Breaking down the barrier; translating scientific research into practical knowledge

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

By Greg Reppucci, C+S ’16

Open up an academic journal, audit any course that has some social science aspect to it. You can even sit in on a corporate meeting and likely hear the term “stakeholder engagement.” In fact, you’d probably think it had become second nature to everyone in the room. But don’t let the ease at which the term is used deceive you. Stakeholder engagement is not an easy task.

So what exactly is stakeholder engagement? And how can it be done effectively?

The Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project (AgMIP), founded to improve our understanding of how agriculture and food security will respond to climate change and socioeconomic drivers in the years ahead, has been working on these questions for several years. During the last week of June, AgMIP held its sixth annual global workshop. Scientists and researchers throughout the agricultural community convened to discuss an array of topics on agricultural research.

During the workshop, I was fortunate enough to participate in several discussions regarding stakeholder engagement. The experience showed me that effective engagement is an ongoing process. It ultimately requires a strong commitment and passion from the scientists conducting research.

Francisco Meza discusses co-developed research with stakeholders during AgMIP6 Plenary. Source: Greg Reppucci

Francisco Meza discusses co-developed research with stakeholders during AgMIP6 Plenary. Source: Greg Reppucci

Over the course of the week’s discussions, several barriers to stakeholder engagement became clear. While AgMIP has found a methodology to address these barriers, it was pretty incredible to see how these barriers continued to resurface in different forms throughout the conversation, and how group discussion worked to dissect each instance in an effort to minimize the impact going forward.

The first barrier is choice of vocabulary. When a non-scientist finds themselves in conversation with a scientist, they are often hit with a double whammy. There is the specific terminology they must quickly become familiar with in order to keep up, and there is the scientists’ love for elaborate, often sesquipedalian words that make even the simplest of sentences incredibly difficult to comprehend. Put another way, scientists like big words. This alone makes engagement difficult. If they want to communicate to nonscientists, scientists must make a conscious effort to simplify their vocabulary and find clear ways to explain complex findings.

There is also an issue of timing. Most stakeholder engagement occurs after research has been conducted and scientists have established a set protocol. That means the engagement is more or less an effort to relay findings to the greater population. This process is limited. What happens if the findings are not pertinent to what people really care about or want to know? Receiving feedback from stakeholders throughout research is essential.

Third, research that a scientist produces and information a stakeholder needs often differ. In an ideal world, the scientist would tailor his research to fit the exact desires of those he engages with. If that existed, there would be no need for independent research. Instead, scientists and decision makers should work together to co-develop research that can help the decision maker along the way. The results may not be the exact desired outcome of the stakeholder, but it can be a stepping-stone in the right direction.

There is a lot of thinking, communication, trial and error, and ultimately time, that is required to ensure stakeholder engagement is effective. It requires an ongoing collaboration and honest self-evaluation throughout the process. It requires the type of commitment demonstrated by AgMIP during the Global Workshop.

The Sub-Saharan Africa Regional Research Team meets during AgMIP6. Source: Greg Reppucci

The Sub-Saharan Africa Regional Research Team meets during AgMIP6. Source: Greg Reppucci

“I have seen a lot of projects where they talk about collaboration, but in real life collaboration does not happen,” said Hlami Ngwenya, Stakeholder Liaison for the AgMIP Southern Africa research team. “What I have seen in the AgMIP project is that collaboration really happens. It breaks down the boundaries. I have seen an effort to really bridge the gap between science and stakeholders. And really get feedback from stakeholders for them to be able to shape their agenda.”

Though barriers between scientists and stakeholders have not dissolved entirely, AgMIP’s efforts provide a useful approach to addressing such barriers. Through collaboration, scientists engage with one another to discuss the most effective methods of communicating scientific findings with the greater population. They meet with stakeholders on a regular basis to help co-develop research that meets the needs of the stakeholders. Put another way, they start with the stakeholders and develop their research according to stakeholder needs.

This approach has allowed for AgMIP to engage with stakeholders in unique ways. One such example is AgMIP’s co-development of Representative Agricultural Pathways (RAPs). Before scientists model agricultural and socio-economic projections for a region, they meet with decision makers to discuss the ways in which agriculture in the decision maker’s region may develop over the next few decades. These meetings help shape RAPs that will be used in the models AgMIP scientists are developing. In short, the stakeholder input helps inform the AgMIP teams what the future may realistically entail for a given region.

RAP development is beneficial to both scientists and decision makers. For the scientist, the development of the RAP strengthens the soundness of their research. For the stakeholder, their input in the development of RAPs helps create an invested interest in the output of the research. Since stakeholders helped develop the input, AgMIP models will be specific for their region and beneficial for long term planning. This approach to stakeholder engagement assists in breaking down the barriers between scientists and decision makers. At the end of the day, research can be translated into usable knowledge.

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