Broader impacts and understanding ecosystem processes through scientist-stakeholder engagement: A case study of knowledge co-production among academic researchers and water users
Policies and their influence on ecosystem management are ideally informed by the best available science. Cultural, institutional, and practical barriers can impede or bias that process. Recognizing this gap, and incentivized by funders, academic researchers increasingly collaborate beyond their disciplines and institutions and use stakeholder engagement in studies informing natural resources and ecosystems management. The NSF-funded “Climate Change and Water Sustainability – Willamette Water 2100” (WW2100) project brings together scientists from 12 disciplines in a co-learning realm with a diverse array of water users, managers, and regulators to develop and model future climate, population, and land-use policy scenarios to predict where, when, and how water scarcity might manifest and, in turn, how ecosystems, disturbances, and land-use may be impacted. This research characterizes the scientist-stakeholder engagement process through three principle questions: 1) Who is participating? 2) Why are participants involved in this project? 3) What are the participants’ perceptions of the project’s process and outcome? Through a mixed methods approach including semi-structured interviews of key informants and survey data from a self-selected sample of the research and stakeholder population, this research takes a grounded-theory approach to understand the social dynamics and the outcome of a large transdisciplinary NSF project.
Integrating qualitative and quantitative methods allows us to explore the richer narratives in individual participants’ scientific engagement experiences and test for significant trends in the participant population. We identify key pathways to successful science-driven stakeholder engagement processes including employing a facilitator to structure the stakeholder-research interaction, committing to a common goal and value for engagement, and including diverse opinions in research discussion. We also recognize barriers including personality conflicts, project scale, and differences in philosophy on the role of stakeholders in scientific research. Additionally, we identify how participation impacts the participants. Scientists and stakeholders both reported a better understanding of the biophysical and socioeconomic system processes as a result of exposure to the various disciplines and industries through participation. Stakeholders reported a better understanding of the science and a willingness to share it with their colleagues. We find that purposive design to engage stakeholders during the entire course of a study creates ownership and trust in the findings leading to science-informed ecosystems management and policy decision. While this study focuses on participants in Oregon’s Willamette River Basin, the lessons learned from this project can inform future conservation interdisciplinary and stakeholder collaborative initiatives in multiple locations.