Coproduction of Actionable Science

As part of our effort to help Northwesterners respond to climate change, CIRC and OCCRI team members often work directly with community members and decision makers, from farmers and homeowners to municipal water suppliers.

While a body of social science research informs this work, much of what we’ve learned from these efforts has resulted from trial and error. The problem is there just is not a whole lot of information on how to do this type of work step by step.

A recent paper in the journal Conservation Letters is an exception. The paper, aptly named “A How‐To Guide for Coproduction of Actionable Science,” provides a kind of step-by-step checklist one should follow when coproducing science. Let’s start by deconstructing the paper’s title.

The goal of CIRC and other members of NOAA’s Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments program is to create what’s known in the climate adaptation world as actionable science. This is science that can be put to work to solve a specific problem. For us, that often means focusing on impacts, from rising sea levels to water scarcity.

Of course, to solve these problems you first need to identify what those problems are. At CIRC that often means working directly with community members and decision makers to identify their concerns and needs. These tend to be pretty specific.

For instance, homeowners we worked with on the Oregon Coast had planning concerns around sea level rise that our scientists learned to incorporate into their computer models. Engineers at the municipal water utilities we’ve worked with had very specific parameters around water management that we needed to be mindful of when considering how climate change might alter their water supplies. In both instances, by working together we were able to coproduce science that the people we collaborated with then made actionable through local planning codes and water management respectively.

The paper’s authors, Paul Beier, wildlife ecologist from Northern Arizona University, and colleagues, focus their discussion primarily on how to coproduce actionable science with managers, a term they define broadly as including resource managers and policy makers of all types.

Coproduction is important, Beier and colleagues contend, because often neither managers nor scientists alone can anticipate what kinds of science products—be they a climate assessment or a specific dataset—are needed. Instead, the paper’s authors contend, scientists and managers need to work together. And, in doing so, they need to flip the script, focusing first on specific needs and only later identify what kinds of end results, or products, might be useful to address those needs.

Focusing first on needs is step one of the ten-part plan the authors outline for readers. Other directions in their how-to-make-the-coproduction-cake include recommendations that scientists make sure they understand the kinds of management decisions that could result from the managers’ needs before even considering designing a specific scientific product; that all parties need to commit to in-person meetings to coproduce science; and that key assumptions about models, scientific approaches, and data sources be openly discussed and critiqued, something that many scientists, the authors assert, might not be comfortable with.

But perhaps the most insightful suggestions from Beier and colleagues revolve around changing academic culture. The truth is there is not a whole lot of incentive for academics to pursue projects that include working with resource managers or other stakeholders, people, or organizations that have stake in a given environmental impact. Part of the problem, note the authors, is that the coproduction of science can take a really long time and, by necessity, involves lots of face-to-face meetings. And this might not lead to published works, which are still the leading signs of academic excellence when determining things like tenure and promotion. Or, if papers do result from a coproduction processes, they aren’t often afforded the same academic gravitas as “pure science” (the authors’ quotation marks).

Beier and colleagues also tackle the sticky problem of funding. The problem is—and we’ll be more blatant here than Beier and colleagues—is that funding for coproduction projects often does not extend beyond their initial development. This frequently means really great scientific products are developed and then abandoned because the funding to continue their maintenance wasn’t built into their grants.

Beier and colleagues recommend that both the culture of the academy and the culture of funding need to change. They recommend that much of this change should occur at the university level by encouraging the relationship between universities and what are called boundary organizations, which is resource management lingo for groups that help disseminate scientific know-how at the regional level. Boundary organizations in the Northwest include CIRC, the Northwest Climate Science Center, and the North Pacific Landscape Conservation Cooperative, among others.

The lessons learned and how-to list come from the authors’ own experience in the coproduction of actionable science around climate change. Among their experience, Beier and colleagues participated in the Advisory Committee on Climate Change and Natural Resource Science (ACCCNRS), a scientific body that advices the Secretary of the Interior around the National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center and the eight regional Climate Science Centers, including CIRC and OCCRI partner the Northwest Climate Science Center.

STUDY: Conservation Letters

Citation: Beier, Paul, Lara J. Hansen, Lynn Helbrecht, and David Behar. “A How‐to Guide for Coproduction of Actionable Science,” Conservation Letters, (2016).

Photo Caption: Bull Run Lake with Mount Hood in the background. The Bull Run watershed was incorporated into a coproduction project that CIRC worked on with the Portland Water Bureau. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, some rights reserved.

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