3. Working with clients or civil society partners


3. Working with clients or civil society partners

For which clients do Science Shops work?

Science Shops work in general for those that would otherwise not have access to scientific research. These are in general grassroots organisations and NGOs. Criteria for accepting of a research request that are often used are:

a) The question is not commercially driven and the results will become public.
b) The client’s organisation is able to use the research results to achieve its mission / benefit the public good.
c) The client does not have the full funding or knowledge to obtain the results otherwise.

Some Science Shops are rigid regarding criterion a), and will not accept any question from companies, even if the question itself is not directly commercial. This also depends on other facilities that companies have in a specific region to have research done (e.g. knowledge transfer agencies). Other Science Shops focus more on the research question. Some Science Shops also run an internship service or a business’ knowledge transfer bureau; these should be seen as activities additional to the Science Shop part of the work.

Criterion b) is important, since it assumes some form of organisation of the client. Individuals can usually not use research results to achieve a public goal, whereas (even informal-) organisations can. Criterion b) also demands effort from the Science Shop itself, to deliver a useable product. Publication of results to a wider audience can be negotiated.

Criterion c) is not used very strictly; usually there is a grey area and the Science Shop decides case-by-case whether the client can help to do the research or fund part of it. Over the years, a number of NGOs professionalized, which means they do have knowledge, however, this means in practice that their research questions also become more complex, and their needs for a science shop are not reduced. Another reason for NGOs to approach a Science Shop is the fact that a Science Shop gives independent advice.

How is the mediation process structured?

Questions from civil organisations are rephrased to scientific research projects. Students, under supervision of a professor then perform the research, or a researcher does it. Students usually obtain credit points for their research. The research will lead to a report (or another type of product) which is made to be of use to the client. The student will have gained valuable skills (problem definition, project based working, communicating, planning). The professor and/or the researcher will have case material for either future publication or further theoretical analysis. Moreover, for the professor involved this supervision is part of the teaching obligation. So, in fact all actors are doing what they are supposed to do: teaching, learning and researching. This is why a Science Shop can be implemented at relatively low additional costs and why Science Shops can also serve the non-profit sector.

Science Shop staff in universities usually performs these tasks:

  1. Receive/solicit clients and (new) societally relevant questions
  2. With the client, articulate the problem (map the situation)
  3. Do preliminary research (literature, internet, databases, experts), leading to: refusal or referral: if question cannot be answered (by your institute) short advice: if you found the answer already existing (provisional) scientific research question
  4. Find a scientific (co-) supervisor and/or suitable course/practical/thesis period
  5. Find a student (+ options for credit points) or researcher (+ funds if required)
  6. Maintain communication and support the process, from start to finish of research
  7. Facilitate useable presentation/publication of results (popular report, brochure, website, seminar, press release, etc.)
  8. Support client in implementing results and recommendations and formulate follow up actions (stakeholder meetings, legal procedures, conferences, follow-up research proposals)
  9. Make inventory of follow-up research or research-themes (options for scientific publications, interesting themes for further research (programs))
  10. Evaluation (with student, supervisor and client)

There are various levels of involvement by Science Shop staff depending on their organisational form; in de-centralised (faculty-based) Science Shop coordinators are usually more involved in (co-)supervising the content of the research as well, next to their process management.

How is an equal and independent partnership formed?

Have a start meeting, and remain in contact. There will always be discussion on doing independent research vs. being a partner. Make clear appointments (like a contract). Approach the relationship on the basis that all parties have knowledge to share, and that all have to be beneficiaries. Negotiation is crucial to establishing and maintaining equality.

You need to build credibility in the research methodology – that you are using good scientific practices, and that where students are involved, they are (normally) being supervised by a tutor. This builds confidence in the quality of the results.

Inform clients in advance that the research results will become public even if they don’t like the outcome. Normally an embargo for a short period can be negotiated, giving the organisation time to work out a reaction on unwelcome research results or to develop a communication strategy.

Be strict about your own responsibility, all stakeholders will try to influence you. Negative findings from an internal organisation study can also be presented verbally to a client, and their response embedded in your report.

The more contact you maintain with such a client, the more they are likely to implement the report.

If you are working for companies as well, you may get into a conflict of interest one day. This is one of the reasons that most Dutch universities have separate units for SMEs and civil society. Even though behind the scene, the same professor could work for both.

How do we deal with liability for our products or services?

You can add a disclaimer to your products, stating “this research has been done with care – however, the authors and the publisher do not accept any liability for the use of the research results or any errors contained in them”. Of course, there are many variants of such a disclaimer; if you are part of a larger organisation there may be a general policy or a legal department that can help you.

How much do we charge our client/partners?

In general, science shops try to make their services available without financial threshold. This means that you can assess on a case by case basis if the client can come up with some of the cost (or can get subsidies for the research). The Science Shops of Utrecht University use a flow diagram to calculate project costs and the costs for the client. More information about the budget calculation model of Science Shop Utrecht can be found here: Budget-calcualtion-model_SciShop-Utrecht

What are important aspects for NGOs in co-operating with Science Shops?

In the Interacts project, NGOs mentioned “Access to free or affordable research” as very important. Some bigger NGOs might be able to pay for some of the costs of the services, but it is important that the costs are affordable, since NGOs have scarce resources. Also important is the “Access to impartial and independent research”:

  • Quality assurance through an external evaluator/ researcher.
  • An external review allows the voice of the service users to be heard.
  • A different view is considered as enriching.
  • The Science Shop as an organisation that has the role of an external expert for the NGO.

Projects done through the university structures are seen as scientifically impartial. The organisations feel that by having projects done through a university, they feel empowered through higher legitimacy in the political debate, and feel that their arguments are stronger than if they had produced the results themselves.

A relationship with a university is of the increasing importance for the survival of many NGOs.

In general Science Shops are perceived by NGO representatives as an efficient way to connect universities and communities, they gain access to science and research, which they would not have had if Science Shops had not existed. Science shops are perceived as more accessible than a university department owing to their explicit openness to the public. They are perceived as less bureaucratic, than the university system

What are the barriers to co-operation between an NGO and a Science Shop?

A perceived barrier can be whether students could be capable of meeting the needs of the NGOs. Interacts research showed that NGOs reported very positively on student commitment e.g. in the Austrian case study reports the students were described as very ambitious, engaged, active, and determined. In the United Kingdom case study report the independence and critical awareness of student researchers was pointed out. Another barrier, mentioned in the Danish case study report, is that when NGOs approach the Science Shops with project proposals, they cannot be sure, whether or when some students will decide to work with their project proposal. 

This can have an impact on how many NGOs approach the Science Shop and with what type of problems. For some NGOs it seems to imply that they approach the Science Shops with less urgent, but maybe more long-term oriented and strategic problems.