Photo by Štefan Štefančík on Unsplash.

On August 9, 2018 The Guardian newspaper printed an opinion piece entitled “A PhD should be about improving society, not chasing academic kudos.” Within, Dutch researcher Julian Kirchherr argues that the academy has focused on achieving research impact and recognition through the citation of theoretical jargon-heavy articles, while entirely disconnecting from the pursuit of practical research for everyday people. Kirchherr states that many young academics are thus losing their passion, feeling isolated, and aren’t completing their studies within the expected time-frame, or even at all. Kirchherr’s solution? Honing the idealistic and impassioned tendencies of young researchers to “change the world for the better” by creating a program that would encourage engaging in collaborative research, providing immediate utility, and social impact.

Neither Kircherr’s observations, nor his recommendations are unique. Indeed, many students have been facing these frustrations at all levels of study. Students want to do something that matters; they want their ideas to be heard. Universities, for their part, have been engaging with the public through partnerships for decades. This type of research is called ‘community-based research’ (CBR). Co-collaborators within CBR may include grassroots advocacy groups, environmental organizations, non-profits, policy makers, or even municipal governments, who work with the researcher to not only define the research questions, but also determine recommendations. Regardless of whom the partnership includes, the underlying assumption is the same: CBR is mutually beneficial, affirms many forms of knowledge, has a social impact, and can enable community change.

Trent University offers CBR opportunities in a variety of forms, with many different partners. I’ve worked with just about all of them. In 2017 I completed a four-year Environmental Sciences and Studies degree from Trent University, during which I completed 3 CBR projects. I highlight these examples below to encourage others to see the possibilities that can be enabled when students choose to pursue these research opportunities.

In April of 2017 I concluded a year-long CBR project for Peterborough GreenUp, in which I focused on reducing floods through the use of rain gardens. This project included an analysis of local stormwater policy and was presented to Peterborough City Council upon its completion. Last November the stormwater policy I helped to support with my research became law. Research can be a form of activism, and these projects raise awareness and engage local groups seeking change.

In April of 2016 I concluded a semester-long research project which focused on water quality impacts of grey-water discharge within the Kawartha Lakes for Kawartha Conservation Authority. This project resulted in the creation of a management plan, and a survey of boater practices within these heavily trafficked lakes. I was hired after this project to work with Kawartha Conservation as one of their summer students.

In my second year I participated in a smaller project as part of a course focused on nature interpretation, for Abbey Gardens, an organization in Haliburton. In my first year of study I was introduced to CBR by volunteering for the Haliburton-Muskoka Water Festival as part of a service-learning project for the introductory environmental sciences course.

Each of these opportunities have been brokered by Trent University through the Trent Community Research Centre (TCRC), and through sister organizations such as U-Links for Haliburton-based projects. These opportunities strengthened my analytical, presentation, communication, and report writing abilities, while allowing opportunities to create personal networks with a number of organizations in the region. Most importantly, these opportunities made a tangible difference in my own community. Kirchherr encourages young researchers to change the world for the better; changing your community for the better is the first step.

Students who wish to take on a CBR project within a course or in place of a course, for credit are encouraged to visit the CBR page on Trent’s website for a list of available projects, and more information.