Straver. 'But above all because you are really engaged with society.'
What gives Science Shop projects added value is the fact that so many active people are involved. Each research has a steering committee made up of researchers and people who are affected. Ex-student Middag: 'We presented our plans to more than 300 people in a village hall. There were lots of critical questions so we could explain the reasons for our choices in detail.' Straver sees publicity and media attention as part of the added value of the research programme. 'But selling itself is something the Science Shop is not so good at.'
Influence in Europe
In April, the European Union allocated 2.7 million euros to the PERARES programme in which the Wageningen and Groningen Science Shops are actively involved. Coordinator Henk Mulder: 'With the money we are going to organize science cafes and debates. We will invite various civil society organizations and try to get the research questions from the people, as it were. Once we have the questions, several Science Shops will get to work. We will present the research in another debate. This will give organizations more influence over the research agenda, and that is what Europe wants.'
The Landscape Centre of the Environmental Sciences Group has plans for an 'incubator' for citizens' initiatives. Initiator Roel During: 'We want to get a better overview of what the issues are for citizens. You can see the incubator as an entry point for the Science Shop, which doesn't have the capacity to take on everything itself. The cuts have led to citizens organizing various new forms of community action. That is a societal transition and we want to be involved in it. If we have a better idea of the issues that matter to people we can advise policymakers better. That makes us the link between science, policy and citizens.'
The Wageningen Science Shop celebrates its 25 th birthday on 17 June with a symposium. Ex-minister of VROM Jacqueline Cramer and Wageningen professor Arjen Wals will give their views on the future and usefulness of Science Shops. The cross-border Science Shop prize will also be awarded at the Symposium. See www.wetenschapswinkelwageningen.nl.