Young scientists discuss interdisciplinary work
Interdisciplinary working in action at a 2013 young scientists' networking conference, Villa Vigoni, Italy.
Jul 2014

Future Earth aims to involve multiple stakeholders with the design and production of scientific research. Jon Turney offers a personal view of how that might work.

The division of labour is one of the great human inventions, but comes with a hefty overhead. When you want your leaky plumbing fixed or your computer unfrozen, calling in a specialist and paying the bill sometimes works fine, if you find one you can trust. But experience teaches that the transaction is rarely that simple.

The intellectual division of labour, marked out by disciplines, also has drawbacks to go with the advantages of deep specialisation. When a project wants to contribute to problems of global change and sustainability, those drawbacks are more obvious. The problems don’t sit neatly inside disciplinary boundaries. Nor do concepts, methods and assumptions translate easily between disciplines, or into the language of policy-makers, or users of research results on the ground.

Future Earth, according to the Initial Design Report released in 2013, wants to achieve a more rounded understanding of such problems the approach dubbed “co-design and co-production”.  As the report says, the research agenda and programmes should be co-designed and “where possible” co-produced by researchers in collaboration with “various stakeholders in governments, industry and business, international organisations, and civil society”.

That’s a pretty long list, and runs directly counter to the established division of labour. Disciplinary specialists, of all kinds, are asked to get together with people whose normal concerns don’t cover generating new knowledge, and work out how to do it better. How, one might wonder, is this going to work?

Answering that will mean getting into the detail of how new research gets organised. The design report, for example, says that co-design and co-production “requires an active involvement of researchers and stakeholders during the entire research process” (emphasis added).

That seems to imply quite a strong interpretation of “co-production”. However, the report goes on to say there will be “various steps where both researchers and other stakeholders are involved but to different extents and with different responsibilities”, and that “whilst researchers are responsible for the scientific methodologies, the definition of the research questions and the dissemination of results are done jointly”. That sounds less like continuous involvement and more like a process where stakeholders are consulted at the beginning - as the report elaborates, one option would be “convening stakeholder groups to jointly develop the important questions that science will help answer”. The stakeholders, perhaps, are then brought back in at the end when the researchers - who have been left to get on with their job - are ready to discuss their results. On the other hand, the report’s helpful glossary also defines co-production as a much more comprehensive involvement - “the research community and other stakeholders working together to jointly frame, design, execute research and its applications.”

It seems a running question for Future Earth as it builds momentum will be how far new projects (as well as already established ones) will move down this road. Will they settle for co-design, or try for the more elusive co-production? And where will either leave curiosity-driven research, where scientists set the terms of the problem?

To get a better sense of what co-production might involve, a little clarification may help.

If you search the net for info on co-production you mostly turn up accounts of the ideas of the influential US political scientist Sheila Jasanoff. She used the term as a way to cut through a rather heated debate in the 1980s and 1990s among sociologists of science. Are the sciences autonomous, objective domains, producing universal knowledge which represents a clear view of reality? Or is science a social construct, imbued with ideology, and liable to change as cultural viewpoints shift? Answer, neither view makes much sense when you look at how science actually works. Scientists produce useful knowledge, which is as objective as they can make it, but no-one has unmediated access to reality, and like all of us they think within their own culture and work inside social institutions. That culture, and those institutions, in turn evolve under the influence of science and technology. Their always moving mutual interaction can be summed up as co-production.

In that context, it’s quite a helpful term, and can be elaborated in lots of useful ways in studies of particular areas of knowledge. But co-production in this ontological sense is entirely general. It exists whether people outside the speciality are explicitly involved in framing problems and working out research results or not.

That isn’t really what is meant by co-production by the planners of Future Earth, where it is closer to a synonym for collaboration – more prosaic, but no less tricky to work through in detail. It means bringing new points of view, and new kinds of expertise, into the research process, working against the old division of labour.

This distinction isn’t perfect, as some examples of this kind of “co-production in practice” have been described in a way that appears closer to Jasanoff’s “co-production in theory”. But it does help in selecting examples to consider in trying to get a sense of what co-production means for organising research. And the good news is that there are plenty of examples where there seems to be general agreement that it has improved outcomes.

A good few of them come from a domain which is mostly a little way from Future Earth’s concerns - biomedical research. That is because patients’ groups are easy to identify as stakeholders, and health activism in recent decades has successfully called for greater involvement in research.

Maybe it is also because some of the research, at least, is simpler. A clinical trial, for instance, has easy to define inputs and outcome measures. And there are often clear advantages in terms of recruitment if researchers involve patients’ groups. So in areas with a long history of activism, like breast cancer, you will find trials where such groups have climbed every rung on the ladder of participation. They help define the questions, recruit participants, analyse and interpret the results, and disseminate them when they are ready.

Many other conditions have featured in projects involving patient groups and health activists and there is a pretty large literature analysing how they work. In general, the results seem positive, and beneficial to researchers as well as those who hope to see their work come to fruition. Even in a once very controversial case like AIDS, the very detailed analysis of AIDS activism and research in the 1980s by sociologist Steven Epstein in his book Impure Science shows a positive movement. Relations between activists and researchers were initially mired in mutual suspicion and conflict. However, they evolved as activists discovered that scientists, as well as seeking grants, were in fact highly motivated to find treatments for the disease. Some activists, at least, went on from campaigning for involvement in clinical trials to lobby for more funding for virology and molecular biology. One moral is that scientists who have confidence in what they are doing have nothing to fear from letting non-experts get closer to the lab - they just have to explain what they are doing well enough to persuade people it is going to be useful.

That isn’t to say the results aren’t various, and complicated. In a later review of the the literature on patient activism Epstein writes that patient groups “have [..] pioneered new models of participation in research that join the efforts of lay citizens with those of experts.” There are also many less tangible connections forged between patients and researchers which feed the research process. As well as explaining themselves better, scientists also learn to listen better, to get the benefit of a more broadly-based expertise than they can bring to bear unaided.

Closer to Future Earth’s central concerns, there is also quite a lot of experience to build on, especially in programmes which try and make climate predictions useful for many groups of users - from planners and forest managers to small farmers. Agricultural research, and extension efforts, have long featured what we are now calling co-production, recognising that farmers have richly detailed practical knowledge of how to manage their land. Development studies, too, has a tradition of co-production. As in health, co-design and/or co-production are not tried for their own sake, but as a means to improvements in the science and its application or adoption. Recent examples often mentioned include the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s regional integrated science assessment programmes and the Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security Research Programme’s extensive efforts to involve communities in their research.

This kind of thing is continually developing, as a recent blog post from CCAFS on working to integrate climate research, future farming practice and awareness of gender emphasises.

However, the conclusions reached by larger surveys of this kind of work are pretty tentative.

For example, there’s a useful perspective in a paper published last summer in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability to try to clarify some of the outstanding issues about how to do all this in the context of Future Earth.

Co-design and co-production appear there as one of three strands in a larger fabric of integrating inquiry into global problems with policy and action. In the paper Wolfram Mauser and colleagues identify three dimensions of the grand integration these problems call for - an integration which they call “transdisciplinary”.

The first strand, conventionally enough, is scientific and involves integration across disciplines. Pretty much everyone agrees that this is needed to work on problems like food systems, water security, climate change or land management. There are also a bunch of different ideas about how to help make it happen, including agreeing a common mission, evolving a common conceptual framework and a common language, identifying cross-cutting issues and combining methods.

The second dimension is also familiar: integrating internationally. The research being promoted is global, but sustainable solutions need to be implemented locally, nationally or regionally. That means taking into account matters of cultural, economic, and natural context, and local knowledge of a variety of kinds.

Finally, they define a third, sectoral dimension of integration. This is where co-design and co-production come in. They see it as involving new collaborations “between actors from the state, knowledge institutions, market and civil society sectors so as to achieve a mutual understanding of the kinds of research questions that need to be addressed and the ways of doing so”.

They go on to say that, while there are some good examples, “No definitive blueprint exists yet for this dimension of integration; it comprises new forms of learning and problem-solving action of different parts of society and academia that have not traditionally been in close contact”.

This seems in line with the conclusions of another review, in last year’s Annual Review of Environment and Resources. The authors emphasise that the best examples so far of co-design and co-production leading to good results often involve new “boundary organisations” that help science producers and users get together, and that the process involves a lot of intense interaction, often sustained over a long while, or repeated at intervals. In other words, it is quite costly in terms of time and involves a lot of careful talking and hard listening.

One of their overall conclusions is that everyone learns new things. Or as they put it, “as information moves across disciplines and between producers and stakeholders… the process of interaction itself reshapes the perceptions, behaviors, and agendas of the participants”. And the scientists’ role in all this may be one which they are not familiar with. As collaborative knowledge production develops, they say, “science and its application give rise to a new politics of expertise in which scientists rather than ‘speaking truth to power’ become part of a much broader, messier social experiment.”

Both papers leave this reader feeling that, while there is much to recommend co-design and co-production, the people who have made it work have some hard-won experience which isn’t all that easy to pass on. Perhaps you learn about co-production by doing it.

Can Future Earth go beyond that by finding some useful guidelines for setting up such “messy social experiments”? The Science Committee and Interim Engagement Committee are now drawing up their own working definitions, approach and examples. Much remains to be worked out, including who gets to participate in co-production, how different contributors can meet on equal terms, and how best to learn how to bring them together. The discussion will, we may assume, keep in mind the declaration of another recent review paper on “opening up knowledge systems” for environmental change research, which numbered Future Earth’s interim director Frans Berkhout among the authors. As they said, “the key challenge is the relationship between knowledge and action”.

Further reading

'Transdisciplinary global change research: the co-creation of knowledge for sustainability'  Wolfram Mauser, Gernot Klepper, Martin Rice, Bettina Susanne Schmalzbauer, Heide Hackmann, Rik Leemans and Howard Moore, Current opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 2013, 5:420–431, DOI:10.1016/j.cosust.2013.07.001

'Actionable Knowledge for Environmental Decision Making: Broadening the Usability of Climate Science', Christine J. Kirchhoff, Maria Carmen Lemos, and Suraje Dessai, Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 2013, 38:393–414, DOI: 10.1146/annurev-environ-022112-112828

'Opening up knowledge systems for better responses to global environmental change', Sarah Cornell, Frans Berkhout, Willemijn Tuinstra, J. David Tàbara, Jill Jäger, Ilan Chabay, Bert de Wit, Richard Langlais, David Mills, Peter Moll, Ilona M. Otto, Arthur Petersen, Christian Pohl, Lorrae van Kerkhoff, Environmental Science and Policy, 2013, 28: 60-70, DOI:10.1016/j.envsci.2012.11.008