WP5: Interventions in Research

Final report: Willem Halffman and Mieke van Hemert, CSOs’ interventions into agri-environmental issues, November 2010

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Executive Summary

This study describes experiences of CSOs in their engagement with (agri-)environmental research in the Netherlands. It maps out diverse forms of engagement with research – from CSOs participating in research programming, CSOs performing their own research, to forms of mediation between CSOs and researchers. For each of these forms, the study included specific case studies based on qualitative research in the Netherlands: the Wadden Sea Academy, the collection of biodiversity data by the Dutch volunteer naturalist networks (including their use in environmental monitoring), and the Dutch science shops. The study aimed to identify patterns and tensions in these forms of interaction, in order to articulate problems and choices in the CSOs’ engagement with research. Through a longer-term perspective, it has focused on problems in structural cooperation, rather than project management (analysed in CREPE work package 8).

Three case studies

A)Dutch science shops
Science shops are organisations providing civil society actors access to university research. They allow societal needs to enter research agendas on a grass-roots level, while allowing researchers access to socially relevant problems and to the actors involved. Dutch science shops covered a wide variety of disciplines and issues, often specialising in particular problems and their relevant knowledge, but environmental problems have always been prominent. Typical examples include analysing soil samples for soil pollution concerns, or designing alternative traffic routes to reduce noise pollution and hazards.

Dutch science shops have existed since the 1970s, but have fallen on hard times, with privatisations and university reorganisations that in most cases have re-oriented their mission to more commercial goals. Meanwhile, in spite of the Dutch science shops being on the defensive, the science shop model is spreading all over Europe. While the science shops do not necessarily correspond perfectly to the model of co-operative research, civil society participation in research is at the heart of their mission. The experience of their long-term development is relevant to other forms of participatory research elsewhere.

Science shops face a particular range of recurrent arguments and challenges at Dutch universities. In the climate of output-steered, professionalised university management, sub-units are pressurised to either generate income our journal publications (and preferably both). While it is tempting to perform towards these indicators when the legitimacy of science shops is questioned, this strategy also holds as risk, as it implicitly acknowledges the relevance of such output indicators. While tempting in the short run, in the longer run this strategy leads to further arguments pushing science shops towards generating more income and more publications. These results ultimately negate the core mission of providing knowledge to civil society.

Diversification of services, allies, and funding has helped some science shops to extend their support network. Successful science shops also invest heavily in the visibility of their contributions, and in the development of performance indicators on their own terms. Science shops also have to maintain a reputation for high quality research and members of science shops, for example through close cooperation with academic researchers. In the past, Dutch science shops were able to ride a wave of high academic commitment to civil society concerns. The cautionary tale of the Dutch science shops contains a warning for what happens after this wave passes, e.g. as a result of a new university management modes. To maintain societal participation, it has to prepare for what comes after the initial wave.

B)Wadden Academy
The Wadden Academy is a platform that aims to create a sustainable knowledge base for the protection of the Wadden Sea. It seeks cooperation with societal actors like the Wadden Society, a powerful CSO defending the environmental importance of this sea. The Wadden Sea is the intertidal zone that borders on the South-East of the North Sea and stretches from the north of the Netherlands to Denmark. It is an area of exceptional ecological importance, harbouring rich bird and marine life. Some of its small islands have the highest plant biodiversity in the country. At the same time, the Wadden Sea holds commercially interesting cockle and mussel banks, and sits on top of a promising gas field.

The Wadden Academy operates under the umbrella of the Royal Academy of Sciences and is funded by national government, in the context of an agreement with the commercial interests. It is to contribute to a Nature Restoration Programme: cooperation between scientists and actors involved, including nature organisations, is to result in a shared vision of ecological recovery. This includes shared fact-finding and shared definition of research questions that can help settle some of the disagreements in the assessment of the state of this sea and its future.

The Wadden Academy has managed to build trust and discursive alignment towards shared goals, changing the climate of polarised conflict that preceded it. Both nature organisations and scientists acknowledge that participants argue and act strategically, and that alignment of the strategies of scientists and activists, while acknowledging different roles, tasks and identities, asks for sustained efforts and frequent meetings. Among scientists there is a growing willingness to focus research on concrete, urgent problems, while nature organisations such as  the Wadden Society are putting much effort to elaborate proposals for nature restoration in consultation with scientists. This has occurred through the transformation of ad hoc and informal exchanges with scientists to more institutionalised forms of cooperation.

C) Private Data-managing Organisations
‘Private Data-managing Organisations’ (PGOs) are a set of ten organisations that observe and register biodiversity in the Netherlands, each of them specialising in a specific group of organisms, such as birds or fungi. They involve between 15 and 20 thousand volunteer naturalists, who spend much of their spare time performing biodiversity censuses, often according through strict protocols and standardised forms. The resulting data are used in public policy for nature conservation, in evaluation and development of conservation measures by managers of nature reserves, or in application procedures of town and regional planning decisions, but also for research, or public information and education. Increasingly, resulting indicators are used to assess environmental impacts. Farmland bird counts are used to assess natural environment impacts of changing agricultural practices, such as increasing pesticide use, the reduction of crop diversity, or the destruction on hedge rows through extensification. Biodiversity indicators have also found new uses in the assessment of climate change impacts.

The PGOs have been extremely successful in organising a solid set of institutions that allow civil society volunteer organisations to cooperate with professional researchers, producing knowledge that is a vital ingredient of public policy. Their model of participation is perhaps counter-intuitive to the format one might expect in co-operative research: it makes use of fairly formal institutions, contractual relations and bureaucratised data processing.

By setting up national offices run by professional staff, funded through public projects and donations, PGOs have managed to reconcile the ‘romantic’ conservation concerns of their volunteer constituency with the rationalist universals of state and market. They have specified conditional ownership of observation data and the databases as a whole, designed governance structures that put the volunteer constituency in a strong control position, and have found ways to keep volunteers motivated to collect data according to protocols by showing the benefits to protection of the natural environment. Most remarkably, the PGOs have managed to build a high level of cognitive authority, with carefully verified and virtually unrivalled databases.

Strategic issues

The three cases give rise to strategic advice to organisations with co-operative research ambitions, based on both success and failure experiences. They have to face three crucial problems.

First, the reality of science for civil society is that it has to prove itself constantly. It has a problem of legitimacy: it has to justify benefits not readily expressed in the currently appreciated indicators of rationalised science management, which favour earning capacity or publication output. Co-operative research hence needs to make an extra effort to make its contribution visible. Especially since co-operative research may not always score well on standard output indicators and because science for civil society is not self-evident to administrative or political principals, the advertisement of co-operative research benefits needs extra attention. Concrete and visible contributions of co-operative research to environmental protection are also crucial to keep the CSO side of the cooperation on board.

The cases studied also suggest that co-operative research should avoid compromise on research standards, as other stakeholders are likely to challenge its research credentials as a way to dislodge unfavourable results. With the involvement or advice of professional researchers, well-documented development or use of methods, use of the peer review system of science, or extra care for meticulous data gathering, co-operative research can try to pre-empt such challenges. An important way to show scientific credibility is through scientific publications, even if this does not seem immediately interesting to a CSO partner.

One last important principle is to maintain the civil society mission. Attempts to perform well commercially or in academic terms may seem tempting in the short run, but undermine the specific mission in the long run. It may be possible to also perform as a partner in commercial research or work for public policy, who may provide rich resources, but ultimately it is the specific contribution to civil society projects that distinguishes co-operative research from commercial contract research or academic projects.


A second key problem is how to protect civil society concerns. CSOs face a highly organised worlds of research and public policy, in which they risk being instrumentalised as sources of data, token consultation audiences representing societal interests, or policy implementation conduits. CSO partners in co-operative research need protection from such pressures and the cases studied offer some suggestions. One powerful strategy is to guarantee a share of project ownership to CSO partners. This can entail control over resulting data, publication or copy rights, but also a share in research resources. Institutional guarantees, including legal conditions of data ownership, or organisational statutes putting member councils in charge, assure that CSOs keep some control over projects and can enforce such control in a conflict. Another strategy to protect CSO concerns is to share control over research planning, to allow CSO partners to define problems, make sure civil society concerns are included, or deadlines are timed to decision making. This may require formal governance structures that provide civil society members genuine control over priorities and allocations.


A third key problem co-operative research organisations have to face is the problem of continuity of cooperation. Our case studies show how co-operative research requires time for unconventional cooperation to grow and develop. Partners may meet through occasional projects, but more structural cooperation allows partners to improve mutual understanding and to find solutions for problems in the cooperation. Experiences in our case studies suggest that formalisation of relations can help continuity. Personal contacts, shared vision and enthusiasm for civil society causes may be crucial for co-operative projects, but formalisation of relations can help take cooperation to the next level, even though this may not come naturally to civil society projects that see themselves more as a movement than as a formal organisation.

In addition, co-operative research organisations should build diverse support networks, as non-evident legitimacy means financial and administrative support will always be unstable. Networks of CSO partners can support co-operative research with public legitimacy and political support if need be, while diversification of sources of income can guarantee continuation even if the principal has a change of vision.

Environment as research object

The case studies not only provide insight into the organisation of co-operative research, but into diverse visions of the natural environment. On the one hand, the case studies show how civil society organisations talk of a nature that is rich, local, imbued with intrinsic values, to be admired for its particular aesthetic qualities. Amateur biologists are foremost concerned with the observation of a particular rare bird, appreciated for its remarkable plumage, rather than its contribution to an indicator of climate change.

Such a rich and localised experience of specific nature, perhaps best called ‘romantic’ for lack of a better short-hand, seems irreconcilable with the rationalised account of nature by state and market. To cockle fishermen and gas companies, the Wadden Sea is also a resource, holding potential wealth that can be measured in monetary terms, and hence made comparable to alternative fishing grounds or gas fields. In public policy, measured nature acquires universal characteristics that serve to assess choices in agricultural development or environmental protection, or compare the efficiency of protecting one forest rather than another.

On the other hand, these cases also show how, on a pragmatic level, cooperation between these opposite accounts is possible, albeit with a lot of work and careful manoeuvring. These cooperative schemes challenge the idea that agreement on all fundamental values is a necessary basis to proceed with environmental protection. The amateurs cooperate with the translation of romantic nature observations into cold numbers, on the pragmatic grounds that these numbers help protect the natural environment. ‘Universalised’ indicators of nature are extended to indicators of environmental quality, such as measuring the effects of climate change through biodiversity, assessing the likely distribution of escaped genetically modified rapeseed.

CSO-driven research shows a model to develop research priorities that is pro-active. Rather than to wait for public initiatives, Dutch science shops, Wadden Sea activists, and amateur biologists pushed forward with research for civil society interests – supported by public projects where available, but without them if necessary. Public research funding on a project level, both national and European, can fuel such endeavours.  But CSOs have their own responsibility to set up organisations that can articulate stakes in research. Through such organisations, they can shape different understandings of societal problems, agri-environmental issues and sustainable development – as an alternative to the attempt to convince public institutions to champion their agenda for them.