Enhancing the Responsible and Sustainable Expansion of the Science Shop Ecosystem in Europe

Case study: Bonn Science Shop

This is case study is part of a set of case studies developed by SciShops to investigate different models of science shops and community-based participatory research.

Bonn Science Shop is a science shop based in Bonn, Germany. It was founded in 1984 as an independent non-profit organisation and is active in applied research in several topics. It is one of the longest-running German science shops and, with more than 35 employees, it is one of the biggest science shops in the world.

Background

B

onn Science Shop (Wissenschaftsladen Bonn) was founded in 1984 as a volunteer student initiative, inspired by the Dutch science shop model, with the aim of bridging the gap between science and society. The initiative was led by Theo Bühler, who worked for a non-university research institute at that time (and subsequently was the manager of the Bonn Science Shop for around 30 years until his retirement in 2013), together with other people from the University of Bonn, other institutes and the municipality.

The initial focus of the science shop was research on environmental issues with a participatory angle. A proposal to establish the science shop within the University of Bonn was rejected so it was decided to set the science shop up as an independent, non-profit organisation.

In its first years, the science shop was supported by the General Students’ Committee at the University of Bonn. This included a room as well as some financial and organisational support.

In 1987, Bonn Science Shop received its first externally-funded research project, enabling it to employ its first two full-time employees and to move into its own offices. The offices were located in the proximity of the premises of an organisation for the support of drug addicts, and provided an important central contact point for the science shop’s work.

The science shop’s first project, a study on the education of environmental advisors, was partly funded by the German employment agency to support unemployed academics in finding jobs in environmental-related jobs. As a spin-off to this project, they started to collate job ads in newspapers that the project participants might be interested in. Demand for this service grew and subsequently, a weekly magazine of job ads for graduates of humanities and social services was published. Later, a further publication for jobs in education, culture and social services was launched.

Over the years, the science shop has gradually grown in size and undertakes a wide range of national, regional and international projects. It is also a state accredited provider of adult education and runs an Educational Centre offering courses, seminars and training relating to developing employment competencies. Other educational offers include work with pupils to raise awareness of environmental issues and the provision of teaching materials for kindergarten and primary school teachers.

In 2003, it set up the Living Knowledge network for people involved in the work of science shops, which it continues to co-ordinate.

Business model and organisation

With more than 35 employees and a turnover of around three million Euros, Bonn Science Shop is the biggest science shop in the world. It is an independent organisation without organisational or financial ties to a mother organisation and does not receive any official funding besides a minor annual funding of 30,000 Euros for the support of the Education Centre.

Their work is financed in several ways on a cost recovery basis. A central backbone of the science shop’s financing is revenue from the publishing of the two weekly print magazines (soon also available in electronic format), which are distributed using a paid subscription model and make up to 50% of the science shop’s turnover. In the early 2000s, when unemployment in Germany was at a record high, the magazines had around 11,500 subscribers.

Revenue from publishing enabled Bonn Science Shop to acquire its own building in 2012 and also allows them to pay their employees’ salaries in between projects.

The second main source of funding is externally-funded research projects. The science shop either applies in response to project calls (top-down), for example, for EU projects, or actively approaches potential national and regional funders directly with project ideas (bottom-up). Funders include the European Commission, German Federal and State Ministries, Federal Offices as well as foundations and single local authorities.

From the beginning on, the science shop has been run as a democratic organisation, similar to a collective, in which the whole team is consulted and encouraged to contribute ideas. Research requests are discussed, processed and shared amongst the team. Even today, despite having more than 35 employees, a participatory and democratic approach is still central to the operation of the organisation.

In 2013, Bonn Science Shop also set up an Advisory Board that includes members from national and international universities, stakeholders from politics and non-governmental organisations. The Advisory Board meets twice a year and its role is to audit and advise the Management Board.

 The research process and relationship with stakeholders

Bonn Science Shop is an independent organisation without formal ties to a university and therefore does not have direct access to students that can work on the science shop’s research projects as part of their studies. In cooperation projects, joint work is undertaken with the project partners. Besides such joint projects, all of the work of the science shop is carried out by its members of staff, many of whom have expertise in research relating to a range of fields, focused around environmental, education and social sciences.

All of their projects are externally financed, which they apply for either in response to project calls or by actively approaching potential funders with project ideas. This includes EU-funded projects as well as national and regional ones. Over time, Bonn Science Shop has built up a considerable reputation and large networks of both funding bodies and potential collaboration partners. They are often approached to join consortia and work on projects that require the active engagement of civil society. Their close ties with civil society allow them to get continuous insights into the interests and research requests of different parts of society.

While it is generally possible to answer research requests from members of society that do not have the means to fund the research process, such an approach is not actively promoted as they can only cross-finance a limited number of such requests.

The science shop works in a transdisciplinary way, involving scientists from various disciplines, both within the science shop and externally, as well as all types of stakeholders with interests in the issues being addressed from citizens to policy makers.

 Examples of research projects

The main focus of the science shop’s work are social challenges, mainly relating to environmental and sustainability issues, such as biodiversity, renewable energies and health. In addition, they are involved in research relating to the development of science shops internationally.

A couple of examples of recent projects:

In the project “Green instead of Gray – Industrial Parks in Transition“[1], they are working on the greening and long-term sustainable development of industrial parks. The project includes consultation and involvement of a wide range of stakeholders, such as experts, businesses, government and citizens and looks at aspects including the design of parking spaces, the use of building materials and planting of vegetation. Three pilot cities, Frankfurt (Main), Marl and Remscheid will serve as best-practice models for further developments in other business parks.

Bonn Science Shop also runs a range of educational projects. One example is Serena[2] ‘Serious Game about renewable energy technologies for girls’, a computer game aimed at informing girls aged 12 to 16 about career opportunities in this field in an entertaining way. A further one is “Nachhaltige KiTa – Mit Kindern aktiv für die Welt“[3], a project on education for sustainable development in nursery schools in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia.The three-year project is funded by the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety and involves developing environmental education on topics such as recycling, energy efficiency and nutrition

Bonn Science Shop is also engaged in a number of international projects, mostly funded by the European Commission. For example, it was a partner in the EU RRI Tools project to develop an RRI Toolkit and RRI hubs around Europe and is currently involved in EnRRICH looking at ways to embed RRI in the curricula of universities.

 Impact and evaluation

Impact plays an important role in the work of the Bonn Science Shop. All of their educational activities (e.g. workshops, trainings) are formally evaluated via surveys among the participants to constantly improve their offer. For bigger actions, longer interviews with participants are used to support the results of the structured surveys and offer more in-depth insights.

In some projects, evaluations are undertaken with project partners, funding bodies and stakeholders about the success of the implementation or potential continuation actions.

For educational materials developed for schools or other educational bodies, they also seek feedback from teachers and pupils.

The impact of their projects is measured indirectly by the amount of further research requests they receive. For example, the project on the sustainable development of business parks has led to further requests for support. Similar developments have been observed in other projects.

In general, they have witnessed a significant growth in their impact in recent years. Citizen science, participatory research and RRI are becoming increasingly popular in Germany as well as in an international context. As one of the prominent stakeholders in this field, Bonn Science Shop is confronted with a growing number of project and consultancy requests by different organisations, including universities and other public organisations, either to collaborate or to assist with establishing similar structures on their own.

Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI)

RRI is a central tool in the work of the Bonn Science Shop. Key aspects of RRI, such as a participatory approach, the involvement of stakeholders throughout the research process, ethics and gender equality, open access and public engagement have been natural parts of the work of the Bonn Science Shop since its foundation, long before RRI became a prominent concept in research.

Through its involvement in a number of EU projects on RRI, Bonn Science Shop has also been able to further develop its expertise in this area.

Challenges

As for most science shops, financing and the long-term sustainability of their work are the main issues for the Bonn Science Shop.

Funding was a particular challenge in the early days of the science shop. When they moved into their own offices in 1987, their initial funding was not sufficient to cover the cost and some of the employees donated part of their wages to subsidise the cost of the rooms.

Also, when they acquired their first externally funded research project in 1987, it was an 18-month project with 1 million DM (around 500,000 Euros) of funding. It was a highly complicated process for a young science shop to receive such a relatively large amount of public financing and required long negotiations with the funding body (employment agency) and local and federal authorities.

Being an independent non-profit science shop reliant on external funding does limit their capacity and the number of project requests they can work on. Unlike science shops based at universities, Bonn Science Shop does not have direct access to students to work on projects. They also do not have any ongoing institutional funding they can use to subsidise projects that are not covered entirely by external project grants.

Success factors

Key success factors for the successful implementation of a science shop are the use of its own resources and strengths rather than strictly following an external best-practice example. By fully understanding its stakeholders, research interests, potential cooperation partners and long-term goals, Bonn Science Shop has been able to find its own development path.

Having a long term strategy for the financing of the science shop, in Bonn Science Shop’s case through its publications, has provided stability and financial independence, particularly in between projects.

Bonn Science Shop also has very close links to civil society, which gives them insight into relevant issues and helps them to develop questions and projects before they become popular in the general research community.

Contact details

Website: https://www.wilabonn.de/

Contact person: Norbert Steinhaus

Email: norbert.steinhaus@wilabonn.de

Links

[1]https://www.wilabonn.de/projekte/786-gewerbegebiete.html

[2]https://www.wilabonn.de/en/projects/750-serena-game.html

[3]https://www.wilabonn.de/projekte/811-nachhaltige-kita.html