What do we do at the Science Shop? A look into participatory research

Scientific research always starts with a question. Since the beginning of times, this initial question has been asked by scientists, experts, scholars - the people who will conduct the research. The conventional scientific method has worked like this for centuries: a scientist's curiosity leads them to ask themselves a question, design an experiment, get results, interpret them, and come up with a new set of questions to answer. In most recent decades, questions are also commonly asked by governments and companies. And this has been the way we do science: only a selected few ask the questions.

What's the problem with making science this way? It has brought a great deal of knowledge and technology, but also has its down sides. The biggest one: it can end up alienating science from the rest of society - science becomes this abstract thing that occurs far away from society and that has no clear, direct benefit. We end up not really understanding what scientists do or why they even do it. The problems that we face in our everyday lives are still there. Why is research so important then anyway?

That's where community-based participatory research (CBPR) comes in. In this approach, it is society who asks the questions: they are included, or in other words engaged in the process. Any research can be looked at through this lens: what's the level of engagement of your research project?

Infographic that illustrates different levels of engagement between experts and non-experts.
Infographic that illustrates different levels of engagement between experts and non-experts.

Image adapted from: Scishops.eu: Enhancing the Responsible and Sustainable Expansion of the Science Shops Ecosystem in Europe; Practitioner roadmap and methodology toolkit (2018)

Traditional research works at level 1 (Discuss): science occurs somewhere in a university, and then we hear about findings on TV, or read it in a newspaper. CBPR aims to operate at high engagement levels: the exact strategies might vary, but society is always involved from the very beginning of the research process, coming up with the questions to be answered, co-designing the research process with scientists.

And this is what we do at the Science Shop: we listen to the concerns of groups in society, who come to us with a question or with a challenge they face. Together, we can break down the problem in parts and see which questions can be asked, or which answers would help face the challenge. Then, a research project is set in motion, led by a scientist of the WUR and involving not only the group with the question but also many other voices and perspectives. By engaging many different actors we can better understand the problem and how to find answers together.

You can see more details on the way of working we've developed at the WUR Science Shop on the infographic.

Did you get a better understanding of our principles? Do you have questions that we could solve together? Don't hesitate to contact us at wetenschapswinkel@wur.nl or via the contact form on the right.