How can we build a more collaborative research and extension paradigm?

By Gabrielle Roesch-McNally,

Many who conduct scientific research often find themselves asking, why is it that people don’t do more with the data and tools that scientists develop? There are cases when more scientific research is needed to better understand a phenomenon or instances where more interdisciplinary research will expand our understanding of a particular topic. There are other times, though, when improved processes for stakeholder involvement in research and tool development is what is necessary. This is true for many problems linked to climate change, or any other agricultural or natural resource issue. In this article I focus on those “other times:” when the way we “do” science matters and can ultimately improve or hinder the effectiveness of our scientific research and the impacts it will have in solving real-world problems.

One strategy for improving communication and stakeholder involvement that has received recent attention is using applied research to create decision support tools as a way to help land managers improve their decision making through targeted use of relevant scientific information. Many of these “decision support” tools in the realm of agriculture and climate are designed to address climate and weather-related risks to improve production and conservation outcomes. Decision support tools are resources that “help decision makers to explore different scenarios and available options and to anticipate the potential risks and gains associated with them” (Roncoli et al., 2006). These tools are being developed to help solve real-world challenges yet many of them remain underutilized. One of the reasons stakeholders are not necessarily using many of these tools is because they haven’t been engaged in the process of developing them, so they (the tools) don’t really fit their (the stakeholders’) needs.

One way to improve the usefulness of these tools is by integrating ‘coproduction’ into our scientific endeavors. Coproduction is the “process of producing usable, or actionable science through collaboration between scientists and those who use science” (Meadow et al., 2015). Simply put, coproduction is a way to collaboratively engage stakeholders over time in the research and tool development process. There are many who are writing on this topic who suggest that a lack of coproduction with stakeholders is precisely why various tools and much scientific information are underutilized. We agree that there’s a good chance that this is the case, so those of us in the applied research field are trying to improve our understanding of how this works.

Farmers outside at a field day
Photo: Farmers attend field day, photo credit: Gabrielle Roesch-McNally

There is a continuum of stakeholder engagement that outlines the ways that researchers and relevant stakeholders might engage with one another to improve collaborative processes (Figure 1). The process of engagement is itself an important aspect of coproduction that can be evaluated as an output, in other words, we should be looking not just at end-products or tools but also at the process whereby they came about. Luckily, scientists are increasingly being encouraged to describe coproduction processes in their research proposals, for example in the USDA Northwest Climate Hub’s most recent Request for Proposals. Here are some other relevant regional examples of projects that illustrate effective stakeholder engagement:

  • Oregon State University’s Dry Farming project is a great example of participatory research that is being conducted with farmers in the Willamette Valley. This project is designed as a participatory research project and is far along the engagement continuum where stakeholders have been engaged at every stage of the project. To this end, they have directed the research to fit their production needs, from picking varieties of crops to test in regional demonstrations to leading outreach efforts.
  • Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources in partnership with the Regional Approaches to Climate Change in the Pacific Northwest, collaborated on the development of regional case studies that illustrate practices that producers are using on their farm to increase their resilience while maximizing production and conservation goals. This is an example of University Extension letting producers speak for themselves while elevating producers’ voices so they can be shared within networks such as AgClimate and beyond.
  • The Climate Impacts Research Consortium conducted the Big Wood project, which was developed with coproduction in mind. Purposeful efforts were made to engage a diverse set of stakeholders, over five years, in the Big Wood River Basin in Idaho to examine different scenarios based on human and climatic factors that modeled hydrological and landscape processes to aid adaptation efforts in the region. Stakeholders thus took an active role in identifying relevant scenarios that improved modeling efforts that might inform their plans for addressing climate impacts in their watershed.

Unfortunately, there isn’t necessarily an ideal level of engagement because it depends on the nature of the project. Coproduction can be more costly in terms of resources and certainly in terms of time than more traditional research endeavors. However, shifting our levels of engagement along this continuum will lead to more effective partnerships between scientists and stakeholders and will make our tools and resources more useful and usable in the long run.

Continuum of engagement
Figure 1. A continuum of engagement. Many are encouraging researchers to move towards greater coproduction processes, shifting from no engagement towards a collegial engagement (for details, see Roesch-McNally and Prendeville, 2017).

References:

Meadow, A. M., Ferguson, D. B., Guido, Z., Horangic, A., Owen, G., & Wall, T. (2015). Moving toward the deliberate coproduction of climate science knowledge. Weather, Climate, and Society, 7(2), 179-191.

Roesch-McNally, G.R. and H. Prendeville. (2017). Making Sense of Coproduction: What is it Good For? Northwest Climate Hub, Corvallis, OR. Available online: Online Access

Roncoli, Carla, et al. (2006.) Understanding Farming Decisions and Potential Applications of Climate Forecasts in South Georgia. Southeast Climate Consortium, Online Access.


Author Information:

Gabrielle Roesch-McNally, PhD
USDA Northwest Climate Hub
3200 SW Jefferson Way
Corvallis, OR 97331
groeschmcnally@fs.fed.us
541-750-7091