By Saoirse Higgins, Artist, Designer and PhD candidate and Heather Mendick, Freelance Research Consultant

Every year, the British Science Association provide grants for local groups, schools, libraries and charities to organise community science activities. These include science fairs, talks, art and craft events, boat trips and more. They often look very different from what people typically perceive to be scientists’ activities. But what is it that marks out community from mainstream science? In this blog Saoirse Higgins, who’s had three community grants to run art-science projects in Papay (Orkney) where she lives, and Heather Mendick, who has researched the community grants programme, share their thoughts on this question.

An example of an activity run by a British Science Week Community Grant recipient

The underlying principles and challenges of community science

Community science activities seek to dispel stereotypes about science. Whether people monitor plastic pollution, learn about their local industrial heritage, create art inspired by the work of early botanists, build bridges out of lollypop sticks or research the chances of flooding locally, they are active participants in a science which is not a distinct discipline but inseparable from art, music, history and sociology. Their doing of science is embedded in their relationships with others and their ways of being in the world.

Of course, this is true of all science. Thomas Kuhn, among others, has shown that whichever science is developed is a product of power relations. There are many clear examples of how politics shape science including the atom bomb development during World War 2, space travel research during the Cold War and the defunding of climate science in the US today. Yet, much of mainstream science works to deny this, presenting itself as an objective search for truth. Science is neither good nor bad in itself: it’s down to how it’s used. Community science, which stresses the intertwining of the social and the scientific, represents a significant challenge to this view.

To illustrate an example of community science in action, we will use the example of CLEAR.

The Civic Lab of Environmental Action Research (CLEAR) offers a model of community engagement that considers the community they are working with. They have designed a ‘lab book’ manifesto to encapsulate their approach.

CLEAR, which is based in the Memorial University of Newfoundland describes itself as a ‘feminist, anti-colonial lab specialising in monitoring plastic pollution’. They are funded by grants to support their research and pay the researchers involved in projects.

They emphasise the importance of understanding that scientists are not coming into a project clean and neutral and always have a position and an agenda, which affects the process, including what the end results will look like. The lab has designed a ‘living lab book’ that illustrates their values, guidelines and protocols. They encourage others to set up similar labs and importantly, they offer support and guidance to help people do this. Open dialogue is encouraged, to iron out any misinterpretations and hierarchy within the research. CLEAR describe themselves as activists emphasising that they are about making change happen through appropriate practical methods and processes rather than focusing on the scientific outcomes and findings. By being responsive to what is happening within the community, they can adjust and ‘re calibrate’ methods and ways of doing things depending on what is happening in the real world at the time.

1608-Plastics-PCSF013 10.17.56 AMImage credit: Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (

Finally, the lab has developed tools for citizen science research that cost under £50, can be built and repaired by others and use local materials. Their definition of ‘participatory citizen science’ is based on people having a say in how the data they collect are gathered, managed and communicated is used. Communities can use their expertise, question the data and direct where the data go if it looks like they will represent them in a harmful way. This means the data’s core value is centered on the interests of the community in co-collaboration with the researchers.

We do not know how successfully CLEAR enacts its model of community science, but their work helps suggest what distinguishes community from mainstream science.

Community science also challenges the idea of scientific expertise. Repeatedly, people who do community science say that the science is secondary to the needs of the community. Science becomes a way of making friends, sharing experiences, finding a voice and so on. But too often, when professional scientists are involved, they become the ‘experts’ and the science again shifts to centre stage. Authorised expertise matters, but science is not something that just scientists do and their contributions should not be the only ones valued. People coming at science from alternative perspectives have their own forms of expertise.

Community science uses a democratic model, allowing everyone to participate in the conversation

Community science has the potential to make science communication more dialogic and less hierarchical, giving people ownership so that they drive it rather than the experts asking them to take on their agenda. But for this potential to be realised, scientists have to let go of some of the power they derive from the status of science.

By Saoirse Higgins, Artist, Designer and PhD candidate (Innovation School,  Glasgow School of Art, funded by the Highlands and Islands Enterprise) and Heather Mendick, Freelance Research Consultant