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

Case study: Institut für gesellschaftswissenschaftliche Forschung, Bildung & Information (FBI), Austria

This 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.

The Institut für gesellschaftswissenschaftliche Forschung, Bildung & Information (FBI) is a non-profit association located in Innsbruck, Austria. It is a small organisation, influenced by the science shop model, that has been active for over 25 years, conducting research with and for society.

 

Background

I

n the early 1990s, there was a movement towards founding science shops in the Dutch spirit in Austria. The nucleus of FBI was founded as a development project at the University of Innsbruck as part of the pedagogical faculty. The university provided them with offices and infrastructure with the remit  of undertaking community-based research.

In 1993, universities in Austria became autonomous and the University of Innsbruck decided against financing the science shop without the support of public money. The same has happened to four of the five other science shops that were founded in Austria in the early 1990s.

As the science shop in Innsbruck had previously worked on a number of third-party funded research projects, they decided to found an independent non-profit organisation based on this model in order to keep the science shop in operation.

In 1994, they undertook a study trip through Germany and the Netherlands to meet local science shops and learn from their experiences. In the following year, they organised an international science shop conference in Innsbruck with the focus on European collaboration. Following this conference, several projects about science shops  gained European funding to support the research, including SCIPAS, INTERACTS, ISSNET and TRAMS.

In 1997, the name FBI (Institut für gesellschaftswissenschaftliche Forschung, Bildung & Information) was established.

Business model and organisation

FBI is an independent non-profit organisation without structural bonds to any other organisation or institution. It is led by Mag. Dr. Gabriela Schroffenegger, who has been Director of the institution since 1993.

Since  the mid-1990s, FBI has solely conducted third-party financed research projects to finance its activities. Therefore, they no longer call themselves a science shop but an institute working in the spirit of a science shop on projects that involve a range of societal actors.

In the early years of the FBI, they rented office space but later moved to the private premises of one of the FBI members to save costs on rent and infrastructure. Today, they have even gone one step further and no longer use any central premises: All FBI members work in home offices, using private equipment. Without a mother organisation or a constant sponsor, it is not possible for them to finance a central office.

While FBI has conducted research for national public institutions, they feel that science shops have a rather negative reputation in Tirol, their home region. Therefore, currently, they are almost exclusively working on projects funded by the European Commission with only a small share of nationally-funded projects. Having worked on European research projects for some time now, they have built a large European-wide network that provides them with ongoing new project opportunities.

Besides Dr. Schroffenegger, there is one other permanent member of FBI; further employees are employed on a project basis and therefore on time-limited contracts. Due to funding challenges, the employees often have to invest their private assets to keep FBI running in between projects.

Besides the research, the two staff at FBI are also responsible for the operational management of the organisation, such as human resource management and accounting. Much of this has to be done on a voluntary basis. Therefore, Dr. Schroffenegger, who is approaching retirement age, is rather pessimistic about whether FBI can remain operational once she retires. So far, she has not been able to find a successor who is willing to invest this effort.

The research process and relationship with stakeholders

While FBI no longer considers themselves a science shop, it still works in the fashion of a science shop and stakeholder involvement is a key feature of its research. Projects are mainly designed in a participatory way, including relevant stakeholders in different phases of the research process. This mainly means the inclusion of the groups of people they are conducting their research on. In a project on the transition to adequate employment possibilities, affected youth were included in their stakeholder interviews as well as in a national research project on youth employment. A scenario workshop conducted at the beginning of research project is used to define the exact research question(s) to be further investigated and specific topics to be focused on in a project. A further round of such stakeholder involvement is conducted once when the first results have been gathered. They are then discussed with relevant stakeholders to develop conclusions and political guidance.

Examples of research projects

All of their research projects are in field of science with and for society/social sciences. Their work mainly involves studies and analyses as well as conducting workshops and seminars. Core topics include gender research, including living and working conditions, gender pedagogy, discrimination, migration and aging societies.

On the European research level, examples of their projects are “Women in Europe – New Yields of Employment in Rural Areas” (2015 – 2017). The project aims to provide employment possibilities for women living in rural areas.

A further European project is “Case – Career Assistance and Spirit of Enterprise” (2013 – 2015). Nine partners from different European countries have worked on this to support young adults during the transition phase from school or inadequate employment to adequate employment possibilities.

Impact and evaluation

As they mainly work in EU-funded projects, all of their projects are evaluated according to European Commission requirements. Controls and feedback occur for each project step, in addition to a mid-term and final review.

Some of their work also has a longer-term political impact. For example, one  study conducted for a national governmental organisation in the field of gender research was particularly politically relevant and, although the project finished some time ago, they are still in contact with the organisation about the political impact and relevance of their results.

Stakeholders are also asked to evaluate their methods and results and give them feedback at different stages of the research process.

Professional development and training

An important step in the early phase of FBI was travelling through Germany and the Netherlands to meet local science shops and learn from their background and experience.

FBI also  regularly participate in training and conferences to stay up to date with the latest  developments.

Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI)

FBI became aware of RRI tools a few years ago at an international conference on the topic. Prior to  this, they were implicitly conducting their research in the spirit of RRI but to date have not explicitly used RRI tools for their work.

Challenges

The central challenge for an independent science shop is to achieve sustainability. Without a mother organisation/sponsor providing them with core funding, it is extremely difficult to achieve secure funding. To remain operational, they work in home offices with private equipment on a part-time basis. A lot of organisational and operational issues (such as human resources and accounting) have to be conducted on a voluntary basis as they fall outside the remit of the actual research work.

Success factors

The success of FBI is mainly due to  the enthusiasm and engagement of the staff. Without such intrinsic motivation to conduct participatory research, it would not have been possible for them to be active for over 25 years. They also consider the quality of their research as an important asset that helps them to remain active, especially in EU-funded research projects.

Future development

For the future, Dr. Schroffenegger is not overly optimistic that FBI can remain active once she retires as the institute’s director as she cannot find a successor willing to invest as much effort.

One potential way to remain active without a large investment in time and money is via a social media project that they have very recently set up on Facebook under the title Open Social Science – Creative Lab[1]. The aim is to create a space where the members of community can post questions as well as help to answer the questions themselves, essentially becoming an exchange platform for questions, ideas and CBPR research. FBI’s role will be to moderate the platform rather than conduct research on the issues raised.

Contact details

Website: http://www.fbi.or.at/

Contact person: Mag. Dr. Gabriela Schroffenegger

Email: office@fbi.or.at

Links

[1] http://www.facebook.com/Open-Social-Science-Creative-Lab-309101826126483/