I was a co-author on a paper led by Chris Cvitanovic, on maximising the benefits of participatory research, which was recently published.

Participatory research is an approach that involves the active engagement of diverse stakeholders by scientists in the research process. Stakeholder involvement can take a number of forms, starting with low levels of engagement such as providing data for a research project or providing evaluative feedback on research products (i.e., consultation), to higher order engagement where research stakeholders inform the development of research questions and contribute to the setting of research agendas (i.e., engagement), through to co-production of solutions between science (researchers) and society (stakeholders and policy-makers):

Fig 1

Participatory research approaches are increasingly advocated as an effective means to produce usable science, that helps increase the likelihood that science will be beneficially incorporated into decision-making processes, and support positive real-world (societal, environmental, or economic) impact.

The activities associated with participatory research many and varied, as is illustrated by this word cloud from Research Councils UK on Pathways to Impact below. Thus, the scientists who undertake participatory research often hold a unique set of personal attributes, expertise, networks, and drive to undertake research that spans the science-policy interface, compared to academics undertaking pure or non-applied research.

Research Councils UK Pathways to Impact

Our paper is focused on the risks that climate adaptation scientists, their institutions, external collaborators, and funding agencies face when undertaking participatory research. Although we focus our discussion on climate adaptation science, the topics we discuss are broadly applicable to science-policy academics based in universities who are interested in achieving research impact across many disciplines.

In this blog, I’d like to share a few of the points that we make in our paper about the challenges that individual researchers within universities face in undertaking participatory research. Some of the key challenges that individual researchers face includes impacts on:

  • Career progression – current incentive systems in academia are largely dependent on academic achievements, such as the quality of their peer-reviewed publications and funding success, and far less on knowledge exchange or research impact related metrics.
  • Personal wellbeing – increased process complexity, social dynamics of working with stakeholders, and the associated transaction costs associated with science-policy research (e.g., the increased time required to establish trusting and enduring partnerships to undertake impactful research), can impact on individuals’ work-life balance and wellbeing . This is particularly the case when universities are still getting to grips with what this type of research involves, and do not have the support structures in place to support this type of research yet.
  • Integrity – dealing with contradictory perceptions about scientific integrity – on one hand there is the perception from other researchers within universities that applied, participatory research, is somehow less rigorous, or less “scientific”. On the other hand, external stakeholders can criticize many scientists for their science being too complex.

The challenges we outline in our paper are far from trivial, and we point to a range of strategies that can help promote the development of more robust and enduring research undertaken across the science-policy interface, which are depicted in this infographic:

Figure 2

As a science-policy academic myself, I believe the most fundamental strategy to combat many of the challenges that we outline in our paper is the need for far greater institutional support and leadership within university systems. This is the foundation to all other strategies that we highlight in our paper.

We need academic institutions to not just talk about the value of achieving research impact at departmental and central university levels, but far more comprehensively invest in, and support, the individuals who are on the ‘front-line’ of working to achieve societal change and generating research impact.

In order to support and retain the next generation of science-policy academics within academic institutions, I believe universities must:

  • Train: provide professional development to support researchers seeking skills and experience to work across the science-policy interface.
  • Support: provide financial, administrative and legal support for scientists that is both professional and efficient that helps science-policy academics confidently establish and undertake work with external stakeholders (e.g., to protect individual and institutional reputation, IP, the right to publish, and formalise participatory research partnerships).
  • Promote: finally, and most critically, universities need to create positions dedicated to knowledge exchange and impact related research, and account for the unique suite of expertise and responsibilities that researchers have within impact related research, to support promotions and career progression for science-policy academics.

Currently I believe there are few universities that achieve all three levels of institutional support and leadership. In the UK (and no doubt many other countries around the globe); promotion is a particular sticking point. A recent paper by John Hillier and colleagues, points out that impact related activities make a relatively minor contribution to promotion criteria for UK universities (with teaching and research excellence dominating). For those individuals who do stay in academia, impact related research tends to get drowned out by other research, teaching, and administrative duties (i.e., it is still quite rare to find dedicated science-policy academic roles in universities).

This presents a serious issue for the new kind of academics focussed on impact related research, which many universities and research councils are investing in for early to mid-career researchers (e.g., through programmes like Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, Knowledge Exchange Fellowships, and Impact Accelerator Grants). Research councils and universities are investing in the start of a pipeline that is helping to create science-policy academics, but there are few positions for these academics if they are seeking to progress their careers and obtain secure / tenured positions within universities.

For the individuals who do not want to take on (or are not competitive for) traditional tenured academic positions, many opt to leave universities to work in consultancy or often with their external partners. This can be viewed in a positive light, that highly trained scientists are leaving universities and may help to draw out research into practice through their non-academic positions. But there is a downside to this – universities are loosing these new academics that have developed the skills, expertise, and networks to help achieve research impact.

Only once the institutional foundations are in place, will universities be able to retain the next generation of science-policy academics, and help create a new kind of science that society is calling for. This is a work in progress, and my co-authors and I hope to see institutional support transform over the coming years as the pursuit for research impact increases globally.

You can read a blog about the paper by my co-author Albert Norström, and see the full paper here.

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