For decades, the impact of research was measured within the research discipline itself, often in terms of citations or how ideas presented advanced the field. Nowadays, researchers must increasingly plan for and document how the results of their work will be used – how they will contribute to society.
By: Paul Renaud and Trude Borch // Akvaplan-niva, Marit Reigstad // UiT The Arctic University of Norway, Rolf Rødven // Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme, Øyvind Rinaldo // Norwegian Coastal Administration
Working across the science–society interface is a well-acknowledged challenge. Just as it can be difficult to work outside of accepted scientific paradigms, the crossing of disciplinary and professional boundaries can be impeded by distinct research cultures, processes and even language. Managers and educators are confronted with difficulties in knowing what questions to ask and to whom they should direct their questions, and there is not always an established mechanism for bringing forward policy-relevant questions from stakeholders to the scientific community at an early stage of a project.
Researchers face challenges of whether to trust that what they offer will be accepted, interpreted correctly, and not misused for political purposes. So how can scientists deliver what is needed by other stakeholders in a format and language that makes it usable, and within a time frame and organisational structure that allows assistance with interpretation and follow up?
Nansen legacy project dissemination
The Nansen Legacy is a large six-year interdisciplinary research project studying the effects of climate change and other human impacts on the northern Barents Sea system and the nearby Arctic Ocean. More than 230 researchers from Norwegian universities and research institutions are involved, including over 50 students, and the results are intended to inform resource management and policy in the region. Clearly, many stakeholders are interested in the outcomes, and the need for the project to deliver to society is magnified by the several hundred million NOK in public funding allocated.
Strategies were developed in the planning phases and implemented to address the challenges of crossing the science–society interface. Although delivering on these responsibilities it is still a work in progress, it is already underway due largely to tight coordination among researchers, stakeholders, and communication personnel from the partner institutions. Some institutions involved in the project have management-related or policy-advisory mandates. These facilitate direct use of results, for example improved weather, sea ice, and wave forecasts, improved models for management, and data that complement regular surveys in time and space or on various topics.
From the initiation of the Nansen Legacy, a Reference Group (RG) comprising environmental managers and policy makers at county, national, and international levels, as well as relevant industry partners, has been embedded within the project. The diverse needs of these stakeholders have been identified during recurring dialogue meetings where knowledge needs as well as delivery formats have been discussed in detail and harmonised with research plans.
For example, the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) applies Nansen Legacy science in its production of pan-Arctic scientific synthesis on climate change and contaminants. These assessments form the basis for policy recommendations to international regulatory bodies like the Stockholm convention on permanent organic pollutants, the Minamata convention on mercury, and the IPCC on climate change.
Navigating the nearly 140 publications already produced within the Nansen Legacy project and the equally large number still in the pipeline, would be challenging for most RG members. However, the different components of these results are valuable for the tasks or activities run by the RG members. Upon reviewing the stakeholder needs and research themes, the Project Leader Team has established seven thematic Task Forces responsible for synthesising results and producing dissemination material from what has already been published, intended for both scientific and non-scientific stakeholders. Some specific products include data sets and fact sheets, short synthetic reviews and textbooks, scientific perspective articles and newspaper editorials. RG members are directly involved in workshops and webinars where results are presented and dissemination materials are planned, assuring that they receive relevant and timely information in usable format.
Safe and efficient navigation and an adequate preparedness against acute pollution are among the responsibilities of the Norwegian Coastal Administration (NCA). Each sub-project in the Nansen Legacy is a small island of new and valuable knowledge which, when synthesised into textbooks and articles, becomes valuable to stakeholders like the NCA. Two examples are how climate change may affect sea-ice extent and navigability, or which species will become more vulnerable in the future. The former point is critical to ensure safe operations in the Arctic, the latter to design preparedness strategies against acute pollution.
A legacy for society
It is fair to presume that the science of the Nansen Legacy project will have many links with society beyond the interactions with the project RG. Thousands of publicly available data sets will be produced and archived for use by researchers, risk-assessment modellers, and knowledge-synthesis organisations like AMAP for decades to come. The utility of these data sets will far exceed that of most of the scientific articles and textbooks produced during the project. Such open-access data represent the democratisation of science such that anyone, anywhere, and at any time can access the knowledge gained in the project.
By training over 90 early-career researchers, the Nansen Legacy project contributes strongly to the next generation of Arctic ecosystem scientists for Norway and the world. This unprecedented inter- and multi-disciplinary training within such a large collaborative project will provide not only tomorrow’s researchers, but highly skilled individuals for industry and the public sector as well.
Further, training within a culture of attentiveness to the needs of societal stakeholders can instil this perspective in young researchers.
Improved stewardship of our natural resources will certainly be one of the more important outcomes of this project. The new knowledge contributed to environmental managers and policymakers will benefit fisheries and the maritime sector, with add-on benefits for local communities connected to and reliant upon clean oceans and responsible resource use. Climate and ecosystem projections will also inform development of adaptation strategies for communities reliant on changing resources.
The Nansen Legacy project is one model for overcoming the challenges of bridging the science–society gap. The large budget, the many partners with complementary mandates, and the long project duration allow dedicated scientists, communicators, and stakeholders to assure that knowledge is transferred or available to appropriate end-users. This is essential as the science community is increasingly required to demonstrate the societal relevance of their research. Despite lack of academic tradition and often limited resources for research projects, the skills and culture of producing truly impactful science will need to evolve such that crossing the threshold to societal value becomes part of normal scientific processes. Not all science is directly useful on short time scales, but exposure to and discussions on stakeholder needs is an important first step to reach a goal of increased use of science for positive societal impact.