Scientists identify four principles for successful co-production of knowledge

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Centuries of science has created a phenomenally successful and finely tuned mechanism for producing knowledge. Emphasis has been on scientists alone identifying an issue or problem, carrying out the research and then delivering the knowledge to society. 

But messy and complex problems, particularly those relating to climate change, ecological crises, and poverty alleviation, can’t be dealt with in this way. This is why researchers and practitioners are turning to “co-production of knowledge” as a promising approach that ensures scientific integrity while exploring solutions with those who need them. 

Co-production of knowledge is not exactly new. It has been around for four decades or more, and has often focused on small-scale fisheries, or agricultural areas. The approach is now shifting from the margins of scientific practice towards the centre. Researchers have been cast by its spell as organizations like Future Earth promote it as an important way for science to confront the sustainability challenges of the 21st century. 

Four principles of knowledge co-production 

However, knowledge co-production is not easy. The ways in which it is defined and put into practice are diverse, and sometimes contradictory. While this contributes to the creative use of the approach, it severely limits our ability to compare and learn from the outcomes and thus improve practice. 

An international team of researchers, led by Albert Norström of Stockholm Resilience Centre and Future Earth’s Programme for Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS), with contributions from many of Future Earth's global resarch projects (including GLP, GMBA, GCP, PAGES, and Future Earth Coasts), published an analysis in Nature Sustainability that identifies four general principles that underlie high-quality knowledge co-production for sustainability research. These principles can be applied, the authors argue, at all scales. 

“Co-production is a powerful tool. It involves academics and non-academics working closely together. It extends from a first stage of collectively identifying the problem and building trust, through knowledge generation, to a phase of exploring the practical impacts of the process. Co-production processes produce more than just knowledge; they develop capacity, build networks and implement actions that contribute to sustainability” says Norström. 

But he stresses that there is no single approach for success. It is about iteration. Success is more likely, the authors argue, if co-production adheres to the four principles of being (i) context based, (ii) pluralistic, (iii) goal-orientated and (iv) interactive.

Context-based research means understanding how a challenge emerged, how it is affected by its particular social, economic and ecological contexts, and the different beliefs and needs of those affected by it. On top of this, research should be pluralistic facilitating a range of perspectives, knowledge and expertise and consider gender, ethnicity and age in developing the project. Third, clearly defined goals agreed by all are more likely to deliver success than vague, unfocused projects. And finally, interactivity through dialogue throughout the process is critical for establishing trust and buy-in. 

The authors also use the four principles to offer practical guidance on how to evaluate and monitor knowledge co-production practices. 

“As with our definition and principles, our guidance for monitoring and evaluation is necessarily broad given the context-specificity of all co-production processes, and is not an exhaustive list. However, we hope our evaluation strategies can help researchers and practitioners engaged in these approaches, and guide funders who struggle with assessing knowledge co-production” they note.

Knowledge co-production in the Anthropocene

Knowledge co-production processes have predominantly involved teams of academics and non-academics working at local to regional level. Now there is growing interest in how to apply this approach at global or regional scale. The team highlights a major international collaboration between the largest seafood companies and researchers to attempt to rethink the global fishing industry. 

“This is co-production in the Anthropocene. International law does not adequately protect these resources. They are being fished unsustainably which is in no one’s interest. And knowledge of the extent of the problem is low among the business leaders,” say the authors. Now these business leaders have joined forces with marine researchers to develop sustainable roadmaps for the industry. 

The researchers hope the principles can help researchers and stakeholder create more powerful partnerships. But they highlight that co-production is not enough. Deep shifts in worldviews are needed “reconnecting people to nature”, as well as restructuring institutions. They also highlight a lack of incentives across science-business and policy to allow the kind of deep connectivity they advocate.

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