A new study in PLOS One looks at what it takes to build university-based “boundary organisations”. Such organisations employ individuals from both sides of the science-policy boundary to co-produce insights that are of relevance and practical use within policy and practice. But developing such organizations is challenging. Photo: Stockholm University

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SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE

A blueprint for impact

Seven steps towards increasing environmental science’s influence on policy and practice

Story highlights

  • A study in PLOS One looks at what it takes to build university-based “boundary organisations”. Such organisations employ individuals from both sides of the science-policy boundary to co-produce insights that are of relevance and practical use within policy and practice
  • A case study is the Baltic Eye Project at Stockholm University, set up to support “evidence-informed decision-making” relating to the sustainable management of the Baltic Sea
  • Despite its young life, the Baltic Eye Project has already achieved demonstrable impacts on policies and practices connected to the Baltic Sea

At the Stockholm Resilience Centre, everything we do is based on the science that we do. But we are also an international convener between science, policy and practice, while investing significant time and resources into communication and outreach.

Luckily we are not alone in doing this.

An eye for influence

The Baltic Eye project at Stockholm University was set up in mid-2014 to support “evidence-informed decision-making” relating to the sustainable management of the Baltic Sea.

To do this, they chose to structure themselves differently from what is otherwise the norm at academic institutions. Instead of largely recruiting scientific personnel, they formed a team consisting of researchers, communicators, journalists and policy analysts. This joint expertise would increase their chances of becoming a more dynamic partner for partners within policy and practice, as opposed to be just a scientific provider.

Delving deeper into the learnings and experiences of people working within the Baltic Eye Project, centre researcher Albert Norström together with colleagues from University of Tasmania, the Baltic Sea Centre and Newcastle University have published a study in PLOS One, looking at what it takes to build university-based “boundary organisations”. Such organisations employ individuals from both sides of the science-policy boundary to co-produce insights that are of relevance and practical use within policy and practice.

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Demonstrable impacts, but also challenges

Despite its young life, the Baltic Eye project has already achieved demonstrable impacts on policies and practices connected to the Baltic Sea. During interviews with staff a variety of examples came up, ranging from combatting microplastics to improving coastal management.

But developing this type of organization has been challenging. For instance, some staff expressed concern about how this work would influence their academic career.

“I am giving up my academic career to work here,” said one, “because I am not going to publish as much, and I am not going to be a professor.”

This reflection also crystallized the need to balance personal ambitions with the opportunity to experience something different.

“We are building something new…we don’t have to adjust to an old hierarchical culture…we need to find [new] ways to integrate this idea into the old university culture,” said another staff.

Seven steps to impact

Based on their study of the Baltic Eye Project, Norström and his colleagues identified seven things that could boost an academic institution’s impact of environmental science on policy and practice:

1. Develop measurable goals. Reward more than just citations, stakeholder engagement should be considered too

2. Create diverse teams and recruit people who are collaborative, open and willing (and able) to communicate their work

3. Strive for long-term funding, five years or more. Impact does not happen over night

4. Make your work as publically available as possible. Invest in outreach across a variety of channels

5. Encourage staff to experiment and explore, give them time and space to learn

6. Play an active part in ‘hot topics’ that attracts interest from the public and political sphere

7. Work on your social networks, make sure staff has the time and resources to engage and interact with stakeholders. A regular cup of tea is always good

A special place for policy analysts

Norström and his colleagues acknowledge that getting all of these features right is difficult, especially when considering constraints on financial and human resources. Based on this, they asked staff at the Baltic Eye Project to identify the single most important capacity for having an impact on policy and practice.

Amid clear goals, effective leaders and secured funding, the inclusion of policy analysts in the already diverse group was considered to be most important.

Specifically, having colleagues that understand local, regional and international policy processes was considered crucial. These colleagues would help understand the needs of policy makers, identify the most appropriate channels to influence them, how to facilitate knowledge flows between science and policy, do capacity-building among scientific staff, and help building stronger social networks between scientists and policy makers. The stronger their networks (or the ability to create such networks), the better.

Valuable lessons

The study is among the first to empirically evaluate a new research organisational structure aimed at increasing the impact of environmental science. As a consequence, more research is needed to understand the broader consequences of the blueprints for change. But the authors of the study are convinced the lessons from the Baltic Eye Project would be valuable for others.

"Building institutional capacity this way will be critical if environmental science is to fulfil its responsibilities and contribute towards long-term sustainable management of natural resources," they conclude.

Methodology

The authors conducted semi-structured interviews with 16 out of 17 members of staff from the Baltic Eye Project, between November and December 2017. All interview transcripts were analysed using NVIVO 10 qualitative data analysis software. The analysis consisted of broad thematic coding against the research objectives:

What impacts have been achieved to date by the Baltic Eye Project;

What barriers have been experienced in the Baltic Eye Project;

What are the critical features that are needed within research teams to enhance the impact of environmental science on policy and practice.

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Citation

Cvitanovic C., Löf M.F., Norström A.V., Reed, M.S. 2018. Building university-based boundary organisations that facilitate impacts on environmental policy and practice. PLoS ONE 13(9): e0203752. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0203752

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Albert Norström is deputy director of GRAID, a programme hosted by the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) and funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). It aims to bridge the worlds of resilience thinking and development practice. Norström is also interim director of Future Earth's Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS). The principal approach of PECS research is the in-depth understanding of place-based, long-term social-ecological case studies,

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Stockholm Resilience Centre is a collaboration between Stockholm University and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

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