On the benefits of science shops

Naomi Antony

Naomi Antony
Assistant news editor, SciDev.Net

Science shops have been around since the 1970s, when they were first introduced in the Netherlands. But at a lunchtime session led by two passionate advocates from France and Germany, they came across as a fresh, novel concept – so much so that a slide detailing their long history almost took me by surprise.

Science shops link scientists to civil society organisations such as farmers networks.  Living Knowledge, the international science shop network, defines them as providing independent participatory research support in response to concerns experienced by civil society.

Science shops open doors to participatory research. Credit: Living Knowledge

They have no dominant organisational structure – how they work depends entirely on context. They are usually established as part of a university or faculty, but some are independently run.

Speaking on the importance of participatory research with civil society organisations, Claudia Neubauer of the Fondation Sciences Citoyennes said: “Participatory research integrates diverse forms of knowledge – professional, local, traditional – acknowledging that scientific and technological knowledge is necessary but not sufficient for solving current problems”.

Participatory research forces researchers and practitioners to reconsider the notion of scientific excellence, she said.

Her words mirrored the sentiments of this morning’s panel on appropriate technologies. But despite its potential to contribute to a more just society, such research remains marginal and marginalised, says Neubauer.

“We must shatter the myth that only highly complex and cost-intensive technologies can create employment, well-being and sustainability. And we must ensure that [the] concept of innovation includes locally adapted and social forms of innovation.”

“The research and innovation that is prioritised and funded today will have a decisive impact on the future of our societies and our planet. It depends largely on underlying principles and values, how it is governed, and by whom.”

It seems to me that science shops would find an ideal home in the developing world.

Korea and Malaysia started science shops in the 1990s, but these failed to take off. China jumped on board in 2006, followed by South Africa the following years, and both countries have experienced success. But science shops have yet to make further impact in the developing world.

I asked Norbert Steinhaus of Living Knowledge if he had any thoughts on why this may be the case.

He said that he was unsure, and that it was difficult enough spreading the idea throughout Europe and the United States, let alone the developing world. He said that he plans on getting in touch with Tech4Dev delegates presenting research at the conference when he goes back to Germany.

“I’ve been going through the programme and noting down their contact details. I am hopeful that, if they are interested, we could look into setting something up in their home countries.”

This blog post is part of our 2012 Tech4Dev International Conference coverage. 

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