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Key Ideas for Working at the Boundary of Science and Society

As a kid, I spent my days running around the forests and fields of rural central Wisconsin (USA) learning the names of all the trees and plants; catching fish, frogs, and insects; and making tree forts in the woods. When I went to college, I decided to follow my passion and love of the outdoors and studied Natural Resource Management. However, as I learned about people who harvest more fish or animals than they were allowed, and how individuals develop connections to nature, and why conflicts emerge over decisions about land use—I realized that managing natural resources actually requires a deep understanding of people. A desire to understand the connections between social and ecological systems has led me to a career in environmental and science communication, and now I conduct research on the role of communication and behavioral science in addressing the issue of climate change as a PhD candidate at George Mason University and soon-to-be postdoc at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The temperatures in the Arctic are changing at double the rate of other places on the planet, resulting in rapid and dramatic shifts in natural processes and the communities and people that live among and rely on them. As communities around the Arctic respond to rapid environmental change, it has never been more important to understand what people and communities think, feel, and do, and the role information generated by science plays in these thoughts, decisions, or behaviors. Developing this understanding is particularly important and relevant if the goal of research is to produce useful knowledge, inform decision making, or more generally help address global climate change. Involvement by local people and the integration of experts in communication, social psychology, political science, and other disciplines through a team approach is imperative for work on Arctic climate change and other complex problems with societal relevance.

The increase in teams consisting of members with diverse training experiences, cultures, and epistemologies are the trajectory of science. During the recent Science of Team Science (SciTS 2020) conference, professor of science and technology studies Dr. Caroline Wagner from The Ohio State University described how we’re entering the “collaborative era” in science and that the largest breakthroughs are and will continue to come from the recombination of different disciplines that come together to answer difficult questions. A team-based approach is needed because deep knowledge in each respective discipline is necessary in order to find complementary ways of knowing that are needed to solve complex problems. Pidgeon & Fischhoff (2011) also described how the future of science communication will come from teams consisting of content experts (i.e. physical scientists), social or decision scientists who understand the nature or the behavior or decision, and communications practitioners who understand how best to present and convey information to audiences.

If complex teams are needed to produce and communicate more societally relevant science, how will the management of teams need to evolve and change? Teams that span geographic, organization, disciplinary, and cultural boundaries have unique challenges with regard to leading, engaging, and facilitating communication among research team members and to stakeholders outside the team. Smaller and more homogenous teams can be relatively simple to manage, because there are more similarities and fewer differences in vocabulary, meaning, and assumptions that need to be articulated and negotiated. However, complex teams require more focused management to be successful, and the roles of scientists within these teams is likely to evolve. Fazey et al. (2018) discusses how in addressing climate change, researchers may need to adopt a variety of different roles such as process facilitator, knowledge broker, project manager, and others. While “project management” is often learned on the job as a scientific trainee, more formal training may be important when preparing future scientists for this overlooked work. Furthermore, very large, complex projects may increasingly rely on professional project managers to facilitate inclusive discussions, create timelines, operationalize communication processes, and/or track and evaluate the progress of the project.

At the heart of this work is fostering communication. Science can be envisioned as a network. Individuals are connected through cooperation, collaboration, and in other reciprocal relationships. At any given time, some connections will be active, and others will be static. If knowledge is the embodied product of this network, then project management should be used to enhance the connections and find ways to intervene in the network to improve communication between team members. When this network is not managed as the complex system that it is, then opportunities to create new knowledge are lost.

As an example, I was once part of a complex, multiyear, transdisciplinary research project where communication amongst the team was frequently difficult, but I never fully understood why. When the project was completed, I conducted a series of informal interviews to informally evaluate our activities and develop some reflections and lessons from the project. In talking to the participants, one of the most surprising things I learned was that about half of the project participants thought the goal of the monthly meetings was one thing, and the other half thought the goal was something else. It immediately became clear why communication was difficult. Being explicit about the information needs and meeting purposes in the beginning could have possibly helped to improve communication throughout the project duration. But the fact of the matter is that in teams, especially complex teams, dialogue is time consuming. Having productive communication can be constrained by jargon and differences in language, the ability and environment that supports asking questions, and the time to create true understanding. Brokers can be particularly important on large teams, because they identify and reintegrate isolated individuals, can identify places of conflict or where information flow is strained, and help to ensure that innovations are diffused throughout the network.

The years to come offer grand opportunities to generate scientific findings that are relevant to society. However, rising to this challenge requires embracing diverse teams, which science as an institution are not particularly well prepared to manage. How do we address this? Well, as individual researchers, we should be open to different team members and configurations. As we find ourselves in more complex teams, we must learn to be more intentional in negotiating and managing the communication processes in our teams in order to enable the flow of information that leads to new knowledge. To do these things well demands us to develop new kinds of skills in project management, communication, conflict resolution, facilitation and more. The science of the future demands more from us as communicators and collaborators, but creating science that serves societal needs in the rapidly changing Arctic is a great reward.

Additional Reading & Resources

National Research Council 2015. Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science.

Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Integration and Implementation Insights

International Network for the Science of Team Science


Kristin Timm is currently a doctoral candidate in science communication at George Mason University. After she finishes, she’ll be working as a postdoctoral research fellow with the Alaska Climate Adaptation Science Center with the University of Alaska Fairbanks studying cross cultural and organizational communication in transdisciplinary teams working on adaptation to climate change. She has an interdisciplinary master’s degree in science communication and an undergraduate degree in rural development with an emphasis on land, resources, and environmental management, both from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She also has over a decade of experience working in environmental and science communication.

Twitter @kmftimm

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