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

Case study: InterMEDIU Bucharest

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.

InterMEDIU Bucharest is a university-based science shop at the University Politehnica of Bucharest in Romania. Founded in 2002, it has been steadily running for 15 years, carrying out between three to four projects a year. InterMEDIU has a focus on environmental issues.

 

Background

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nterMEDIU Bucharest was founded in 2002, as part of a MATRA project (2002-2005) funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Three other Romanian science shops were set up at the same time in addition to four others that had been established in a previous MATRA project. The science shops received mentoring from the University of Groningen as part of the project.

Subsequently, a network for Romanian science shops was set up called INRO consisting of around 12 members. The network is still active although several of the science shops are no longer operational.

InterMEDIU has been involved in a number of EU-funded projects relating to research on  science shops including EFSUPS and PERARES. Currently, InterMEDIU is a partner in SciShops.

Business model and organisation

InterMEDIU is run by staff in the Department of Analytical Chemistry and Environmental Engineering at Faculty of Applied Chemistry and Material Science and acts as an interface between the university and society. Each year, the science shop handles three to four projects. Between six and eight staff employed by the university are involved in the science shop on a voluntary basis, managing and supervising the research projects undertaken by students. They conduct the research projects as part of their graduate theses (undergraduate, masters or PhD), which provides them with an opportunity to work on subjects related to local and national environmental issues. Many of the research projects undertaken by the science shop last around six months, some longer.

InterMEDIU does not receive any funding from the university but is self-financed by means of project grants and external sponsorship. Sponsors for projects are actively sought to either contribute financially or to provide resources e.g. analytical kits. Being based within the Faculty of Applied Chemistry and Material Science, the science shop also has access to laboratory equipment. Financial constraints as well as the interests of the students limit the number of research projects that can be undertaken.

Public awareness and understanding of environmental issues in Romania is relatively low and InterMEDIU also has an awareness-raising and educational role.  For example, it organises environmental education programmes for schools and teachers. Its annual symposium on Education for a Clean Environment is a project that has been running for 13 years involving students and teachers in posters, presentations and school projects.

Poster Session at Education for a Clean Environment 2017

The research process and relationship with stakeholders

In some cases, the science shop works proactively to identify research issues to be investigated. This happens, for example, when they identify environmental issues in the media or in reports that require further investigation and action. Examples of this type of proactive research work are a project to investigate the quality of underground water in a village close to Bucharest, which contained high levels of nitrates, and a report on environmental impact of fracking, which was a concern at a national level.

Some research questions come directly from NGOs, although the science shop has struggled to get NGOs interested in working collaboratively. If the science shop is unable to fulfil a research request, they often find that the NGO does not return with further questions. Many of the science shop’s projects involve analyses using some type of equipment, either carried out in the Faculty’s laboratory or using kits or smaller laboratory equipment provided via partners or sponsors.

Examples of research projects

The main focus of InterMEDIU’s research projects is environmental issues, such as water quality and waste management. InterMediu’s main first project was on waste management in Bucharest and involved a visiting student from the Netherlands who developed a Waste Management Plan for the City of Bucharest, including waste incineration as a waste disposal option, as part of their Masters thesis.

Another project focused on analysing soil heavily polluted by metallurgical industry. This project was started by a student in the last year of her undergraduate course, continued throughout her Masters and finally resulted in a PhD thesis. In response to reports that many infants were falling sick in a village close to Bucharest, due to suspected exposure to high levels of nitrates, a designated science shop project was initiated that involved visiting around 100 households in order to test their drinking water. High levels of nitrates were detected and reported to the relevant authorities. The research results were included in a Master thesis.

Dust sampling in Zlatna

Impact and evaluation

InterMEDIU does not evaluate its research projects. Success is viewed in terms of whether the research projects are successfully completed and the results published.

In terms of societal impact, the lack of interest and awareness in environmental issues by policy makers and the media in Romania means that scientific evidence is often not taken notice of, nor used to inform policy making. For example, in the case of a waste management plan for Bucharest, despite a robust report, the city council showed no interest in utilising the results. In the drinking water project, the results and the project did raise additional awareness about the issue among the citizens living there and via the media. However, although the authorities did extend the water supply network (which happened in parallel to the research project), there are still vulnerable people that are not connected to safe drinking water.

InterMEDIU is aware of impact in terms of its educational awareness programmes, although this has not been formally evaluated. For example, over time, they have noticed an increase in teachers’ confidence and engagement as well as pupils’ knowledge of environmental issues.

Success factors

Despite many resource challenges, InterMEDIU has survived for 15 years, which is due to the commitment of those involved in the science shop as well as flexibility to adapt to circumstances and identify different sources of funding. Although the number of projects undertaken is relatively low, the science shop has managed to engage students in the projects that they have taken on board.

Challenges

A major challenge is to communicate the concept of community-based research and what the science shop is trying to achieve both within the university and to NGOs. The science shop is not viewed as a priority by senior management at the university and therefore does not receive any direct funding.

Working with Romanian civil society remains a challenge. NGOs often see the science shop as competitors and are not keen to share funding due to their own resourcing issues. Many NGOs are also very politically focused and do not understand the value of scientific evidence to inform their work. As a consequence, they sometimes rely on misleading or erroneous statistics. Within Romanian society, there is a general lack of awareness and interest in environmental issues at different levels e.g. among the media, politicians, and ordinary citizens.

Also, they sometimes struggle to match project requests with resources. NGOs often want quick responses and it can take several months to find the right student and coordinator and put the resources into place. One of the reasons that several other Romanian science shops did not survive was due to their reliance on individual people within the university. When these people move on to other positions or retired, the driving force behind the science shop disintegrated. There is also a lack of rewards and incentives to get involved in this type of work. Funding of science shops in Romania remains a challenge. Some are only active when they get funded via EU projects.

Future development

InterMEDIU has recently been extended to include another faculty and its long-term ambition is to involve more staff from across the whole of the university in the science shop’s work. This will expand what the science shop can offer to NGOs. More work needs to be done to raise the profile of the science shop within the university, too. To date, the focus has been on publishing scientific papers and there is an opportunity to publish more popular science papers with the aim of raising awareness more broadly, both of environmental issues and the work of the science shop. 

The science shop would also like to develop closer relationships with NGOs and do more work to identify ones that would be willing to collaborate and benefit from this type of research.A new website for InterMEDIU is also under construction.

Contact details

Website: http://intermediu.pub.ro/

Contact person: Rodica Stanescu

Email: rodica_stanescu_ro@yahoo.com