Scientific knowledge is one important component of environmental policy and decision-making. However, scientific research may fail to support ecological and human health goals if it is removed from local priorities, devoid of local knowledge and participation, or fails to acknowledge the complexity, vulnerability, and uncertainty of social and ecological systems. Collaborative approaches to research and learning take a variety of forms, but hold potential to be more inclusive of community knowledge and expertise, and more respectful of local customs, traditions, and expectations.
At least in theory, community-based research, participatory action research, community service-learning, and other collaborative approaches are tools for democratizing scientific work. They can do this by moving away from academic methodologies for extracting information from people and places as “subjects” of study, and toward methods based on shared responsibilities, decision-making, benefits, and rights. However, a number of practical and philosophical challenges can stand in the way of the democratic ideals that underpin community-university collaboration. Fundamental issues are raised by inequities in capacity and distribution of power to make decisions: Which question(s) will be asked? And which will go unasked? What methods will be used to provide answers? And who interprets and has access to the outcomes? To date, it has been the asking, answering, and dissemination processes of Western science and Western law that have dominated and been supported through financial, institutional, political, and other means.
No one-size-fits-all solution emerges for how local knowledge and expertise can be brought together with Western science in complementary ways that are grounded in mutual respect for difference. While some collaborative efforts illustrate the highest levels of community control achievable, most are premised on active participation and full and active representation, working and making decisions collaboratively, capacity-building, co-creating, and co-managing new knowledge—and ultimately sharing power.
The POLIS commitment to collaborative research and learning was formalized in 2001 through establishment of the Community-University Connections initiative, which explored the use of science in environmental and social policy, and facilitated collaborative research and learning between community organizations and university-based researchers. Community-University Connections was a catalyst for institutional change at the University of Victoria and played a key role in the establishment of a new Office of Community-Based Research in 2006, which subsequently evolved several times since.
Community-University Connections (2001-2006) advocated for collaborative and participatory research as a tool for better decision-making on complex human and environmental health-related issues. Community-University Connections was based on the premise that, to protect interconnected health and well being of individuals, communities and ecosystems, scientific research ought to be:
- Precautionary in nature.
- Inclusive of local knowledge and expertise to the fullest extend possible.
- Respectful of local traditions and customary laws of Indigenous and local peoples.
Community-University Connections was co-created at POLIS in 2001 by post-doctoral research associates Dr. Kelly Bannister and Dr. Katherine Barrett, and subsequently directed by Kelly Bannister for the ensuing years. The initiative was made possible through joint funding from the Endowment of the Eco-Research Chair, the Clayoquot Alliance for Research, Education and Training Project (a three-year project headed by Dr. Rod Dobell, and funded through the Community University Research Alliance program of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) and the Coasts Under Stress Project (a five-year project headed by Dr. Rosemary Ommer, and funded through the Major Collaborative Research Initiative of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council).
The initial goal was to develop an institutional model for collaborative research between universities and local Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in B.C. The process was informed by the successful European “science shops” model and the emerging U.S. “community research centers,” which advocate for a specific site at the university where citizens and community groups can link directly with researchers to help solve community-related scientific problems.
Community-University Connections aimed to expand and adapt the science shops and community research centers concepts to the priorities of B.C. communities by establishing a permanent facility at the University of Victoria that was networked to regional “access nodes” in communities throughout B.C., working with and through governmental, non-governmental, and First Nations organizations in these regions. Collaborative research and education activities were initiated in the Northern Barkley and Clayoqout Sound region of western Vancouver Island in partnership with the Clayoquot Biosphere Trust and with participation of several local non-profit organisations and First Nations. Major accomplishments included:
- Facilitating the completion of a Standard of Conduct for Research in Northern Barkley and Clayoquot Sound Communities to guide research in the region according to mutually-agreed community and university standards
- Establishing a “pilot science shop” in the region through the Clayoquot Biosphere Trust.
- Supporting community-defined needs for compiling a research and document database of previous research conducted in the region, and an inventory of local research needs and priorities.
- Developing unique undergraduate field courses on community-based research and service learning in the region, which were co-organised and co-instructed by both university and community experts.
- Environmental Studies 400C: Community-Based Research in the Clayoquot Sound Region (2003) explored the questions: What role does academic research play in resolving, or assisting communities to resolve, environmental and social problems? What specific challenges are involved in collaborative research between universities and communities?
- Environmental Studies 481A: Community-Based Research in Clayoquot Sound (2005) explored the above two questions, as well as the question of: What contextual understandings are necessary for researchers to address community issues?
Community-University Connections compiled and analyzed existing community-based research models; explored ethical and policy issues in community-university research partnerships (particularly with First Nations); and facilitated learning activities on community-based research theory, practice, and issues. The initiative strongly advocated for the establishment of a permanent “community liaison” facility at the University of Victoria that would serve as a campus resource for university researchers and local communities alike. It supported a number of concrete efforts to identify and map the university’s capacity, expertise, and gaps in facilitating community-based research and service-learning. This included:
- Co-sponsoring the MPA thesis of Janett Dunnett who produced the first ever comprehensive assessment of community-based research at UVic: University and Community Linkages at the University Of Victoria: Towards a New Agenda for Community-Based Research.
- Facilitating a similar exercise at the request of the UVic Director of Cooperative Education to comprehensively map service-learning at UVic, resulting in a report: Service-Learning at the University of Victoria: Understandings, Considerations and Recommendations by Jessica Leavens, Kelly Bannister and Frances Bryan.
- Serving as secretariat for a Community-Based Research Initiative funded by UVic Vice President Research (2005-2006) leading to a major workshop bringing together the most committed of UVic’s community-based researchers and resulting in a workshop proceedings and a report: Building Healthy Communities: The Role of Community-based Research and Community-based Research and the University of Victoria, both edited by Kelly Bannister.
- Facilitating work of a task force to report to the UVic Vice President Research, resulting in “Report of the University of Victoria Task Force on Community-Based Research, co-authored by Kelly Bannister, Budd Hall, Peter Keller and Maeve Lydon.
In Nov 2006, the Vice-President Research at the University of Victoria (Dr. Martin Taylor) announced the opening of a new Office of Community-Based Research, under the directorship of Dr. Budd Hall, former Dean of Education. The Community-University Connections team was not directly involved in the Office of Community-Based Research and it took a different direction than it advocated, but the team encouraged the Director and staff to foster respectful and mutually beneficial research and learning activities, with particular attention to:
- Collaborative development of research protocols with communities or local collective decision-making groups.
- Meaningful involvement of local people in research and learning activities.
- Return of results to communities in meaningful and useful forms.
- Acknowledgement and due credit for community contributions to research.
- Protection of individual and collective rights to local or traditional knowledge and associated resources.
Community-University Connections laid the groundwork for the Chemainus Biodiversity Education Project, a pilot collaboration with local organizations, First Nations, and school groups in the Chemainus Valley region of Vancouver Island.