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

Case study: Wissenschaftsladen Potsdam

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.

Wissenschaftsladen Potsdam e.V. is a science shop based in Potsdam, Germany. It was founded in 2011 as an independent non-profit organisation and is active in applied research in natural sciences, engineering and science with and for society. The science shop is run by volunteers and also provides a physical space where citizens can collaborate on science-related projects.

 

Background

In 2011, the Freiland e.V. cultural centre was established in Potsdam, Germany. In the same year, the science shop Wissenschaftsladen Potsdam e.V. was founded by a group of volunteers from the local community in 2011 and was provided with rooms in the premises of the newly established  cultural centre.

Wissenschaftsladen Potsdam started with a focus on the natural sciences, engineering, science with and for society and well as ecological research. Ecological research lost importance over time as interest and funding possibilities in this field decreased. Its early tasks included transforming the rooms and workshops into a FabLab (“MachBar”), which provide citizens with access to a variety of equipment.

Early projects included local partnerships with schools as well as the local library. The library purchased a 3D printer as part of a collaboration on engineering and its digital transformation.

Although the  Wissenschaftsladen Potsdam was not established according to a specific model, it did profit from learning from best practice examples, such as the Bonn Science Shop, and inclusion in international networks, such as the Living Knowledge Network, the International FabLab Association and Fablearn. Furthermore, being located in the Freiland cultural centre has meant that they have become part of a much broader public community.

Business model and organisation

Wissenschaftsladen Potsdam is an independent non-profit organisation without structural bonds to any other organisation or institutions, such as universities. The Freiland cultural centre is regarded as their sister project.

As independent organisation, Wissenschaftsladen Potsdam does not receive any constant core funding but is funded from a variety of different sources. Notably, the science shop receives no direct public funding, which is important to the organisers as it grants them with complete freedom to pursue research topics and projects of their choice. Nevertheless, it is funded from a variety of different sources.

The Freiland cultural centre, which is publicly funded, gives them free use of the premises. Some materials and rooms can also be used for free. Hence, one pillar is indirect public funding. Another source of funding comes directly from the community through membership fees as well as donations (general or for specific  projects). For certain projects, they also make use of other funding possibilities, like grants available to support youth activities. In addition, some of their research projects are conducted as externally funded third party research.

This variety of funding sources allows the science shop to remain active while retaining its  independence. However, it also makes it complicated from an organisational point of view. One of the main problems relates to requirements regarding how the funding can be used. For example, project funding can be used to cover personnel and direct project costs, including hardware, but not spent on facilities and utilities such as water and heating. This is because many funding structures are set up for organisations, such as  universities or companies, which already have core funding in place to cover these types of costs.

The research process and relationship with stakeholders

As an independent science shop, Wissenschaftsladen Potsdam does not have to fulfil external research demands but can follow their own agenda and interests. The participation of interested stakeholders works over different channels, depending on the kind of project. In repair cafes, for example, people can just walk in with gadgets they want to fix. Events like conferences and workshops are open to everyone.

Their approach is to include stakeholders in all stages of the research process. Hence, research questions, as well as methodologies and all other aspects related to the research process are carried out in consultation with all stakeholders. The aim is to develop a culture of equal participation instead of a hierarchical process (whereby research questions are formulated solely by scientists and further stakeholders only involved at later stages of the process).

Generally, their approach makes them open to collaborations of any kind. They have close links to schools, libraries and universities and collaborate with citizens of any age, gender or educational background. They also work on projects run for public ministries and are sometimes approached by small companies that need to test devices or methodologies before making investments on their own.

Examples of research projects

Wissenschaftsladen Potsdam covers a wide field of different research areas. Their core focus is engineering, natural sciences and science with and for society and they organise their work around several different research fields.

Repair cafes: People can bring broken gadgets to the workshops to repair them. The science shop does not offer a repair service but helps people to repair their gadgets themselves. The science shop  regards itself as a capacity builder, not a service provider.

Further, they cooperate with satellite labs located at external institutions and premises, including schools, a university and a company with the focus on the integration of people with disabilities. To enable them to take science out into society, they also have a mobile FabLab that can be taken anywhere.

The FabLab consists of four main parts: They have a permanent  seminar room within the Freiland cultural centre, a workshop for ‘cleaner‘ work using advanced machinery such as a 3D printer, a milling machine and laser devices. They also have an outside workshop for work involving wood or metal. There is also a bio-lab, where research in the field of biology can be undertaken, offering a  wide range of new potential applications, including genome research and astrobiology.

Their premises are also used by other loosely associated groups including a youth group, a group establishing a free radio network that is given access to digital infrastructure, an OK-lab and a group of beekeepers establishing a database.

They also organise seminars, workshops and conferences which enables them to involve a larger number of people. In doing so, they strongly benefit from their location and being part of the wider community of the Freiland  cultural centre. This gives them access to necessary services for the organisation of events as well as enough space to host events of different sizes.

Impact and evaluation

They do not formally evaluate the impact of their activities, partly due to limited time and resources and the difficulty of defining what “successful impact” actually means. Besides the obvious success metric of remaining active, the inclusion of stakeholders from different societal groups and being established in the public community is what is most important to them.

Success is also viewed in terms of new ideas that spring from the collaboration of people with different backgrounds. Besides the creation of new research questions and projects, this can ultimately also lead to the creation of new business ideas and jobs, as they have previously experienced.

Professional development and training

The Living Knowledge Network supported Wissenschaftsladen Potsdam whilst it was being set up. Through their wide network of stakeholders from different backgrounds, they have access to people with a broad range of skills and interests who contribute to the science shop activities in different ways.

Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI)

RRI is a topic of central importance for Wissenschaftsladen Potsdam. One researcher from the core team has a background in citizen science and they see the RRI approach as central to their work. This includes involving and collaborating with people from all fields of society and of different ages, sex, race and educational background. This type of collaboration enables them not only  to learn from each other but also inspires completely new ideas.

A community engagement and a fully democratic approach  is central to their work. There are no top-down approaches; all of the science shop stakeholders are invited to participate in all processes and decisions. Both minor as well as structural decisions relating to their overall work are made in consultation with the community.

The science shop is also regularly involved in discussions concerning research ethics, e.g. on sensitive fields like privacy vs. open data or genetics research. Science education basically underpins all of their work, which is aimed at capacity building (rather than service provision) and equipping the community with skills and knowledge.

Challenges

A central challenge is the sustainability and financing of their work. The science shop wants to maintain its independence and not be embedded in the structures of a fixed network or a mother organisation. Funding to keep their work going comes from many different sources, which presents challenges in terms of time and management.

Their capacity is also limited due to being an organisation run by volunteers. There is the possibility to pay people to work on funded research projects or to pay instructors to run courses and workshops but otherwise there are no paid employees to manage the  overall organisation. In this respect, Wissenschaftsladen Potsdam is haunted by its own success: They have reached a critical threshold where they have so many projects and activities that it is becoming difficult to manage them purely by by volunteers.

Further, they have limited capacities (time; people; budget) for any public relations activities. Therefore, they primarily rely on word of mouth marketing via their networks and the community at the culture centre. For the future, they would like to increase their public relations activities.

Success factors

An active and highly enthusiastic core team of people support the work of the science shop,  manage the core operations, and drive its further development.

Being located at the Freiland cultural centre gives them access to a broad community and helps them to fulfil their main task of being a mediator between science and the general public. It also provides the science shop with rooms and infrastructure for events that would be difficult to get otherwise, allowing them to engage with more people.

They also see the physical existence of rooms designated to the science shop as a critical success factor. Having a physical space which is designed according to the science shop’s needs, where ideas can grow, and not having to pack away equipment after every meeting is very important to them.

Future development

To continue to build upon their ideas and look for ways to strengthen their public relations and communications activities to reach and engage wider audiences.

Contact:

Website: http://www.wissenschaftsladen-potsdam.de/

Contact person: Martin Koll

Email: info@wissenschaftsladen-potsdam.de