50 years of science, citizen activism and policy making on air pollution

- EN - NL
In the past few months, the billboards of CurieuzenAir, the research project involving citizen participation to measure air pollution, have appeared all over Brussels. But the involvement of Brussels residents in the theme of air pollution is not new. A new study of the Cosmopolis Centre for Urban research of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel looks at how the relationships between science, citizen activism and policy-making has evolved over the past 50 years. The analysis shows that scientific expertise has sometimes supported the ambitious actions of citizens, but just as often has defended the status quo.

da Schio: "Knowledge about air pollution is essential, both to challenge the status quo and to imagine a different urban reality. But science itself does not lead to change, and I say this as a scientist: everything depends on the way stakeholders appropriate and mobilize scientific knowledge. We also need to recognize other forms of knowledge, and be aware of their potential to make a problem visible and address it."

Citizens set the agenda

It is clear from the research that science is not the only form of "usable" knowledge. Lay knowledge and public knowledge have always been essential in putting air pollution on the agenda.

da Schio: "Making a problem visible to a wider audience can in itself be transformative and put pressure on governments to respond."

The study finds that the use of scientific knowledge by social movements and civil society in particular plays a central role in challenging existing priorities or developing counter strategies, often alternating between lay knowledge and more formal scientific knowledge. At the same time, scientific knowledge is also used in perpetuating existing hierarchies.

da Schio: "The research helps us put current projects of research and civic engagement in a long-term perspective. What we see today withCurieuzenAir, for example, is just the next step in a long trajectory, where citizens and movements appropriate an issue that is important to them, and try to push through the agenda for a more liveable Brussels."

The research The study is based on the analysis of newspaper articles and documents kept in the archives of the IEB ( Inter-Environnement Bruxelles https://www.ieb.be). The authors of the study examined three different cases of citizens' mobilization for cleaner air: a mobilization of the residents of the Bourdon neighborhood in Uccle in the late 1980s; the long mobilization against pollution from the incinerator in Neder-Over-Heembeek in the early 1990s, during which Greenpeace climbed the towers of the incinerator; and a lawsuit filed by BRAL and IEB in the summer of 2000 against the municipal, regional and national authorities for ozone related air pollution. The researchers reconstructed the events surrounding these three cases, analyzed the discourse in media sources and archival documents, and shed light on the themes, processes, and events related to air pollution and litigation. They made a detailed reconstruction of the events, focusing on the forms and qualities of scientific expertise mobilized by the different actors and on the strategies used.

The World Needs You The Vrije Universiteit Brussel assumes its scientific and social responsibility with love and decisiveness. That’s why VUB launched the platform De Wereld Heeft Je Nodig - The World Needs You, which brings together ideas, actions and projects based on six Ps. The first P stands for People , because that’s what it’s all about: giving people equal opportunities, prosperity, welfare, respect. Peace is about fighting injustice, big and small, in the world. Prosperity combats poverty and inequality. Planet stands for actions on biodiversity, climate, air quality, animal rights... With Partnership , VUB is looking for joint actions to make the world a better place. The sixth and last P is for Poincaré , the French philosopher Henri Poincaré, from whom VUB derives its motto that thinking should submit to nothing except the facts themselves. VUB is an ’urban engaged university’, strongly anchored in Brussels and Europe and working according to the principles of free research.


Press - Vrije Universiteit Brussel
Pleinlaan 2
1050 Brussel