We caught up with the Community Leaders and researchers involved in our first two years of the programme to hear about their experiences and reflections.

The Community Buddy programme, run by the British Science Association (BSA), builds on the skills and experience that community organisers develop through our Community Leaders programme. By matching these Community Leaders with hand-picked researchers in their local area, the Community Buddy programme aims to kickstart relationships that will spark new ideas and drive innovative, community-led science engagement.

Through a series of interviews, external evaluator Dr Heather Mendick uncovered the experiences and reflections shared by the Community Leaders and researchers involved in the programme.

How the Community Buddy programme works

The Community Buddy programme is split into two phases; the relational phase and the grant phase. Before we get stuck in, let’s understand the principles behind this.

The initial phase uses the community organising practice of ‘People before Programmes’, supported by Froi Legaspi from Citizens UK. The goal is to build equitable relationships, which value a mutual exchange of understanding and skills between communities and researchers. 

With this bedrock in place, the second, grant phase, enables the Buddy pairs to co-create projects that are mutually beneficial and respond to local needs.

Key findings from the relational phase

The researchers and Community Leaders, when asked about their experience of the initial phase of the programme, described developing authentic and mutually beneficial relationships. They expressed increased empathy and understanding between researchers and communities. Researcher James Poulter from the University of Leeds says, “we want the same things”. His buddy Community Leader Claudia McFarlane from the African Caribbean Achievement Project agreed, “even though we’re coming from different perspectives, we are both committed to building future scientists, young people that are curious about science”.

The focus on a relational approach, combined with recruiting researchers that are willing to listen and recognise the Community Leaders’ skills, knowledge and expertise, created greater equity and power sharing. Community Leader Sarah Greener from 3rd Tenby Brownies explains, “we could share that expertise and experience and it was always done on a very equal playing field”. Sarah used a metaphor of a “home-grown garden” for the relationship: “it’s very natural, authentic, … raw and organic”. Her researcher buddy Bridie Evans from Swansea University, adds, “all the flowers in our garden are equal, they’re all different, but they’re all equally useful”.

When talking to researchers, we found a key change in their awareness of local communities, including their issues, how community organisations operate, and their views on research. For instance, researcher Dawn-Marie Walker from the University of Southampton notes, “I don’t think our paths would have crossed without this scheme” when describing her Buddy.

Similarly, Community Leaders believed their understanding of research was enriched, and were able to extend their networks. Sarah (3rd Tenby Brownies) found that “trying to get in touch with someone in a university is a minefield…So I feel like I wouldn’t really know my way in, if I didn’t have Bridie, I’d probably go round around the houses before I even got to anyone that was probably useful for me to talk to”.

And Community Leaders that were new to working with researchers had gained more confidence in doing so. Community Leader Mohammed Rahman’s (Rochdale Science Initiative) initial priority was “to understand how researchers work, to help myself personally to overcome my imposter syndromes that I had. Me being a layperson, how can I better engage and interact with researchers? … So, my conclusion is that Claire (University of Leeds) is a human being like me. She has the same concerns as me. She has similar aspirations for her children”.

Key findings from the grant phase

Moving onto the second phase of the scheme, the Buddy pairs co-created projects which relied on shared goals and openness, as well as each Buddy bringing their own expertise to the table.

The projects led Community Leaders and participants to learn about research areas and to feel more confident in engaging with researchers and science. Several Community Leaders talk about having greater confidence in using research in their practice and in turn, the projects left researchers more likely to engage with communities.

Community Leader Saoirse Higgins from Papay Development Trust in the Orkney Islands explains that she has been involved in unbalanced ‘collaborations’ in the past including one which “felt really like the scientists were looking for artists to visualise their research … It wasn’t a collaboration in a horizontal manner”. She and researcher, Joanne Porter from Heriot-Watt University, had been able to “change that dynamic”.

For their Community Buddy project, Saoirse and Joanne co-creatively visualised the edges of the Marine Protected Area around Papa Westray, an important ecosystem for many migrant birds and critically endangered species. With the proposed development of a large fish farm in the area, their project made this issue tangible to the island community and, kick-started a timely conversation. The project also motivated a group of islanders to invite the Greenpeace boat “Sea Beaver” to survey the seagrass habitat close to the proposed fish farm – enabling the local community to act on an issue that matters to them. 

Greenpeace sea beaver boat at sea.

Taking a closer look at the relationships between Buddy pairs, Community Leader Claudia (African Caribbean Achievement Project), says researcher James has “really made me think that, well, if James is this fantastic, who else is out there that could equally work with us?”.

The projects have had a similar impact on the researchers, who are now more likely to engage with communities. Researcher Natalie Butcher from Teesside University thinks her project with Community Leader Paul Hyde (Whippet Up) was “probably more effective” than standard STEM outreach because the audiences “had fun. They didn’t really realise that they were learning about science, whilst they were learning about science”. Her experience with the Community Buddy programme has made Natalie “think a bit more broadly about, yeah, how we can communicate science and just actually work with different organisations, not necessarily in the way that you might expect”.

Paul and Natalie’s Buddy project began with a series of co-produced activities across five months, developing community wellbeing and creativity workshops. These workshops culminated in their ‘Face Off – Science vs Art’ event, in which families took part in six art activities linked to Natalie’s research specialism ‘prosopagnosia’ which relates to facial recognition blindness. Owing to the event’s success, Paul and Natalie have been asked to deliver the activities at future local science festivals, leading to a longer-term impact.  

Read more about the grant-funded Community Buddy projects

The latest on Community Buddies

The Community Buddy programme is currently supporting its third group of Community Leader and research buddies in the relational phase, as well as the second set of grant-funded projects.

The Community Buddy programme is funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) as part of the BSA’s ongoing community engagement work. To stay up to date with the work that the BSA does to support and engage with communities, follow BSA Communities on Twitter.

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