Community-Based Research: Scientific Power to the People

Communities pick up where science leaves off
by Richard Sclove and Madeleine Scammell, from Yes!
January-February 1999
Add to My MSN


Content Tools

Related Content

Let’s Play Nice

A new study from Yale University suggests that babies as young as six-months old can tell the differ...

Sensational Science Journalism

The world of science isn't immune to sensational reporting. Jason Rosenhouse, a writer for Panda’s T...

EPA Takes the Padlocks Off Its Scientific Libraries

The Bush administration took a wrecking ball to the EPA’s network of technical libraries in 2006. No...

Bionic Beetles, Spy Cats, and Other Military Critters

Berkeley researchers have tricked out a beetle with tiny electrodes that allow them to control its f...

The affected Woburn families responded by initiating their own epidemiological research. Eventually, they were able to establish the existence of a cluster of leukemia cases and then relate it to industrial carcinogens in the water supply. Their civil suit against the corporations responsible for the contamination resulted in an $8 million out-of-court settlement and spurred reauthorization of federal Superfund legislation aimed at cleaning up the country's worst toxic waste sites.

There are two key factors in the Woburn families' success: The victims and their families organized and worked together, and they enlisted the help of scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health, who conducted crucial research both with them and on their behalf. The Woburn case is a high-profile example of what community-based scientific research can accomplish.

Right now, around the world, most research is conducted on behalf of private enterprise, the military, and national governments, or in pursuit of the scientific community's intellectual interests. Consequently, research agendas often favor elite groups, and--wittingly or not--help them maintain their privileged positions.

In contrast to this prevailing undemocratic model, community-based research is rooted in the community, serves a community's interests, and encourages citizen participation at all levels.

One of the world's most extensive systems for conducting community-based research is in the Netherlands. Over the past 25 years, 13 Dutch universities have established a network of several dozen community research centers (or "science shops") that conduct research on social and technological issues in response to specific questions posed by community groups, public-interest organizations, local governments, and workers. Today, the shops provide answers to about 2,000 inquiries each year.

Graduate and undergraduate students perform much of the research under faculty supervision, and they frequently receive university credit for their work, often turning their investigations into theses. Because both students and faculty are doing what they would be doing as part of their regular academic workloads, the extra cost and time are minimal. The difference is that project results are not simply filed away and forgotten; instead, they help people in the real world address important social problems.

The time is ripe to try something similar in the United States. Some examples already exist and have resulted, for instance, in energy conservation retrofits of over 10,000 low-income housing units in Chicago; a requirement that scientists seek permission from a Native American community before using its members as research subjects; and replacement of poisoned drinking water with safe water in a rural Kentucky community.

Consider what else might be accomplished if community-based research were funded at the same level as, say, PepsiCo's proposed $50 million effort (after two years of market research involving 5,000 people) to reinvent its Doritos tortilla chip. This would be five times the current total annual U.S. investment in community-based research. Or what if this democratic vision of science received the same level of funding as just one B-2 bomber? That would amount to a hundredfold increase with $500 million left over.

In short, the United States not only needs, but also can easily afford more community-based scientific research. Indeed, the rather modest investment of tax dollars or foundation money offers ample returns in social improvements.

From Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures (Summer 1998) Subscriptions: $24/yr. (4 issues) from Box 10818, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110-0818.


Previous | 1 | 2 | Next






Post a comment below.

 








Pay Now & Save $5!
First Name: *
Last Name: *
Address: *
City: *
State/Province: *
Zip/Postal Code:*
Country:
Email:*
(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here

Want to gain a fresh perspective? Read stories that matter? Feel optimistic about the future? It's all here! Utne Reader offers provocative writing from diverse perspectives, insightful analysis of art and media, down-to-earth news and in-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.

Save Even More Money By Paying NOW!

Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $5 and get 4 issues of Utne Reader for only $31.00 (USA only).

Or Bill Me Later and pay just $36 for 4 issues of Utne Reader!