As the deadline fast approaches for higher education institutions to submit the evidence on which the quality of their research will be assessed, Dr Toby Gardner asks how applied research can best deliver tangible contributions to achieving society’s goals.

Achieving a closer integration of science and society to leverage changes in government policy and the behaviour of individuals goes far beyond “getting our message across”

Toby Gardner

We live in an era where there is a greater demand for applied sciences than ever before. Funding agencies and governments require more and more attention to be paid to ensuring that a given research project will have “impact”. The UK government has taken a bold and – in my opinion – laudable step to include measures of how much “impact” has been achieved by research as part of its five-year assessment of research excellence in universities. However, ensuring that applied research can deliver tangible and beneficial contributions to achieving society’s goals – whether in delivering improvements in human development and health, or in overcoming the challenges that face humanity in an era of unprecedented environmental and climatic change – remains a perpetually elusive and frustrating enterprise.

Scientists often bemoan the fact that politicians and other groups of influential people do not listen to what they have to say. It is easy to feel that if only we knew how to get the message across better, write better press releases, give interviews on the radio and television and write letters to newspapers then people would pay more attention, and positive changes would ensue.

There is little doubt that all this is true and, as a rule, scientists are generally a reclusive bunch, preferring to continue focusing on what they are good at than trying to repackage their painstaking work into accessible language and digestible sound bites. It is also unreasonable to think that scientists could and should do this on their own, and universities and research institutions could greatly enhance the impact of the work done by their scientists if they employed more than the typical handful of communications experts.

However, achieving a closer integration of science and society to leverage changes in government policy and the behaviour of individuals goes far beyond the trials and tribulations of just “getting our message across”. Sending all newly appointed researchers on media training courses would doubtless be a useful investment but it would do little to revolutionise the effectiveness and impact of science. Much more fundamental changes are needed to embed not only the outcomes, but also the process of science more deeply within the institutions and communities of people who actually have the ability to use new information and understanding to foster positive change.

A common message I hear from decision makers in government, the private sector and civil society at all levels is that, no matter how well they communicate their ideas, scientists are often not addressing the right questions in the first place. Or that they are only addressing a subset of what is in fact a much broader problem – the appreciation of which is rarely made explicit. I am inclined to agree.

A lot more can be done to critically appraise the way in which limited human resources and funding is apportioned to address competing priorities and complementary research needs. Central to this challenge is the need to be much more explicit about the underlying motivations and context of a specific research contribution, how it relates to existing knowledge and work being done in other disciplines, and the extent to which it is able to help guide real changes on the ground. In being more systematic in our appraisal of different stages in the process of acquiring knowledge to tackle a specific problem we can be more honest about contextualising specific contributions, understand the opportunities and limitations that they represent and minimise what are often fruitless and counterproductive debates.

For example, in the fields of conservation and sustainability science where I work, it is not enough to simply quantify and understand processes of environmental degradation (the focus of work by many ecologists, and much of my own research career to date). For this understanding to lead to actual changes in policy and implementation, additional work is needed to understand the opportunities that exist to confront such problems in the form of practical policy and management interventions, the conditions and risks associated with implementing any such interventions, and the barriers that may undermine their effectiveness in the long-term.

All of these stages require dedicated research attention, and the ability of science to support any process of transition towards greater sustainability depends upon a careful integration and contextualisation of findings from across different disciplines, all working under a shared appreciation of the problems facing a given region. It may be the case that more research is not needed in a given area – perhaps, for instance, we already understand enough about the environmental damage caused by illegal timber logging, and instead what is more urgently needed is a deeper understanding of the kinds of institutions and blend of regulations and incentives that can support more sustainable and equitable approaches to forest management.

Ultimately, however, even the most integrated approach to studying the linked problems and solutions facing the management of environmental resources (or any other problem) in a given region will likely have very little impact if the people who are intended to benefit from, or be influenced by, the work are not intimately involved in the research process itself. Evidence on its own is not enough.

Researchers label such kinds of participatory approaches – where scientists, decision makers and affected people all have a stake in the priorities, design and execution of research – as transdisciplinarity. Yet, despite considerable theoretical interest, genuine examples of where this has been achieved in practice are depressingly thin on the ground. To scientists and decision makers who have tried, this will come as no surprise as it is invariably an incredibly difficult and largely thankless endeavour.

Overcoming these problems and making such approaches more mainstream requires a step-change in the incentive structure of universities such that early and persistent engagement by researchers in decision-making processes is encouraged, recognised and rewarded. It also requires researchers to have access to opportunities that can foster the development of a research environment that is more intimately embedded in the community it is trying to support, such as through reciprocal secondments of research and policy experts, capacity-building programs and a much greater investment in strategic and operational modes of individual research groups. It remains to be seen whether the current changes in the culture of research funding and evaluation will be sufficient to achieve this.

Dr Toby Gardner is in the Department of Zoology.

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