Holland's unique 'science shops'
Amsterdam — A plan to make scientific expertise available to the public has taken root here and spread to 11 other cities in the Netherlands. It is called, in Dutch, "Wetenschapswinkel," or "Science shops," and is designed for university scientists here to use their training and facilities for the benefit of "citizen organizations" -- feminist groups, environmental associations, neighborhood groups, and the like -- rather than those segments of society traditionally served by the scientific community, such as industry and government.
Bas De Boer, who runs the science shop at the University of Amsterdam, site of the country's largest and most institutionalized shop, says, "A multinational corporation has always been able to come to the university and demand that such and such research be done, because it could pay well. But an environmental group, say, or any other similar group which needed scientific advice as much, perhaps more, but which didn't have the necessary financial resources, has never had the opportunity."
Groups now come to the Amsterdam science shop, a three-room storefront near the university campus, or to any one of the other 26 shops in Holland and ask that scientists study such subjects as working conditions for women at a given factory or the level of air pollution near selected chemical plants.
The Amsterdam shop became a model for other shops when it was set up on a volunteer basis by students two years ago. Here, a 24- member "Committee of Advisers" (made up of an equal number of university representatives -- faculty and students -- representatives of other organizations such as the Amsterdam Environmental League, feminist groups, and trade unions) meets regularly to approve or disapprove requests for research. If approved, the "committee" assigns the project to one or more university-affiliated scientists. There is a pool of about 50 of these who have volunteered to help. Mr. De Boer, a chemist, says that "often the work may simply involve translating existing scientific information into language the citizen organizations can use." There is no charge for the service.
To be approved, the proposed research project must come from a nonprofit organization not able to pay for the research itself but strong enough to use the research results to improve its situation or the situation of whomever they represent.
Efforts at public -interest science have often sprung up elsewhere in recent years -- notably, the "Science for the People" and the "Science for Citizens" programs in the United States. But the Dutch plan is thought to be the only one formally and financially linked to a university structure.
The idea evolved after Dutch students in the late 1960s pressed for the "democratization" of science and set up small groups to provide scientific advice to citizen organization. In 1976, the Scientific Workers League (the Dutch equivalent of "Science for the People") urged the creation of special institutes to work exclusively on "society-oriented" research. The science shops grew out of that proposal, enjoying the support of the country's Labor government.
However, this was ousted in 1977 by a conservative government, which called the idea of assisting such groups "not workable in practice." It blocked funds previously allocated by the Council of the University of Amsterdam for use by the Amsterdam shop.
"But in January, 1979," Mr. De Boer said, adding that the amsterdam shop has worked, or is working, on about 500 research projects, "the government released the funds, 50,000 guilders ($25,000), and we expect hat that annual allotment will continue for an indefinite period. We also expect that it will only be a matter of time until the other shops in Holland are financed by the government." There are science shops at five other Dutch universities -- Amsterdam, Groningen , Eindhoven, Utrecht, and Leiden -- and, less formally and outside the university structure, in seven other Dutch cities.
"The number of cases we're working on compared with the total number [of research projects] being worked on at the university is still small," said Mr. De Boer, one of two halftime staff members paid to run the shop office. "But we're patient. It may take some time to reach our goal, which is a complete reorganization of the way science is done, and for whom it is done, at universities. It's our belief that universities exist to serve all of society."