Coproducing Science?

A key part of CIRC’s Community Adaptation efforts is something called the coproduction of knowledge, or just coproduction (sometimes spelled with a hyphen, sometimes not). Coproduction is essentially a collaborative effort between experts and stakeholders—people and organizations with a stake in a given issue, who might be experts in their own right.

Coproduction projects are typically designed to meet specific decision-making goals. In CIRC’s case we’ve used coproduction with farmers, city planners, and homeowners, to name a few groups we’ve worked with. Together with these stakeholders we’ve coproduced climate adaptation tools and tailor-made adaptation plans for communities here in the Pacific Northwest.

We bring all this up because a recent comment piece in the journal Nature Sustainability examines coproduction and comes with something of a small ‘w’ warning pertinent to groups like CIRC, other NOAA Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments (RISA) teams, and similar organizations using coproduction to address socially important needs, such as planning for climate change. The authors’ warning: coproduction shouldn’t become an end in itself.

The comment piece, led by the University of Michigan’s Maria Carmen Lemos, is not what you might think from its title “To co-produce or not to co-produce.” Lemos is the Co-Director of our sister RISA team the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments (GLISA) program, and perhaps partially for this reason, Lemos and colleagues’ writing reads as highly sympathetic to the assumptions underlying coproduction.

As the authors put it, “we do not question co-production as a viable and desirable mechanism to increase the use of scientific knowledge in decision-making.” Instead, Lemos and colleagues provide a compelling argument that the strengths of coproduction could lead to it being over-used and inappropriately applied.

Lemos and colleagues start their argument by citing evidence that coproduction can be effective in creating lasting science in decision-making contexts—think using climate data to plan for drought or prepare for the next fire season. The authors even note that “boundary organizations”—groups that walk the line between policy and science like the NOAA RISAs—are effective at putting coproduction into decision-making practice.

To illustrate this, the authors relate a GLISA coproduction project that involved another boundary organization, a group called the Great Lakes Cities Adaptation Network. This is an interesting case study and was also led by Lemos. (We reviewed back in 2014 .)

However—and here comes that warning—the strength of successful projects like the above-mention GLISA effort, Lemos and colleagues imply, could led to coproduction growing in popularity. This risks, the authors continue, turning coproduction into the new “‘gold standard’ of engaged science,” which could lead many to see coproduction as “an end in itself” rather than another tool in the toolbox.

What Lemos and colleagues seem to be warning about is the old hammer-and-nail problem: When you have a hammer everything looks likes a nail.

The authors suggest that coproduction could become a kind of default setting for groups backing evidence-based decision-making and that ultimately coproduction could be used in wholly inappropriate settings; settings where a more conventional scientific approach might be as effective or more effective than coproduction to address an issue.

This potential pitfall of coproduction, Lemos and colleagues note, comes directly from the evidence that coproduction works, and from the assumptions underlying the coproduction process.

The assumptions, go something this:

  • Stakeholders know what matters to them and should therefore be part of important decision-making processes that affect them and their communities;
  • Coproduction frequently produces results that are more relevant and that have more buy-in from stakeholders than projects produced without community input; and…
  • When scientists and other experts engage directly with stakeholders through the long back-and-forth process that is coproduction and actually build relationships that foster and empower a local community, this is often better than, as Lemos and colleagues put it, the experts “merely lecturing them [stakeholders].” (Who’d a thunk it?)

Okay, you’re probably thinking, those seem like pretty compelling assumptions, and if the evidence seems to support the assumptions, why fret? Well…as Lemos and colleagues point out, there are caveats.

One of the bigger problems with coproduction is that takes a lot of time for projects to come to fruition and “to build trust and legitimacy,” as Lemos and colleagues note. (We might also point out that simple logistics can also be a problem. The more stakeholders involved, the more calendars a project needs to juggle.) If the particular issue being addressed can’t afford to wait, note the authors, then coproduction might not be the best fit.

The other big problem noted in the study is burnout among coproduction participants.

Because coproduction projects take time, projects can burn out and fatigue stakeholders, who, if they keep showing up, are often asked to show up again and again.

The authors note other problems as well.

Lemos and colleagues write that coproduction needs to be inclusive and respectful of diversity. Related to this issue, the authors warn that scientists performing coproduction might unwittingly end up “privileging familiarity” by going back to the same partners over and over again rather seeking out new ones.

The authors note that there is the potential issue that if coproduction becomes mainstream, this could lead to coproduction projects becoming “an indicator for research funding and for evaluating career performance,” meaning coproduction projects—perhaps measured as the number of stakeholders worked with—could become a necessary feather in a scientist’s career cap.

And there’s the problem that scientists and other experts might not be very good at coproduction because they lack the appropriate training and support to facilitate large group interactions.

So, how can we avoid turning coproduction into “an end in and of itself rather than the means for substantive, more-effective engagement and knowledge use in decision-making”? How do we use “co-production as an effective approach while dodging potential pitfalls”?

Lemos and colleagues write that part of the problem is a lack of good data. The scholarship around coproduction, the authors note, could improve on how it collects data and reports on the process of coproduction. Specifically, the authors note that there needs to be better tracking of how stakeholders are actually applying the results of coproduction projects.

Lemos and colleagues end their piece by asking researchers interested in coproduction to first pause and take some time to ask themselves if coproduction is the best means to achieve the goals of a given project. It’s good advice; advice that many of us in the business of coproduction should take to heart. However…

A powerful argument could be made that science and scientific knowledge isn’t mainstream enough. Science, scientific thinking, and scientists themselves could stand to get out more and rub elbows with everyone else. (That’s why academics wear elbow pads…right?)

In the decades ahead, if climate conditions do lead to the mainstreaming of coproduction, as Lemos and colleagues suggest it will, coproducers will probably trip and face-plant straight into all pitfalls noted by the authors, and find some new ones we haven’t thought of yet.

Yet, given the newness of coproduction and the sheer size and complexity of the problem that climate and ecological changes pose to our cultures and economies, some well-intentioned failures may not be the worse thing that could happen.

In science, we learn as much if not more from our failures as we do from our triumphs. And, in the end, even if a coproduction project fails to meet its goals, a community of stakeholders could very well be that much more empowered by coproducing science that applies to their everyday lives. This, arguably, is seeing coproduction as an end itself, which in some cases it might very well be.


OSU_icon_pencil_Black RotatedPublication: Lemos, Maria Carmen, James C. Arnott, Nicole M. Ardoin, Kristin Baja, Angela T. Bednarek, Art Dewulf, Clare Fieseler, Kristen A. Goodrich, Kripa Jagannathan, Nicole Klenk, Katharine J. Mach, Alison M. Meadow, Ryan Meyer, Richard Moss, Leah Nichols, K. Dana Sjostrom, Missy Stults, Esther Turnhout, Catherine Vaughan, Gabrielle Wong-Parodi, and Carina Wyborn. “To co-produce or not to co-produce,” Nature Sustainability,Vol. 1 (2018): 722–724. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-018-0191-0.


OSU_icon_key_01Key Term:
Coproduction—a collaboration between experts and stakeholders—people and organizations with a stake in a given issue.


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Related Stories:


OSU_icon_graph_01Pics and Figures:
Featured Image: CIRC researcher Peter Ruggiero talks with Grays Harbor community members at the April 9th, 2018 meeting of CIRC’s coproduction project Grays Harbor Coastal Futures. (Photo Credit: Ann Mooney, all rights reserved.)


Nathan Gilles is the managing editor of The Climate Circulator, and oversees CIRC’s social media accounts and website. When he’s not writing for CIRC, Nathan works as a freelance science writerOther Posts by this Author. 


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