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What Does it Mean to Equitably Co-produce Research for Decision-making?

Group fishbowl discussions in the round allow co-production workshop participants to engage in a unique way. Image provided by Karen Akerlof.
Group fishbowl discussions in the round allow co-production workshop participants to engage in a unique way. Image provided by Karen Akerlof.

Collaborative study of federally funded climate research finds three distinct perspectives  

When people think of research, they may variously imagine a white-jacketed scientist peering down into a microscope, supervising chemical reactions in glass beakers on a lab bench, or peering up at the sky through a telescope. Yet the creation of new knowledge increasingly looks somewhat different. “Co-production” involves researchers engaging with people outside the bounds of their academic institutions, bringing together diverse groups to iteratively create new knowledge. The practice is increasingly being adopted in research conducted for the purpose of decision-making, yet, the ways in which it is conducted can have both positive—and negative—societal consequences. 

Through a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, George Mason University Assistant Professor of Environmental Science And Policy, Karen Akerlof and University of Alaska Fairbanks Research Associate and Mason alumna, Kristin Timm, worked with a group of federal and civic society partners to investigate which principles of co-production design are perceived to advance more equitable processes and outcomes.Ironically, participatory processes can worsen conditions of social inequity and inequality if the voices of marginalized groups are unlikely to be heard,” said Akerlof. With the increasing expectation that researchers will conduct science that has direct societal impact, understanding what constitutes co-production best practices becomes more and more essential.” 

In a study published in May, the group found three perspectives for how co-production should be conducted in order to ensure it is equitable, each with a different focus. The first centered on valuing different ways of knowing about the world and restructuring power relations to put communities in the driver seat in collaborations; the second on including local audiences and designing the communicative, participatory, and interactive dimensions of co-production; and the third on the contributions that science can make in building community capacity and empowerment for collective action. 

As Rese Cloyd, who served as a co-lead for the project while Director of AAAS's Center for Public Engagement, explained, "Co-production can provide opportunities to deepen and widen connections between science and society by building trust and understanding among participants, but expectations about the process and potential outcomes can vary widely."

Added Erin Heath, AAAS’s Director of Federal Relations and another project co-lead, “Research can enhance our understanding of how to best pursue co-production with an equity lens.”

The three perspectives on equitable co-production each differently weight five dimensions of co-production: 1) its outcomes; 2) who has power over the project; 3) respecting the place-based  knowledge and rights of communities; 4) which audiences are involved and facilitation of their participation; and 5) the duration and nature of interactions between participants. Co-production implemented in alignment with each of these perspectives will look quite different, suggesting that researchers and their funders need to invest in defining the necessary components for co-production as a first step to building equitable collaborations. 

The team collaborated on the project with federal agencies, which have been at the forefront of supporting co-produced research and developing best practices, and reached out to people who have been doing this work across the country in varying capacities to serve as advisory panel members.

"We must as federal funders find ways to support new methods of co-production that more fully center equity and the voices of members of underserved, marginalized communities,” shared Caitlin Simpson, NOAA CAP federal program manager.

The study explored the experiences of participants in three projects funded by federal programs that support decision-relevant climate science from across the U.S., as well as the perspectives of others engaged in co-production efforts. Collaborators included representatives of: the USDA Southeast Climate Hub; the NOAA Climate Adaptation Partnership (CAP) Consortium for Climate Risk in the Urban Northeast (CCRUN) in New York; and the USGS Alaska Climate Adaptation Science Center (CASC). Each of the federally funded climate research groups focused on different impacts, audiences, knowledge-building processes, and outcomes, but the team found that the three perspectives were not unique to specific projects or participant roles. 

“Coastal residents need to understand their own, individual flood risk and adaptation options,” shared Malgosia Madajewicz, a Columbia University Associate Research Scientist who was funded by CCRUN to work with communities along New York City’s Rockaway peninsula that are low-income, racially diverse, and particularly vulnerable to sea level rise. “For example, what are their expected costs of recovery from flood damages to their own home over the next 15 or 30 years, and how much of those recovery costs can they avoid with specific flooding adaptation and mitigation actions?” This information can help residents decide whether to stay in place or move away, and enable them to participate in community-level adaptation planning and action in an informed way.

RISE project to stabilize the Rockaway dunes and beaches to make them more effective flood protection. Image provided by Rockaway Initiative for Sustainability and Equity (RISE).
RISE project to stabilize the Rockaway dunes and beaches to make them more effective flood protection. Image provided by Rockaway Initiative for Sustainability and Equity (RISE).

A publicly available guide to adaptation for Rockaway’s coastal residents was developed as part of the project.  

The Building Resilience Today project was a learning experience for the project team and the community members that participated,” explained Ryan Toohey, a project lead and research coordinator for the Alaska CASC. “The team recorded some incredible Indigenous and local knowledge that we returned to the community as a report that could be used for community planning, public comments or potentially future grant opportunities.” Many of the experiences learned from the BRT project were used to launch the Alaska Tribal Learning Resources Network as a way to sustain engagement between communities, climate scientists, and other experts. 

In 2020, the USDA Southeast Climate Hub, in cooperation with the USDA Forest Service and other subject-matter experts from university Extension, co-produced hurricane preparation and recovery guides for 25 economically important commodities in the southeast U.S. “These guides help forest landowners, farmers, and ranchers build resilience to, prepare for, and recover from hurricane impacts,” said Michael Gavazzi, Southeast Climate Hub Coordinator.

With co-production increasingly important to decision-making at all scales—from local to federal--the National Academies recently launched a committee to explore best practices. An affiliated event co-hosted in May 2022 with the National Academies—Co-Producing Knowledge with Communities: Equity in Federal Research Programs – demonstrated the level of attention to co-production within the current administration. As White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s Alondra Nelson said at the event, “Collaborating with communities means re-imagining how we carry out policymaking to facilitate community participation.”

Andre Marshall, Mason’s Vice President for Research, Innovation, and Economic Impact, told the National Academies audience that STEM fields play an important role as well: “Equity is especially important when it comes to STEM, as it can drive economic growth and help meet ever-increasing high-tech labor demands.”

Enabling these societal shifts will require widespread institutional change, observed Akerlof: “As we describe in the paper, co-production has been termed a ‘utopian’ endeavor within academia, not only challenging power structures in society generally but requiring research institutions to rethink what they do, who does it, and how they operate. We hope that this study contributes to that discussion.”