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Collaborative Research and Learning

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 by moving away from academic methodologies for extracting information from people and places as “subjects” of study, 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.

Field course in Clayoquot Sound Field course in Clayoquot Sound POLIS’s commitment to collaborative research and learning was formalized in 2001 through the establishment of the Community-University Connections initiative, which explores the use of science in environmental and social policy, and facilitates collaborative research between community organizations and university-based researchers. Since its inception in 2001, Community-University Connections has been a catalyst for institutional change at UVic and has played a key role in the establishment of the new Office of Community Based Research announced in Nov 2006.

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Page last updated: 02/05/2013