Collaborative production of knowledge: Health, environment, and publics

The workshop “Collaborative production of knowledge: Health, environment, and publics” in Arouca, Portugal aimed to

make sense of the growing attention to the collaborations with the public (or different selection of the public) in the production of knowledge about health and environmental concerns. All research is collaborative-even solitary scientists have to secure audiences if their findings are to become established as knowledge-so why emphasize collaboration in health and environmental research? The workshop will consider the diverse reasons that might be put forward to explain that emphasis. How are different angles on collaboration related in theory and practice? In what ways can scientists, science educators, science shop organizers, and researchers in history, philosophy, and social studies of science conceptualize, interpret, teach about, and engage in the collaborative generation of knowledge and inquiry? What can we learn reflexively from our own experience in an interaction-intensive workshop around these questions?

Applications were sought from teachers and researchers (including students) who are interested in promoting the social contextualization of science through interdisciplinary education and outreach activities beyond their current disciplinary and academic boundaries.

At the start of each day participants undertook daily writing on the theme of the workshop.  My own writing makes up the next few posts.

22 May 2011

The growing attention to collaborations with the public in the production of knowledge about health and environmental concerns represents, I believe, a confluence of a number of streams:

  1. “Science for the People” and similar slogans were promoted by radical organizations during the 1970s.   However, scientists pushed back against local democratic accountability and pushed for the “freedom” for their research to be directed by corporations (and to share in profits).  The growing attention to collaborations with the pubic involves a push back against that pushback.
  2. Environment, health, and environmental health issues in particular involve activists who push for changes in policy, expose or exploit controversies in the science, and, in some cases, become conversant in the science and push for changes in funding priorities and regulations.  Collaboration with the public in this case means collaboration with these activist subsets of the public.
  3. Health and, to some extent, environmental remediation require people to follow advice or guidelines from authorities.  Physicians and environmental managers often lament the “lack of compliance” among members of the public.  Collaboration is valuable so these professionals can see the extent to which lack of compliance is rational resistance, can draw models or best practices from successful communities, and can co-develop policies that are more likely to be implemented and maintained.  In short, collaboration is a pragmatic move for professionals who want their advice to be taken up.
  4. The shifting social, economic, and political conditions means that ongoing innovation, monitoring, and adjustment is needed.  The “unruly complexity” of health and environmental situations does not allow for overarching, once-and-for-all knowledge to be established.
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