One way we try and improve the way science gets applied is to engage the beneficiaries of the science, what are often called stakeholders or end users, in the projects NOAA funds. This collaboration needs to be an active engagement process. Too often researchers ask the stakeholders “What do you need?”, then go away for a few years to develop a new model, tool or information, and are dismayed to hear when they share what they’ve accomplished with stakeholders that it isn’t what they want. Active engagement of the stakeholders could have helped avoid this problem.
When I was a budding graduate student I was focused on doing science and didn’t really pay much attention to how my work could be applied. After I joined NOAA and ended up on a career path that involved funding science I noticed that the application of the science we funded by coastal managers was sort of a hit or miss proposition. This is because many problems in coastal management are considered “wicked” problems. Wicked problems often have both an environmental and social component to them. Sea level rise can be considered a wicked problem. Scientists understand why sea level rise happens – it is caused by a combination of increasing global temperatures, melting glaciers and sinking or rebounding coastal terrain. Additionally the time scales of sea level rise are easy to ignore – a few millimeter per year change is hard to discern, particularly over a human life span (50-100 years). Add the human dimension to this problem – the fact that people like to live, work and play near the coast – and wah lah you’ve got yourself a wicked problem.
Active stakeholder engagement involves checking in regularly with the stakeholders as your project unfolds to make sure what you are developing is actually what your stakeholders thought they wanted. It requires both the researchers and stakeholders to listen to each other and make changes to what is being developed as needed. This engaged listening process benefits from involving a person in your project with facilitation skills who is a neutral party. It may cost a bit more time and money upfront to include this collaboration process in the project but it pays off in the end because what is developed gets used and doesn’t die in the so called technology transfer valley of death.
A good resource to get started with adding more stakeholder engagement in your project is the “Collaborative Project Toolkit” available at http://www.nerra.org/archive/how-we-work/collaborative-project-toolkit/. This toolkit was developed with NOAA funding and includes best practices and case studies.