Blurring the boundaries between science and society: spaces of interaction

To be helpful in addressing current day societal challenges, research should draw on and integrate different kinds of knowledges – meaning working ‘hand-in-hand’ with other societal actors. But how to go about it? DRIFT’s senior researcher & advisor Julia Wittmayer shares some inspirations on potentially transformative ideas for research.

What do transdisciplinary research, participatory action research and living labs have in common? These formats facilitate interactions between science and society with the aim of increasing societal capacities and developing scientific knowledge to address societal problems. Rather than artificially separating science and society – these approaches create spaces of interaction.

These spaces are referred to differently by different research traditions. These references include agoras spaces of interaction as referred to by Mode-2-Science scholars (Nowotny et al. 2001) expressing the underlying democratising aspiration. Similarly, action research scholars Greenwood and Levin (2007) refer to these spaces as arenas for dialogue. Drawing on Habermas’ ideal speech situation, action research scholars Wicks and Reason (2009) term the spaces as communicative space. In research on sustainability transitions, they are transition arenas – protected spaces allowing for experimentation with radically different ideas, practices and roles (Loorbach 2010).

What makes these spaces interesting is that traditional role understandings are blurred: What is a researcher and what a practitioner? Which activities are they engaging in? What is expected from them? In addition, various kinds of knowledge are considered equal, while not the same, in addressing real-world problems, generating knowledge, formulating possible solutions, and directing actions.

Essentially (and here comes our link with social innovation), research approaches that are creating such spaces of interaction can be thought of as social innovations in research. They imply new or alternative ways of doing, organising, framing and knowing research. On top of this, these spaces also allow for alternative ways of thinking about and addressing a societal problem, thus opening up the possibility to work on social innovations that provide solutions for real-world problems.

With their access to funding opportunities, researchers play an important role in providing, creating and maintaining such spaces. The question then arises- what are the different approaches and where do we find these spaces in real life?

Probably one of the longest standing approaches, or more precisely family of approaches, designed to increase the collaboration of science and society towards addressing real world issues is action research. Action research comes in many forms and types: there is participatory action research, appreciative inquiry, co-operative research, collaborative action research, and more. It is used to address questions in a diversity of domains including education, territorial development, food sovereignty or climate change. These different approaches to action research all focus on addressing a specific real-world challenge through combining action with the shared production of scientific knowledge as well as societally relevant knowledge in a collaborative process of scientists and practitioners. A first entry point is for example the Action Research + Network, which aims to share good action research and is hosted by leading action research scholar Hilary Bradbury.

Also long standing, but less known for its transformative ambitions is citizen science. In the general understanding, citizen science relates to the participation of the general public in scientific activities, such as measuring air quality or counting butterflies. An impactful example is the work of the Entomological Society Krefeld, where the work of citizen scientists over the course of nearly three decades allowed tracing a 75% decline in biomass (Hallmann et al. 2017). In recent years, citizen science is understood in a way that puts more power in the hand of citizen scientists by e.g. including them in the definition of the problem and the interpreting of data. The only recently launched European Citizen Science Association is witness to this surge in interest.

In the 1970s, the concept of science shops was developed to strengthen the influence of civil society organisations on societal issues by giving them more access to scientific knowledge. Science shops represent more of an organisational form than an actual research approach, since they are entities that facilitate the cooperation between universities and civil society organisations. Usually, the latter come with specific questions to the university partners. Together they translate these questions into research questions, which are then answered through research by either university staff, or more commonly, higher education students. An international network of science shops was launched in 2001, the Living Knowledge Network. Today, this network not only focuses on science shops but on public engagement with and participation in different aspects of science. For a study of the network and different local science shop see here.

A more recent approach to research on real-life challenges in collaboration of scientific and public actors is referred to as Living Labs. Living Labs come in different shapes and sizes. The European Network of Living Labs is a member-based network of benchmarked Living Labs and defines these as user-centred, open innovation ecosystems based on a systematic user co-creation approach, integrating research and innovation processes in real life communities and settings.  A different, more critical stream that is also related to the field of sustainability (transitions) research are Urban Living Labs. These are temporary, place-based interventions that facilitate experimentation in cities (von Wirth et al. forthcoming). An example is the Urban.Gro.Lab, an Urban Living Lab in the city of Groningen initiated by the Municipality and the University. Through the lab, research regarding spatial and societal issues is tested.

This short overview of research approaches provides but a partial impression as there are many more, like transdisciplinary researchtransition arenas or real-world laboratories to name a few in the field of sustainability (transition) research.

Of course, not all researchers are interested or skilled in this kind of collaboration. They have to navigate the institutional environment of the university and broader academia as well as the expectations raised towards them. They need to negotiate their societal engagement, combine it with their own expertise, interests, and capacities as well as the institutional constraints and retain their research integrity. On the bright side, for those researchers willing to engage in collaborations and for persons/institutions interested in collaborating with researchers, more donors are funding collaborative research performed by different stakeholders – increasing incentives for stronger collaborations between research and practice with more robust knowledge, innovation and experimentation as the desired result. See the current Horizon 2020 programme of the European Union or the public science agenda of the Netherlands. While this kind of research is not the only available solution, it is a resource to be tapped into to accelerate your initiative.

This blog was published first at the website of the Social Innovation Community.

October 15, 2018