Designing Environmental Research for Impact

Campbell, C. A., Lefroy, E. C., Caddy-Retalic, S., Bax, N., Doherty, P. J., Douglas, M. M., Johnson, D., Possingham, H. P., Specht, A., Tarte, D & West, J. (2015). Designing environmental research for impact. Science of the Total Environment, 534, 4-13.

  • This paper explores how environmental research can be more influential.
  • Transdisciplinary research means researchers working with end users.
  • Funders, researchers and end users have a shared stake in successful outcomes.
  • Research is most likely to be influential when all three groups have shared goals.
  • Mutual trust, continuity of personnel and adaptive capacity are key success factors.

Transdisciplinary research, involving close collaboration between researchers and the users of research, has been a feature of environmental problem solving for several decades, often spurred by the need to find negotiated outcomes to intractable problems. In 2005, the Australian government allocated funding to its environment portfolio for public good research, which resulted in consecutive four-year programmes (Commonwealth Environmental Research Facilities, National Environmental Research Program). In April 2014, representatives of the funders, researchers and research users associated with these programmes met to reflect on eight years of experience with these collaborative research models.
This structured reflection concluded that successful multi-institutional transdisciplinary research is necessarily a joint enterprise between funding agencies, researchers and the end users of research. The design and governance of research programmes need to explicitly recognise shared accountabilities among the participants, while respecting the different perspectives of each group. Experience shows that traditional incentive systems for academic researchers, current trends in public sector management, and loose organisation of many end users, work against sustained transdisciplinary research on intractable problems, which require continuity and adaptive learning by all three parties. The likelihood of research influencing and improving environmental policy and management is maximised when researchers, funders and research users have shared goals; there is sufficient continuity of personnel to build trust and sustain dialogue throughout the research process from issue scoping to application of findings; and there is sufficient flexibility in the funding, structure and operation of transdisciplinary research initiatives to enable the enterprise to assimilate and respond to new knowledge and situations.
Check out the highlights…this journal provides highlights of the paper, in case you didn’t have time to read the 253 words in the abstract! Nonetheless, a nice feature to help decide if this article is right for you.
This article comes from environmental research. The similarities with messages from other disciplines in this journal club (health, education, social work, international development) reinforce the truly interdisciplinary nature of research on knowledge mobilization and research impact. It is important to read across disciplines to support the conclusions you are making about your own practice.
Take home message #1 for practitioners: “Funders, researchers and end users have a shared stake in successful outcomes”. Impacts of research are maximized when all three acknowledge their vested interests and collaborate on shared outcomes. It becomes clear that a key role for research impact professionals (i.e. knowledge brokers) is to support these collaborations across sectors and disciplines.
The paper is based on a framework for participatory reflection on transdisciplinary research program from Roux et al published in 2010. Table 1 in the article outlines the “accountability indicators” for researchers, funders and end users. All the accountabilities are different pointing out the strengths of the three separate domains. But they are presented as just that, three separate domains. None of them share any responsibilities in common. What is missing from this table is the shared accountability to collaborate, something the paper points out later on.
The researchers undertook surveys and workshops with the five multi-million dollar hubs funded under the National Environmental Research Programs (NERP). The NERP program was designed to meet the knowledge needs of the environmental portfolio of the Australian government. The NERP hubs provide a good source of data to understand transdisciplinary research. Each NERP hub is built on five principles

  1.  involving policy makers in the framing of research questions
  2. specific focus on knowledge brokering and translation
  3. facilitating access to research
  4. enhancing mutual understanding
  5. innovation in evaluation

These five principles created NERP hubs all working to shared objectives, shared guidelines and shared accountability measures; however, the authors note that each developed in different ways. “Acknowledging the importance of context in shaping local responses, we nevertheless contend that principles of good applied environmental research practice emerge across all hubs.” The authors point out that context specific factors demand flexibility of implementation. “Programme design, management structure and research practice should respond to the specific ecosystem/issue, mix of stakeholders and end users and the nature of their knowledge needs, cognizant of the history of research investment in that context.”
The researchers surveyed funders, researchers and end users on 16 different accountabilities. Some were more highly aligned to one of the three groups but the following accountabilities were ranked highly by all three: Engagement, Discourse and Leadership. Each of the three groups felt these three aligned closely with their roles. Perhaps specific capacity building should be rolled out on these three before the other 13 accountabilities.
The role of end users is key to this research and to the effective mobilization of research into impacts. “The experience of the NERP hubs confirms that in successful transdisciplinary research programmes, research end users are not passive recipients of knowledge products arising from a linear process conceived by researchers and/or funders and implemented by researchers. Rather, it is essential that they work collaboratively with funders and researchers to define the problem and scope knowledge needs, work out approaches to tackle that problem, and then interact with researchers during the active inquiry phase of the programme so that researchers develop as deep an understanding as possible of the end users’ context, why their research is important, and how their results will be used. Some problems will require more effort from the end user in defining questions, than from researchers in responding to them.” And then further on, “brokering processes between the producers and users of knowledge…are seen to greatly enhance programme efficacy, particularly if undertaken before research is initiated, to refine research questions, influence methodologies, determine an appropriate form of delivery, and ensure that intended end-users have a degree of ownership of research outputs.”
Take home message #2: engage with your stakeholders/end users early and often. Listen to them. Bring your research back to them. Respond to them. Early and often.
Questions for brokers

  1. When was the last time you spoke to or collaborated with someone from a different sector (and I don’t mean a health policy maker speaking to a health researcher)? What are your barriers and enablers to working across sectors?
  2. Compare and contrast NERPs with the Collaborations for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care (CLAHRCs) funded by the NIHR (UK) to bring together collaborations of the local providers of NHS services and NHS commissioners, universities, other relevant local organisations (
  3. All the knowledge mobilization literature says that knowledge brokering/mobilization is context specific. But here we see certain principles of environmental research practice transcend across contexts. Which is it: context specific or context independent?

ResearchImpact is producing this journal club series as a way to make the evidence on KMb more accessible to knowledge brokers and to create on line discussion about research on knowledge mobilization. It is designed for knowledge brokers and other knowledge mobilization stakeholders. Read the article. Then come back to this post and join the journal club by posting your comments.