Policy ForumGlobal Change Science

Stakeholders in climate science: Beyond lip service?

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Science  13 Nov 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6262, pp. 743-744
DOI: 10.1126/science.aab1495

Research models are evolving in response to the need for on-the-ground knowledge of climate change impacts on communities. Partnership between researcher and practitioner is vital for adaptive policy efforts (1). Transdisciplinary research teams present new opportunities by involving academics and local stakeholders, who actively conceive, enact, and apply research on adaptation and mitigation actions (2, 3). In transdisciplinary research, stakeholders are also researchers. But if we want to engage stakeholders in climate research, then we cannot simply pay lip service to the idea while treating them as participants for extractive research.

We categorized a set of 27 climate change research networks (see supplementary materials) that perform various knowledge functions (4) and exhibit different forms of stakeholder engagement, from distributing knowledge to users to coproducing it with stakeholders (see the table). These networks represent various investments of time and resources to build the capacity of researchers and stakeholders to coproduce knowledge.

Our analysis has three goals: (i) to document and compare examples of climate change research networks and elicit the patterns of knowledge functions; (ii) to demonstrate that many networks are emphasizing knowledge coproduction with stakeholders, with attendant policy implications; and (iii) to build an interactive database of networks so as to ignite broader dialogue on the role of stakeholders in science.

Some of the networks reviewed, such as the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (classified as “linking”), are focused on improving how knowledge streams from scientists to relevant stakeholders. Others, such as the Climate Action Network for South Asia (“match-making”), have adopted a more “consultative” approach to knowledge exchange with stakeholders. Transdisciplinarity requires more labor. For example, the Future Earth program (“coproducing”) works directly with stakeholders to help script research schemes, frame questions, and collect and analyze data, with the hope that coproduction will result in more policy-relevant knowledge and local empowerment. The key point is not that one model of knowledge production is better than another—nor that all models should be fully “integrative” (5)—but that many climate change research networks invite stakeholders to be part of the community of peer experts who assess the validity and relevance of science itself (6).

COMPENSATION, INTEGRATION, AND ACCOUNTABILITY. Scholarship on community-engaged research in public health has shown that collaborative research that involves stakeholders as researchers presents a number of ethical and political implications for the governance of science (7).

First, at present, transdisciplinary models in climate research assume that stakeholders are rewarded with new knowledge, capacities, and “voice” by taking part in research networks. This assumption only serves to reproduce the power imbalance between scientists and stakeholders, the former remaining in control of the coproduction process. Although stakeholders may be willing to volunteer for the opportunity to engage in research, reliance on self-selected individuals can lead to further marginalization of vulnerable populations whose knowledge and experience is sought, but whose time and resources are limited.

Unlike scientists, stakeholders are not paid for making insights and discoveries. Genuine transdisciplinary research requires elevating the role of stakeholders as equal to scientists because of the work they do as coproducers, regardless of the potential instrumental value of the knowledge coproduced. Yet, ethical issues often arise when directly paying research partners, and many institutional review boards (IRBs) flag remuneration as a possible conflict of interest, even for knowledge coproducers. IRBs may need to revisit ethical guidelines and procedures when stakeholders—no longer just participants—are active agents in generating knowledge. IRBs already allow honoraria to incentivize and help defray some costs of stakeholder engagement in research, but this nominal amount is not commensurate with compensating stakeholders as coproducers. A “pay-for-services” model of stakeholder engagement is not the only option, but although equating coproduction with pay may not be appropriate everywhere, neither should it be rejected a priori.

Collaborative models of climate research

Framework for categorizing the primary knowledge function of research networks

Second, power imbalances between technical expertise and local knowledge point to wider problems of integration and knowledge coproduction in climate science (8). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) continues to emphasize quantitative versus qualitative scientific research, expert judgment over local knowledge, and a rather limited understanding of the “human dimensions” of global change (9, 10). To effectively scaleup local knowledge coproduction, we need to foster a variety of knowledge-sharing and social-learning platforms, such as the interactive database of research networks to which we invite readers to contribute (rael.berkeley.edu/project/stakeholders-in-science). At the global scale, there is urgent need for the institutionalization of mechanisms of local knowledge mobilization, perhaps within the IPCC, to prevent continued fragmentation of coproduction initiatives. Whereas many networks we examine seek to do this, without a more systematic global means of knowledge integration and dialogue, their efforts will remain local or regional.

Finally, transdisciplinary models of research collaboration have important policy implications, including the need for granting agencies to develop transdisciplinary research governance criteria (7) and for universities to revisit their proprietary policies and to develop rights of shared ownership of the knowledge coproduced. Although funding agencies generally require that research partnerships with communities have formal governance structures, such governance agreements are of little use if there are no mechanisms to hold researchers accountable. Granting agencies need to put into place mechanisms for addressing complaints from knowledge coproducers when agreed-upon requirements are not followed through. Drawing on literature on community-based research partnerships, other actions might include a memorandum of understanding outlining goals, principles, and intellectual property rights of partnerships with nonacademic stakeholders; clear roles and responsibilities of knowledge coproducers; and, guidelines for how partnerships will accumulate, store, and mobilize data.

Whether through financial compensation, new modes of recognition, or new governance arrangements, global change science can strengthen its social robustness and relevance when ethical and political dilemmas at the core of knowledge coproduction are openly acknowledged, honestly assessed, and meaningfully addressed. If climate change demands all hands on deck, then it's time to raise the stakes.

References and Notes

  1. Acknowledgments: Authors are supported by the Fulbright NEXUS Regional Scholars program, funded by the U.S. Department of State, where D.M.K. is the lead scholar, and the Brazilian Ministry of Education, Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Studies (CAPES). N.L.K. acknowledges funding from the Canadian Social Science and Humanities Research Council Partnership Development Grant: Living with Climate Change. S.L.P. acknowledges funding from SENESYCT, Government of Ecuador, Project Prometeo, and NSF Research Coordination Networks--The Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability (DEB-1231233). F.M. acknowledges funding from International Development Research Centre, Project Climate Change, Vulnerability, and Health. The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of supporting agencies.
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