Any civil society organisations, social enterprises or citizens who have a crucial research question but a limited budget can apply for the help of the Wageningen University & Research (WUR) Science Shop. Students and researchers can then sit down with the applicant and work out how their question can best be answered. Science Shop’s Lèneke Pfeiffer talks about its background and explains its approach.
"In the 1970s, every university in the Netherlands had a Science Shop. This was based on the idea of students being able to give something back to society. When the government withdrew their funding, many universities stopped providing this service. However, because WUR’s Executive Board continued to provide funding, the services provided by the Wageningen Science Shop were never jeopardised", says Lèneke Pfeiffer.
"The condition of the research question dictates that it should always serve the public interest and that the solution should be able to further benefit society. The question obviously needs to fit in with a WUR domain, such as nutrition and health, sustainable agricultural systems, water management or liveable green spaces.
Serving the public’s interest may seem like a 'dull concept', but it’s an essential aspect of our work. The results from a research report are actually put to use. One of the reasons why we know this is because we always contact the client after about three years to find out whether they did anything with the project results. Initiatives have undoubtedly disappeared from time to time, but in most cases those who were involved with a project actually did something with the results."
Since the government started encouraging citizen participation, Lèneke has seen a change in the types of application topics. Citizens have started doing things themselves, in their neighbourhood or district, and they also know exactly where to find the Science Shop. Lèneke: "Many volunteers invest their time, energy and knowledge in these types of research projects. In addition to the obvious participants like students and supervisors, we also try to generate other people’s enthusiasm for a project: if it concerns the living environment, we’ll involve the municipality/province or a comparable organisation. If the project concerns the generation of local energy, we’ll arouse the interest of several energy producers. The more extensive your project is, the larger your network will be and the greater the chance will be that your result will have the desired effect."
One Wageningen avant la lettre
When a research application has been received, Lèneke or her colleague Gerard Straver prefers to visit the applicant together with an expert (researcher). This allows them to conduct an intake and, above all, enables them to examine the situation first hand. Together with the applicant they formulate a specific research question. "It’s often a multidisciplinary question that requires a multidisciplinary approach. We prefer to combine knowledge from different science groups and connect the internal and external entities. This is the way that we’ve always done it, so it’s essentially One Wageningen avant la lettre. We feel that it’s important to take an integral approach to our solutions. It’s precisely for this reason that there are researchers who are keen to work with us on our projects."
The appropriate starting point
Students can register for the Science Shop’s research questions to either obtain course credits or complete their studies. The Science Shop has 35-40 projects in its portfolio and completes approximately 10 to 14 projects a year. When it comes to finding project leaders, they make use of their network. Lèneke: "Of course, we also receive questions that are not suited to our line of work. We work closely with the Education Desk (Ed.: recently renamed to Society Based Education, which translates societal questions into research assignments for courses). Sometimes a topic is so complex that it’s actually more appropriate for ACT (Academic Consultancy Training). We also play a role in passing questions on to the appropriate entity."
The Science Shop (which is part of the Corporate Value Creation staff department) recently moved from the Atlas building to the new Plus Ultra II building on Wageningen Campus. The added value of having set up shop on campus is high: "We’re within walking distance of both students and researchers. That’s important for our work, because it’s precisely this cross-fertilisation between researchers and students that makes our work so fascinating and helps our projects to progress. And yes, the circumstances surrounding the coronavirus have made things difficult. Not being able to meet the students and researchers face-to-face does nothing to benefit the cross-pollination process."
Alternative approach due to the coronavirus
You now have to get to know new customers online and this means that you may sometimes miss the true context of a problem, says Lèneke. "When it comes to the usability of the results, connectivity is crucial. This also allows you to see the kind of relationship that people have with a specific environment or with a problem. For example, during an intake in Arnhem, we asked the customer if they were willing to make a video for the students. This is a different type of approach. Normally you’d go and have a look on location with a group. Everything’s become so theoretical and abstract. Teamwork has also been affected by the coronavirus; people need to draw on other characteristics and achieving the same result now requires more energy than it used to. The only positive aspect is of course that we’re all travelling a lot less. Fortunately, the number of questions we’ve been receiving has not yet dried up. If anything, it actually seems to have increased."
If you’re involved in a civil society organisation, citizens’ initiative or social enterprise that also has a pressing research question but doesn’t have the means to conduct the necessary research, please visit the Science Shop website or take a look at the research questions and results in the Science Shop’s Annual Report (in Dutch).