The Amsterdam Science Shop: Doing Science for the People

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The Amsterdam Science Shop: Doing Science for the People

by Ad Meertens & Onno Nieman

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 11, No. 5, September/October 1979, p. 15—17 & 36—37

The “magical year” 1968 initiated a trend in Holland toward democratization, especially within the university. One of the results of the student movement that brought about many such changes at the university was the Science Shop, whose development we wish to describe in this article. 

The Science Shop at the University of Amsterdam resulted from the movement of progressive forces at the University of Amsterdam to create a more democratic and socially relevant university. It was a victory for the concept that not only research whose results maintain and strengthen the established institutions should be pursued, but that less powerful groups in society should have an opportunity to alter their conditions with the aid of scientific research. 

There were real differences in attitude between the student movements in the natural and social sciences. In the social sciences a dispute arose as to what was the Marxist method of research. In the natural sciences this did not occur because nobody could conceive of a “marxist method.” Still the movement in the natural sciences oriented itself to methodological questions and to the relations of science and society on a theoretical level and cooperated closely with the movment in the social sciences. This had an enormous impact on the Department of Natural Sciences. Thus their early theoretical preoccupation prevented practical work in the world outside the university. It prevented almost every practical relationship to the problems of science and society. All practical proposals were criticized in principle. In the Department of Social Sciences limited practical changes were achieved: for example, each new appointment to the Department became an openly fought issue. The most remarkable difference between the two departments was the ability of the social science movement to cope with aggression from those in authority and to return that aggression. However, in 1976, the attitude of the students in the natural sciences changed, and new interest was aroused in the possibility of practical applications of research. Until then, the ambiguous commitment to both old and new values had prevented real change. 

In 1976, the Union of Scientific Laborers attacked the situation in the universities by planning new ways to organize research in socially important areas, e.g. job security and health for industrial workers. Simultaneously the government reduced and reorganized the budget for scientific research, and demanded more influence in the direction of that research. Therefore an organization of councils concerned with research priorities, which would have the participation of the government, trade unions, environmental groups, and consumer organizations, was proposed. On the initiative of the student movement and in cooperation with the science and society movement in the Department of Natural Sciences, the Amsterdam University decided in February, 1977 to work out plans for starting an agency for socially relevant research. In March 1977, the science and society movement made an unofficial start by approaching trade union and environmental groups and making an inventory of possible questions for research. In this way the as yet unofficial group found support outside the university. Confronted with this support the university decided to institutionalize the unofficial group for a trial period of one year. In other universities some groups are trying to start a Science Shop by following a different strategy; they first try to find the idea inside the university, or try to start shops dealing with particular disciplines, like physics or chemistry.  

The Amsterdam University Science Shop is centrally organized but has separate sections in the Departments of Chemistry, Biology, and Law. Sections are also being planned for Women’s Liberation and the Department of Literature. 

Within the student movement, the centralized structure of the Science Shop met with some resistance. Some feared the institutionalization of the Science Shop and the consequent weakening of the original guiding ideology: some feared the “delivery” of the university to the trade unions. As might be expected from the history of the science and society movement, these arguments are “felt” philosophically, but have little meaning in actual practice. 

Organization and Procedure 

The Amsterdam Science Shop attempts to do research that will contribute to the strength of groups which are working for democracy and a progressive reconstruction of society. Those organizations which come to the Science Shop with a request for assistance must meet three criteria: 

  1. They should be unable to pay for the research. 
  2. They should have no commercial aims. 
  3. They should clearly be able to benefit from the research which they are requesting. In practice the third criterion is applied flexibly, as the requested research may be of importance to other groups or individuals. 

If a group or individual is considered to have not met these standards, a rejection proposal is sent to the “General Board” of the Science Shop. This board is composed of twelve representatives from progressive groups outside the university and twelve representatives from the university. If this rejection proposal is denied by the board, the potential clients will usually be invited to further explain their problem. 

Once a research question is accepted, it is advertised in the University’s Weekly. If there 1s no response from students or staff-members, a member of the Science Shop Research Committee will try to find a way to make the question a subject of research at the university by contacting individual staff-members or students. If a staff-member or student (under the supervision of a staff-member) is found, a meeting between the researcher and client is arranged in order to discuss the problem, and if necessary put it in a form suitable for a research project. After this meeting, the client and the researcher keep in touch directly if they wish, and the responsible member of the Research Committee is kept continually informed on the progress of the research. For legal purposes these arrangements are confirmed by a letter which is also signed by the Board of the University. After the final report, questionnaires are sent to the client and the researcher to see if they are satisfied. 

To a certain extent, the above is a description of how things would work ideally. The eventual disposition of a research question coming into the university from the outside world is rather dependent on the voluntary cooperation of some staff-member. Therefore the Science Shop is working to institutionalize the mediation between the client and the various university departments. Several so-called “contact groups” have already been formed in different departments. Another difficulty is the frequently interdisciplinary nature of the questions. A question is seldom wholly economic, sociological, or historical. So, the Science Shop tries to structure research questions, in order to indicate the problem fields in which projects should be started. 

The formal organization of all the Science Shop’s activities is as follows: A General Board has the ultimate power within the Science Shop on all matters, and all the committees in the Science Shop, with a few exceptions, are responsible to the General Board. There is in addition to the General Board, a General Assembly consisting of all those who take part in the activities of the Science Shop in any way. Decisions on policy matters are made during deliberations between these two bodies. The University of Amsterdam takes final responsibility for the activities of the Science Shop. All the research requests which come in, the progress of the research projects, and all other activities and plans are published in the biweekly newsletter of the Science Shop. This maximizes democratic control. 


In this section some examples of the research are presented. Of the examples given, three of the questions resulted in scientific research and the other two were dealt with by giving advice. 

  1. Questions asked by the Federation of Trade Unions and by the League of Environmental Defense resulted in an examination of what caused these groups to be in frequent opposition to each other. A sociologist and a group of students at the University of Groningen decided to work on this problem in cooperation with a researcher at the Institute for Environmental Problems of the University of Amsterdam. They decided to explore the relations between the positions of worker’s groups and environmental groups using actual case studies. One case was that of a chemi<;al plant of a multinational company located in the northern part of Amsterdam. Another case concerned the locating of a liquid natural gas plant in the north of Holland. At this moment this research is still in progress. 
  2. A lawyer representing a group of women prisoners at the Amsterdam Women’s Prison came to the Science Shop in need of an expert on air-conditioning for his case on behalf of the women prisoners in their suit against the government. Within the University no one was prepared to help this group of prisoners, so the Science Shop had to search elsewhere. Finally, experts of the Institute for Research in Natural Science agreed to give informal advice on this matter. The verdict in the case meant victory for the prisoner’s group, since research into the functioning of the prison’s air-conditioning system was ordered by the court. This verdict was much regretted by government officials. 
  3. A large chocolate factory announced in a report to its trade unions, the dismissal of 60 workers. The union came to the Science Shop requesting an analysis of the factory management’s arguments. An economist agreed to do so, and showed in his analysis that the financial situation of the factory was not that bad. On the basis of the arguments given, the dismissal of the 60 workers was found to be unnecessary. In the ensuing negotiations it became clear that the management had withheld some vital information from the union. This led to an arrangement entailing the gradual discharge of the workers but under more favorable conditions than previously. 
  4. The Graphic Worker’s Union came with the complaint that some of their members working with the so-called “letterflex” process, used in printing newspapers, were developing skin and eye irritations. The Department of Chemistry of the University of Amsterdam carried out research on this process, and concluded that despite the statements of the Labor Inspector, working with these chemicals was harmful to the workers’ health. The Labor Inspector read the report and concurred with the chemists’ conclusions. As a result working conditions were changed. The producer of this printing process, fearful of losing a market for his products, cooperated fully in providing complete information on the materials used by the process. 
  5. “Release”, a progressive welfare organization, wanted to do a survey on the housing situation of migrant workers in the Netherlands. After a few meetings between researchers and “Release” people, it became clear that a research project covering a whole country would be too big an undertaking. Therefore it was agreed to research one town and one group of migrant workers, namely Turkish workers. In August of this year, two students finished their work on this problem as a final stage in their project on human ecology. 


The Science Shop has had problems both in its contact with clients and in organizing relevant research. The first problem has been putting the client’s problem into a form suitable for a research project and convincing the client to join the Board of the Science Shop. The Science Shop found that clients can have a great effect on the research done on their specific problem, so it is stimulating for both staff members and student researchers to meet the clients. Results of the research have proven useful to a limited extent in solving the problems, but often more specific follow-up research needs to be done in order to fully resolve the problem. Contact with the client leads to new research methodologies, in particular the abandonment of rigid scientific standards. For example, a specific aspect of the problem will not be researched to the fullest extent, but rather several aspects will be researched more generally. 

For instance, a question was asked about the connection between car racing and aggressiveness on the part of the public. The small town of Zandvoort in Holland is terrorized each year by the Grand Prix races. Researchers in the field of criminology conclude that a “full” scientific report was impossible and unnecessary. It was determined that some sociological research on the public, the local police, and a comparison of the situation in Zandvoort with the situation in other towns which hold Grand Prix races could result in a report with conclusions relevant for the local situation. 

The clients’ interest in such cases is important in that it motivates the students in moments when every one is ready to forget the whole business, and it provides the justification for writing preliminary conclusions or finishing the research at a stage earlier than that which “purely scientific standards” would demand. In short, contact with clients can lead to a whole shift in the emphasis of the research. 

There is also the question of how the influence of the clients affects the general organization of the research. Twelve representatives from the client groups are on the Board of the Science Shop and participate in the political and structural discussions about how the research ought to be organized. Originally it was thought that society should have the power to mandate how the University ought to spend its research budget and how to integrate political issues into traditional research. However our experience has been that most of the general political discussions in the Science Shop have been around issues concerning university politics. 

On the other hand, among the scientific community at large, the Science Shop is seen as a means for achieving a number of different goals: popularizing science to improve its standing with the public, doing socially relevant research in order to obtain more money for traditional research, doing research which will make the university socially relevant, doing research which will further radical political aims and so forth. 

These considerations minimize concern for merely local university problems. When the question of organizing socially relevant research is put on a purely ideological level, only the members of the university community are able to participate in the debate. Some of the clients enjoy the fighting, others are astonished, but none feel capable of participating. If the questions are posed on a more immediate level, for example, how to organize research on the problems of youth unemployment or noise pollution,” then the clients feel that it is important to participate in such decisions on research priorities, and they feel that they are able to make a contribution to this discussion. 

The inability of the clients to participate in abstract discussions of science policy reflects the level of the discussion of science and science policy in society generally. Our main clients are trade unions and environmental groups, so we asked the trade unions for their policy with regard to science and the Science Shop. They answered that only at the national level, for example the Federation of Trade Unions, was there a policy and this policy included the idea that people affected by science should be entitled to participate in decisions about the uses of science. One member of the science policy group of the unions suggested that the scientists themselves had to take the responsibility for decisionmaking about science policy. Generally, then, most groups that became clients of the Science Shop had not previously developed positions on science policy. In order for the clients to participate fully on the Board of the Science Shop, the debate on science policy has to be made relevant to them. Trying ·to accomplish this now has the full attention of the Science Shop Board. 

This leads us to a second concern, the research policy of the university. Some fields of research are concentrated within special institutions, which makes it difficult for students to participate in research in those fields. For example, it is hard for students to research noise problems in Amsterdam because research on noise is done elsewhere in the country. 

The Science Shop is legally an advisory committee to the University Board and as such advises on how socially relevant research should be organized, and it experiments with ways to fit this research into the traditional research of the university. In the beginning (March 1977-March 1978) the Science Shop limited itself to being a mediator for clients. It called on individual researchers and asked them to do research on our clients’ problems. As of last September, it had mediated 192 questions. As a result of the enormous number of questions (326), and the similarities between many of the questions, the Science Shop concluded that a coherent research policy had to be developed. This development was in accordance with the original expectation that opening the university to groups working for social change, trade unions, etc. would have a significant influence on the university’s research policy. There is also substantial influence on the educational system which results as students participate in the Science Shop projects. 

An initial effort has been made to cluster all the research questions into some basic issue areas. The following are some such possible areas: industrial security and health, energy, unemployment, democracy and participation in industrial and governmental organizations, the effects of the restructuring of industry and labor, social consequences of the restructuring, welfare assistance, city development, women’s liberation, part-time work, housing, legal aspects of industrial development, other aspects of industrial development (such as the position of workers and the effects of industry on the population around industrial areas).

Organizing research in these fields will require a tremendous effort. In the first place these topics are mostly of an interdisciplinary nature. Secondly, fitting these topics into the university’s educational and research system will require experts in these fields. Thirdly, research on a general issue has a tendency to develop in a unique fashion, in which case it may lose its socially relevant character. 


The Amsterdam University Science Shop began as a result of several different developments: the desire of students in the natural sciences for more practical research and education (leaving the methodological questions to philosophers), and socio-economic changes resulting from the energy crisis (new science policies, unemployment, democratization of industry, new class conflicts and as a result a more practical attitude towards processes of change). The difference between the students in the natural sciences and the social sciences has had its impact on the Science Shop movement. For one part of the movement the standard of success lies outside the university, i.e. in helping the client as much as possible; the other part has its standard within the university. For the latter consisting mostly of people from the social sciences, the Science Shop is a means of changing the educational and research system. Their strategy implies a process of cultural change and is a continuation of the movement for change begun in the radical upheavals of 1968. The scientists, on the other hand, orient themselves more towards society and believe that the changes in the university are taking place at the sociopolitical and economic levels. 

We expect that the structural changes occurring in industry today, including the introduction of new technologies and the automation of production processes, will trigger actions at the cultural and socio-economic levels of society, directed at value changes. These value changes, by changing the educational system, will make the university politically and socially more relevant than it has been in the past.

This article is a substantially edited version of one contributed by Ad Meertens and Onno Nieman, who currently live in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. 

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