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Productive science practice interactions in climate change adaptation

The purpose of this policy brief

As with many complex societal challenges, climate change adaptation calls for productive, direct science-practice interactions. Science-practice interactions are the different ways in which scientists, policy makers, practitioners and other stakeholders communicate, exchange ideas, and jointly develop new knowledge to inform policy and decision-making processes as well as to enrich climate change adaptation research. For pragmatic reasons, in this research policy brief the term science-practice interactions is used to capture both interactions between science and policy (developing adaptation policy), and between science and practice (implementing adaptation).

There is a growing body of scientific and practical knowledge on climate change adaptation. However, learning from it and applying it in different adaptation situations is still in its infancy. Not all knowledge is equally relevant for use in practice and in different adaptation situations. One reason is that the specific knowledge needs and processes of knowledge production are often not well aligned (Kirchhoff et al. 2013). A way to address this problem is a better interaction between research, policy and practice.

The aim of this research policy brief is to present recommendations for productive interactions between researchers, policy makers, practitioners and other relevant stakeholders, based on lessons from practice. To learn more about what is actually required for productive science–practice collaborations in climate change adaptation, leading experts of pioneering climate change adaptation programmes and other initiatives were interviewed. Selected quotes from these interviews are included. In addition, this policy brief is based on a scientific literature review as well as on the results of more than 30 science-practice sessions during the 1st European Climate Change Adaptation conference (ECCA) in Hamburg in March 2013. Although selected references are provided for further reading, this brief is not a scientific publication, but aims to provide practical information to design and implement collaborative science-practice projects in the area of climate change adaptation.

More or better scientific research results on climate change will not automatically result in the development of more effective adaptation policy, better adaptation decisions by decision makers, or better implementation of adaptation actions by practitioners. In many cases, scientists and practitioners ‘co-produce’ new knowledge by jointly defining questions and maintaining frequent interactions (Moss et al., 2013). National research programmes such as the Dutch Knowledge for Climate and the German KLIMZUG programmes are pertinent examples of this in Europe. Many projects however, still struggle to take into account the culture, knowledge needs, vocabularies, constraints, roles and perspectives of policy makers and practitioners, in particular in the design and planning of the research. The institutional separation of adaptation research, policy and practice makes the alignment of these processes challenging. Researchers, policy-makers, and practitioners work in different, but interacting and dynamically evolving environments. This difference is compounded by significant differences in the timescales according to which they work the language they use to describe phenomena, issues and needs, the reward systems in place and their different perspectives on how and what knowledge and information to use (e.g., Caplan, 1979).

For scientific information to become useful and applicable, mechanisms need to be established that facilitate communication, translation and mediation between researchers, policy makers and practitioners. This includes not only ensuring that scientific information is relevant to policy demands and is formulated in a way that is accessible to policy makers and practitioners, but also making sure that they take this information into account and, vice versa, formulate their demands or questions in a way that is understandable for scientists. This task is anything but simple.

What are productive science-practice interactions?

Productive interactions are defined here as exchanges between researchers and stakeholders in which knowledge is produced and valued as being scientifically robust and socially relevant. These exchanges are mediated through various communication channels, for instance, a research publication, an exhibition, a design of an adaptation process, involvement of particular people or financial support. The interaction is productive if it leads to efforts by stakeholders to use or apply research results in decision making or action and if it enriches scientific research. Societal impacts of scientific knowledge could be behavioral or policy changes that would not have happened without this knowledge. These changes may involve human well-being (quality of life) and/or the social relations between people or organizations (Spaapen and van Drooge, 2011). Climate change adaptation knowledge has to pass a double test: that of scientific reliability and that of societal relevance. More particularly, productive science-practice interactions should (Young et al, 2013; ODI, 2006):

• facilitate timely and coherent translation of research into policy options or advice;

• facilitate rapid uptake of research results by policy makers and/or practitioners;

• alert policy makers and/or practitioners about emerging issues;

• contribute to the scientific quality control process by allowing critical assessment of scientific outputs in light of users’ needs and of other types of knowledge;

• enhance strategic orientation of research in support of policies and societal issues;

• allow for exchange and co-evolution of scientific, policy and practical knowledge, in a dynamic fashion;

• fit within the political and institutional limits and pressures of policymakers, and resonate with their assumptions, exerting sufficient pressure to challenge them.

Close collaboration between researchers, policy makers and practitioners is the way forward to improve all these elements. It can take various forms and degrees of interaction, ranging from consultations to joint fact finding or joint implementation.

Suggested citation

Groot, A., K. Hollaender, and R. Swart (2014). Productive Science-practice Interactions in Climate Change Adaptation. Lessons from practice. A CIRCLE-2 research policy brief. Foundation of the Faculty of Sciences, Lisbon, Portugal.

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