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

Case study: Science Shop Language, Culture and Communication – University of Groningen, the Netherlands

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 Science Shop Language, Culture and Communication is part of the Faculty of Arts, University of Groningen, Netherlands. It was set up in 1986, so it is well-established and reflects a long-lasting tradition of community-based participatory research in the Netherlands. The science shop mediates in questions from non-profit organisations to create knowledge in arts disciplines and research projects are undertaken by students at the university.

 

Background

The Science Shop Languages (as it was called in the beginning) was set up in 1986 by the board of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Groningen. There were already a number of other science shops at this university at the time and the board felt a need to have an open and democratic service for research in art disciplines as well.

Nowadays, the University of Groningen has six science shops based in different faculties. Due to the support of the Faculty Board, setting up the science shop was a straightforward process. The new science shop worked closely with another focusing on History & Languages on a variety of societal issues. At the end of the nineties, the Science Shop Languages went through a difficult period and was not operational for a few years. These difficulties were partly due to the success of the Science Shop History that split from the Faculty and moved to a business-like model. This was possible due to a very high demand for paid research from organisations. This departure resulted in a lack of funding and human resources for the Science Shop Languages.

Nevertheless, in 1998 the Science Shop Languages started up again in a different environment. A new centre of expertise with staff employed to work on paid contract research was established and the science shop was restarted within the centre to work on connecting non-profit organisations to student research. The combination of professionals and students, of paid-for bigger projects and smaller non-profit projects worked well. Initially, one member of staff was responsible for coordinating the science shop on a part-time basis but in 2002 a new coordinator was hired to focus on the science shop projects and develop the non-profit activities. Once again, the science shop became part of a bigger organisation and started flourishing. In 2004, the Science Shop was renamed to Language, Culture and Communication to attract a greater breadth of work and to avoid confusion with the university’s Language Centre.

Today, the science shop is embedded in a new organisational unit, the Department of Communication, Career and Society, as the Centre of Expertise didn’t survive the economic crisis in 2008. The science shop now mediates in questions from non-profit organisations to knowledge in all arts disciplines (languages, history, literature, communication, archaeology, media, art and international organisations).

Business model and organisation

The science shop is fully integrated into the structure of the university. Most staff and other direct costs are funded by the university itself. The university covers the salary of two part-time (2 days a week) coordinators and provides the science shop with an office and resources, such as computers. Depending on the type of organisation they conduct research for, occasionally the science shop asks for a small financial contribution to ensure the students do not have to cover any costs themselves. Fees charged by the science shop’s coordinator for giving external lectures provides a small amount of additional funding, too.

The science shop has no advisory board, although it used to when it was embedded in the centre of expertise. The science shop considers itself too small to have its own advisory board, preferring to informally consult members of the Faculty when required, although several of the other science shops at the university do have advisory boards. Research projects are usually performed by BA or MA students under the guidance of academic supervisors and take the form of theses, internships or smaller assignments within courses. Sometimes, graduate students also participate in projects to gain extra experience.

The research process and relationship with stakeholders

The science shop works with a wide range of stakeholders, including public libraries, museums, local governments, foundations, welfare organisations, schools and other educational organisations, and communities such as neighbourhood groups or groups of parents. Local authorities sometimes provide research questions too, but more frequently they are involved as secondary parties providing access to archives or organisational or financial support.

The science shop occasionally works with for-profit businesses if these companies have a question with wider societal relevance. Companies need to agree for the results to be to published openly and usually pay a small fee for the research, depending on the nature of the company and question to be investigated. One example was a project to investigate how diverse teams work, carried out for a consultancy company. The company was very willing to share the results and paid to hire a student to work as an intern to perform the research.

Because the science shop is small, it can only manage a maximum of ten projects a year. Usually around 25-30 questions are received a year, some of which can be answered without the need for a research project. Every question receives a response, which may consist of advice or suggestions for websites or articles. Although they receive sufficient research questions, sometimes the coordinators themselves identify organisations with interesting problems to research.

All stakeholders are involved throughout the research process. The starting point is the problem to be solved and, at the beginning, the science shop coordinators have a lot of initial contact with the stakeholders to gain a good understanding of the issue, how it can be shaped into a research project fit for students to undertake, as well as to agree the nature of the final output, what the organisation can contribute themselves and to manage the organisation’s expectations.

When the research project starts, there is a meeting at which the stakeholders, students and supervisors are brought together. Depending on the nature of the question, organisations may be involved in the research process themselves, providing information, collecting data or sometimes allowing students to work at their organisation. Normally, it takes about 3-4 weeks to formulate the research question and there may be a delay before the start of a semester and the student can start work on the project.

Half way through every project, students present their work to the organisations, which provides an opportunity to discuss the research process and clarify any issues. At the end of the project, the students present the results, and ways in which these can be implemented or communicated to a broader public are discussed.

Occasionally, the process involves some participatory methodology, but this is something that the science shop would like to develop further.

The science shop recognises the importance of communicating its work on issues of societal relevance to the broader public via its website, social media (Twitter), classical media as well as public lectures, workshops, open access reports and sometimes popular science articles. They have some media partners and news is spread nationally, regionally or locally, depending on the subject.

Examples of research projects

The science shop has conducted numerous research projects on different topics and also works with thematic research lines of societal relevance in which a number of researchers are involved, for example on the theme of effective language learning.

A few years ago, the science shop conducted a project for a high school on a radically new method of teaching French that the school was experimenting with. Both teachers and parents were having some concerns about its effectiveness and whether it was preparing pupils properly for exams. As a result of an article in a local newspaper about these concerns, the science shop got in contact and offered to carry out some research. The project had good continuity. Firstly, three students of applied linguistics did the testing with the pupils and followed them for half a year and later, one of the students turned the project into a PhD project involving more schools and following the language acquisition of pupils over three years. Her results inspired a website to improve French teaching methods and numerous workshops, and has reached many teachers.

Another example of a successful theme is multilingualism. This started with a project in 2005 and is still continuing. The original question came from a group of mothers that were raising bilingual children and were coming across a lot of misconceptions about the subject, such as advice that their mother tongue was harming the acquisition of Dutch. Together with the mothers and a school advisory service, the science shop researched the knowledge and guidance provided by kindergarten teachers, which revealed that a lot of uninformed advice was being given. Further projects investigated ways to communicate the correct information. These projects have helped to put the issue on the agenda in the Netherlands. Now, there is a website for parents and teachers, a yearly festival and even a study programme on Minorities & Multilingualism.

Impact and evaluation

Coordinators carry out an evaluation with students and the organisations to assess their satisfaction with the project process and the results and if their expectations have been met. The evaluation consists of a standard questionnaire that is completed face to face together with the students and organisations to allow other observations to be discussed as well.

The quality of the research results is assessed by the academic supervisors as part of course requirements because all the students undertake the projects for credits. Sometimes, if a thesis is too complicated for the organisation to use practically, the students may be asked by the science shop coordinators to produce additional materials e.g. a presentation, brochure, educational material or a digital resource.

At the start of the project, objectives in terms of impact for the organisation requesting the research are clearly defined to ensure that the results can be used by the organisation at the end of the project. Due to the thematic approach, certain projects (such as the multilingual project described above) can result in considerable societal impact over time.

Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI)

The coordinators are aware of the concept of responsible research and innovation, and undertake a number of RRI practices, such as working together with societal partners throughout the process, making results available via open access and taking into account ethics and diversity. Responsible research is what the science shop is constantly aiming to achieve.

Professional development and training

The coordinators occasionally attend national or regional workshops for professional development purposes as well as the annual Living Knowledge Conference, although much knowledge is gained through practice. The coordinators try to pass relevant knowledge onto students working on projects and involve them in science shop and Living Knowledge meetings, when applicable.

In 2017, the senior coordinator took part in an online course on knowledge mobilization run by the University of Guelph, Canada, which they found useful. The junior coordinator, who started in 2017, is planning to participate in a summer school to be held at the Living Knowledge Conference in 2018.

Challenges

Problems are occasionally encountered with research projects. For example, projects might not be completed due to students’ personal problems, miscommunication or a supervisor who does not judge the research results or report to be of the necessary quality. These types of issues can result in delays and demotivated stakeholders and students. The science shop always tries to find solutions to enable projects to be successfully completed and offers mediation, but sometimes it is out of their hands.

In some fields, it can be difficult to find students to work on the projects, due to very tight curricula or competitive development opportunities. Sometimes, the science shop has to decline questions because there are no supervisors or students with such expertise, the questions are too big or too complicated for a student to answer, or the problems does not lend themselves to being solved by research. Challenges sometimes also occur when working with certain types of community organisations. For example, organisations may not have sufficient capacity (such as those working with volunteers), knowledge or time to contribute to the process.

Success factors

The success of the science shop is dependent on effective collaboration between many different stakeholders, which involves considerable investment in human relationships and communication to get all partners committed to a project. The societal organisation also needs to be committed to changing something, interested in new insights and willing to assist the students. Expectations must also be managed. Students also need to be motivated to put effort into trying to help, listening to the organisations’ needs and acting accordingly. Supervisors must also appreciate the relevance of the projects. The science shop acts as the ‘glue’ in the project. Senior management support is also needed to guarantee funding and the sustainability of the science shop.

The Science Shop Language, Culture and Communication rarely encounters problems with student motivation. Many arts students are keen to add something to society, to see their research being used outside of academia, and they also value the experience for their professional career.

Future development

The science shops at Groningen are keen to develop their knowledge and use of participatory action research (in which organisations, not just students, take the role of researchers) and to look for new methods to co-create knowledge with organisations.

The science shop is also hoping to ensure the sustainability of its activities as a result of change to the curriculum that is planned for September 2018, namely the implementation of a career minor (a programme designed to prepare students for the labour market). All students in the faculty will be able to opt to do a project for an external organisation as part of an interdisciplinary team. The science shop’s role will be to provide suggestions of projects. As a result, projects will be less dependent on individual supervisors and students. It is estimated that a potential 200 students a year will select this career minor.

Contact details

Website: http://www.rug.nl/society-business/science-shops/taal-cultuur-en-communicatie/

Contact Person: Saskia Visser

Email: tawi@rug.nl