A disconnect between scientific knowledge and implementation of such knowledge on the ground is apparent in many fields that seek to address sustainability challenges, including biodiversity conservation, environmental management, and climate change adaptation (Moser and Dilling 2011, Cook et al. 2013, Knight 2013, O’Brien 2013, Swilling 2014, van Kerkhoff 2014). For example, despite the recognized importance of management and conservation of threatened ecosystems (Keith et al. 2013), few scientific recommendations published in mainstream conservation journals are fully implemented (Whitten et al. 2001, Knight et al. 2008), and practical conservation and environmental management actions are not always informed by best-available science (Pullin et al. 2004, McNie 2007). This phenomenon has been termed in various ways, including the “theory-implementation gap” (Arlettaz et al. 2010), the “knowing-doing gap” (Pfeffer and Sutton 2000, Knight et al. 2008), the “knowledge-action boundary” (Cook et al. 2013), the “science-policy nexus” (Gaffy 2008) or “interface” (Swilling 2014), the “science-management divide” (Roux et al. 2006), or the “science-action gap” (Reyers et al. 2010), which we use here. As a result of the difficulties in closing such gaps, calls have been made in the literature for scientists and practitioners to jointly address sustainability challenges such as biodiversity loss, environmental degradation, and climate change (van Kerkhoff and Lebel 2006, Knight et al. 2008, Arlettaz et al. 2010, Moser and Dilling 2011, Laurance et al. 2012, Cook et al. 2013). Although we recognize that several forms of knowledge, such as local indigenous knowledge and lay knowledge, play an important role in informing practice (Maiello et al. 2013), this study focuses on the two-way linkages between scientific knowledge generated at academic research institutions and the work of practitioners in local government whereby research can inform practice, and practice can inform research.
Bridging the gap between science and action is increasingly important given the complexity of most environmental problems and the need to involve a broad range of stakeholders (Hirsch Hadorn et al. 2007a, Shackleton et al. 2009, Pooley et al. 2014, van Kerkhoff 2014). Potential reasons for the science-action gap in sustainability challenges have been well documented and include the following:
Numerous solutions have been proposed to bridge the science-action gap, including, for example, integration science, which makes links to complexity thinking (van Kerkhoff and Lebel 2006, van Kerkhoff 2014), coproduction of knowledge and the need to build coproductive capacity (Wyborn 2015), joint knowledge production (Hegger et al. 2014), evidence-based conservation (Stewart et al. 2005), conservation partnerships (Stelzer and Kashian 2014), mental models (Biggs et al. 2011), learning organizations (Cowling et al. 2008, O’Farrell and Anderson 2010), boundary organizations (McNie 2007, Franks 2010), and transdisciplinary research (Max-Neef 2005, Hirsch Hadorn et al. 2007b, Lang et al. 2012). The case study presented in this paper explicitly takes a transdisciplinary research approach to bridge the science-action gap.
Transdisciplinarity offers an integrative form of knowledge generation and decision making based on research collaborations among scientists from different disciplines and stakeholders from business, government, and civil societies (Pohl 2008, Rice 2013, Sitas et al. 2014, Swilling 2014). For the purpose of this study we use the following definition of transdisciplinarity (Lang et al. 2012:26): “Transdisciplinarity is a reflexive, integrative, method-driven scientific principle aiming at the solution or transition of societal problems and concurrently of related scientific problems by differentiating and integrating knowledge from various scientific and societal bodies of knowledge.” For scientists, this means collaborating across disciplines, and with practitioners and policy makers and other stakeholders to address societal problems; for practitioners, this means working with scientists to improve implementation practices, through more effective problem solving.
Despite calls in the literature for conservation and environmental researchers to address the science-action gap, along with suggested models for how this might be done, few successful case studies have been published in the literature (but see Roux et al. 2006, Shackleton et al. 2009, Arlettaz et al. 2010). There is also as a lack of methodological development for integrated research and action (van Kerkhoff 2014). Examples of either theory or empirical insights from practice in the developing country context are also scarce, although research from South Africa on the science-action gap in conservation (Roux et al. 2006, Knight et al. 2008, Reyers et al. 2010), ecosystem services (Cowling et al. 2008, Sitas et al. 2014), and sustainability science (Swilling 2014, Cundill et al. 2015) is growing. We aim to address these gaps in the literature and contribute to the growing field of transdisciplinary research to bridge the science-action gap.
Local land-use decisions can have negative impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem services, for example through habitat loss and transformation (Seto et al. 2012). Mitigation of such impacts, however, can be achieved through incorporation of biodiversity management and climate change adaptation into local land-use planning and decision-making processes (Roberts et al. 2012). For many years, eThekwini Municipality has incorporated environmental sustainability principles into local land-use planning and decision making (Roberts and Diederichs 2002), which has raised the profile of biodiversity management and climate change adaptation in the city (see Appendix 1).
Land-use planning and decision making should be underpinned by credible scientific research, and concomitant engagement with all relevant stakeholders (Cilliers et al. 2014). This is particularly important in contexts where land is a strategic and politically contested resource, as it is in the eThekwini Municipal Area. Successful environmental planning and management requires highly skilled people, influential decision makers, a sound scientific, evidence-based knowledge foundation, and the political will to implement policies (Sitas et al. 2014). The shortage of human capacity and specialist skills in local government departments working on biodiversity and environmental matters has been identified not only in Durban (Roberts et al. 2012) but also elsewhere in South Africa (Wilhelm-Rechmann and Cowling 2011, Funke and Nienaber 2012, Ivey et al. 2013). Recognition of this capacity shortage, and the need to close the science-action gap in Durban, led to the development of the Durban Research Action Partnership described below (Roberts et al. 2012).
Acknowledgement of the need to close the science-action gap has led to several calls, from the international to the local level, to develop innovative solutions to address the challenges and opportunities of global environmental research (e.g., Future Earth, http://www.futureearth.org/). In Durban, South Africa, this resulted in the development of a research partnership initiated by eThekwini Municipality’s (EM) Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department with a local tertiary institution, the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), known as the Durban Research Action Partnership (D’RAP; Roberts et al. 2012). EThekwini Municipality (referred to hereafter as the Municipality) is the local government authority in the city of Durban. Durban is located within a global biodiversity hotspot, the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany Hotspot (Steenkamp et al. 2004), and contains a number of endangered ecosystems, including the KwaZulu-Natal Sandstone Sourveld (KZNSS) grassland (Mucina and Rutherford 2006), which is the current focus of the research partnership, through the implementation of the KZNSS Research Program (Appendix 1).
Setting up partnerships takes time and resources, and this critical lead-in stage is often overlooked (Pooley et al. 2014). Although D’RAP was formally founded in 2011, the history of its development goes back to the early 2000s, at which time EM and UKZN staff engaged in various joint activities to build capacity within the Municipality and to up-skill university graduates for positions therein. These various engagements over a period of eight years laid the foundations for the success of the partnership in the long-term through open, honest working relationships and trust-building (Harris and Lyon 2013). A detailed account of the history of the partnership is presented in Appendix 2. The methods and empirical data sources used in development of the case study are described in Appendix 3.
The Durban Research Action Partnership explicitly addresses the science-action gap, while at the same time addressing a critical local skills shortage within the fields of biodiversity management and climate change adaptation. It seeks to better manage a threatened ecosystem through researching the impacts of global change (with a particular focus on climate change) on biodiversity and ecosystems, within an urban landscape in a developing country. The research is conducted primarily by postgraduate students, who are supervised by principal investigators across a variety of disciplines, including ecology, molecular biology, agricultural economics, geography, environmental science, and conservation planning and management. Research projects are jointly developed by the partners, but are driven by the management and decision-making knowledge needs of eThekwini Municipality. The research partnership is core-funded by eThekwini Municipality, with researchers leveraging additional funds from the university and other sources. The secretariat of the partnership is based in the Land Use Planning and Management research group at the university, which provides administrative, financial, and advisory support for the partnership. The partnership has a strong focus on communication across the science-action divide, capacity building, and emphasizes a social learning approach in which continuous evaluation and reflection play an important role.
Through its 11-year journey, D’RAP has built a strong foundation for long-term collaboration. The lessons learned through this process have been synthesized into a framework of recommendations for successful implementation of science-action partnerships (Fig. 1). The framework consists of four broad enabling actions, each one based on a number of specific factors. The four broad enabling actions are as follows: (a) explicitly address the science-action gap, (b) put in place enabling organizational preconditions, (c) assemble a functional well-structured team, and (d) actively build interpersonal and individual collaborative capacity. The enabling actions operate at a number of different levels, which are nested in one another from the level of the individual, to the team and intra- and interorganizational levels. For each enabling action, we highlight in detail some of the key factors to provide practical insights from our experiences which may be useful to others involved in similar initiatives.
Recognizing the challenges of working at the science-action interface is crucial to the success of such partnerships (Knight et al. 2008, Lang et al. 2012). This is the first enabling action of the framework presented here (Fig. 1a). It operates at the interorganizational level and provides an overarching enabling environment for the other three enabling actions, operating at lower levels. This action should therefore be put in place quite early in the partnership. To achieve this, D’RAP established an overarching vision that operationalized a transdisciplinary research model and we discuss here two key contributing factors: building a boundary organization and developing a joint conceptual research framework.
The Durban Research Action Partnership can be interpreted as a boundary organization, which explicitly recognizes the boundary between science and society, and acknowledges the cultural and institutional barriers to the implementation of scientific research (McNie 2007, Cook et al. 2013). The transdisciplinary research process, in which such boundary organizations engage, can be divided into a number of stages. (Lang et al. 2012; Fig. 2). The research partnership developed in line with these stages as follows:
Building the boundary organization, through the development of a collaborative, transdisciplinary research team in D’RAP, required a high level of commitment from the leaders and initiators of the partnership. This is typical of such partnerships, where many barriers need to be overcome (Rice 2013). These barriers, which are widely reviewed in the literature, include the following: difficulty in overcoming disciplinary and institutional boundaries, differences in work cultures across institutions, different language and frames of reference, limited funding opportunities, institutional rewards and incentives that do not encourage transdisciplinary research, high time and resource investments required, deficiency in skills required to manage integrative research processes, and the high level of communication and facilitation required for success (Pohl 2008, Rice 2013, Goring et al. 2014, Pooley et al. 2014).
Developing boundary organizations that focus on social learning processes to bridge the science-action divide requires sustained long-term interactions between role-players, and it is often the improved knowledge-sharing capacity of the respective institutions that have greater impacts on the ground than the actual research outputs (Shackleton et al. 2009). The research partnership experienced many of the barriers described above. For example, early on in the partnership, Dr. Debra Roberts (cofounder of the partnership) described meetings between academics from the university and practitioners from eThekwini Municipality as “tense” (D. Roberts, personal communication, 2014). There were different expectations from the two parties. There were financial, administrative, and program coordination problems because of a shortage of staff, which also generated frustration among participants. Since inception of the research partnership in 2011, some attrition has occurred, with some participants, who did, however, provide helpful criticism, leaving the partnership. It appears that the younger, emerging researchers were inclined to be more flexible as was required for the transdisciplinary research approach. This highlights some of the difficulties that might be encountered when building such a boundary organization. It is not simply about the codesign of research programs and the cogeneration of knowledge, but also about building social capital through the development of new working relationships and networks (Gray 2008, Harris and Lyon 2013), good communication skills (Stokols et al. 2003), building trust (McNie 2007, Cheruvelil et al. 2014), and developing the collaborative capacity of participants (Hall et al. 2008; Boxes 2 and 3). Critical to all of these is enabling leadership, which fosters an environment of innovation, adaptation, and learning (Galuska 2014).
The process of developing a shared conceptual research framework can become a tangible expression of the joint research vision of a collaborative partnership (Morse et al. 2007). To successfully bridge the science-action gap, research should be designed with implementation in mind (Knight et al. 2008). More importantly, the researchers and implementers have to work together in a balanced way on the design of the research agenda, plan of action, and implementation strategies (Gray 2008). This constitutes a key lesson learned through this and other similar partnerships (Morse et al. 2007, Arlettaz et al. 2010; Fig. 1a). As D’RAP progressed (into Stage B, Fig. 2), a more focused conceptual research framework was developed. This ensured that proposed research projects were better aligned with the Municipality’s research needs for biodiversity management and climate change adaptation (Appendix 4).
The second enabling action involves a range of organizational preconditions required to operationalize a transdisciplinary research approach (Hall et al. 2008; Fig. 1b and Box 1). We found that enabling leadership (Galuska 2014) was critical for setting the tone and developing shared mental models for the partnership. Other factors include transparency, inclusive participation, sharing of resources, and good communication (Gray 2008). We focus the discussion on continuous evaluation and reflection, one of the enabling organizational preconditions that has been given particular prominence in D’RAP.
Collaborative, transdisciplinary research partnerships require continuous, reflective evaluation (Stokols et al. 2003, Roux et al. 2010). Assessing the process of research within such a partnership is critical because the process itself needs to be effective if useful information is to be generated (McNie 2007), and it is only through reflective evaluation that team members themselves can learn about the transdisciplinary process (Roux et al. 2010). Thus, a process evaluation was initiated in D’RAP (Ferreyra and Beard 2007) to understand participants’ perceptions of the following: science outcomes; collaborative management outcomes, as measured through the following indicators: each individual’s personal increase in scientific understanding, capacity building, and alliance building; and the administrative and financial arrangements of the program.
The process evaluation was conducted in two phases: First, an electronic, anonymous questionnaire was circulated to all participants of the program, and second a workshop was held during which the results were “mirrored back” to the participants (Engeström, 1987) and they were asked to reflect on the results and on their participation in the program as a whole (Ferreyra and Beard 2007). For the reflection process, participants were asked to record two items on a card: (1) what they would like to change about the partnership, and (2) what they would not like to change about the partnership. As part of the evaluation questionnaire, participants were asked to suggest solutions to the challenges that were faced in the program. The following themes for improvement were identified:
Participants felt the program as a whole generated more knowledge about biodiversity and ecosystems than the other knowledge objectives, e.g., climate change. They also expressed that the less tangible social capital and networking outcomes, i.e., the building of collaborative capacity, were at that time more successful than the more tangible science and policy outcomes (Fig. 3). Constraints experienced by participants were mostly logistical in nature, including time constraints and a shortage of financial and administrative support. These constraints have been identified elsewhere as typical problems in collaborative, transdisciplinary research partnerships (McNie 2007, Goring et al. 2014). Other challenges identified included clashes between the different organizational cultures (Rice 2013) and finding suitable program participants (Pooley et al. 2014). These concerns will be addressed in the planning for Phase 2 of the KZNSS Research Program.
In parallel to this process evaluation, an outcome evaluation of research projects was also conducted, which took the form of a comparative gap analysis. The overall program objectives and the Municipality’s research questions were compared to the results and outcomes from each of the research projects. The outcome evaluation showed the following key weaknesses of the research: (1) social and governance research aspects are not adequately addressed, (2) insufficient research focus on climate change within individual projects, and (3) local communities are not directly involved. Further details of this evaluation were published in internal project reports (see Appendix 3).
These issues are critical because the research framework illustrates the linkages between human impacts and reliance on ecosystems (Appendix 4). It is clear that these links should be better understood through social research. The Municipality does engage with communities around issues of biodiversity management (Roberts et al. 2012, eThekwini Municipality 2013). However, such engagements are currently not an explicit part of the research partnership. Without direct engagement with communities the partnership risks alienating itself from both the communities that rely on the benefits of biodiversity in the city of Durban, and those communities that may be having negative impacts on biodiversity (Graham and Ernstson 2012). The coordination team is constantly seeking ways to respond to issues raised during the evaluation activities to ensure on-going, active participation and well-being of participants and relevance of the research not only to practitioners and policy makers at the Municipality, but also to local communities living in the eThekwini Municipal Area.
The third enabling action emphasizes the importance of assembling a functional, well-structured team. Although enabling organizational preconditions can be put in place by leaders (Gray 2008, Galuska 2014), these will only lead to success if teams and participants have certain characteristics to take advantage of the conducive environment (Cheruvelil et al. 2014). Therefore, team composition and interpersonal and intrapersonal or individual factors, i.e., collaborative capacity (Hall et al. 2008), play a critical role in the success of a science-action partnership (Morse et al. 2007). Assembling a functional, well-structured team means that coordination teams need to recruit participants who can fulfil certain roles or functions within the team, which include among others enabling leaders, institutional champions, and brokers (Hall et al. 2008, Wale et al. 2009, Long et al. 2013; Box 2; Fig. 1c). Identifying suitable participants to fulfil these roles formed part of the “Consolidating” phase of D’RAP.
Last, collaborative capacity, the individual participant’s or team’s ability to effectively collaborate (Hall et al. 2008, Stokols et al. 2008), is the fourth enabling action to build successful partnership (Fig. 1d). The critical interpersonal processes and individual characteristics required for science-action partnerships are shown in Box 3.
Constructive interpersonal processes must be actively promoted if science-action partnerships are to succeed (Harris and Lyon 2013, Long et al. 2013). The ability of leaders or coordination teams to promote such constructive processes, such as building relationships, building trust, and managing conflict will of course depend on both the team assembly as well as the individual characteristics of participants. Examples of how such constructive interpersonal processes were promoted in D’RAP are shown in Box 3.
Transdisciplinary research, as implemented in science-action partnerships, may not be suited to all kinds of people, and it can be difficult to find the right people (Cheruvelil et al. 2014). The collaborative capacity of individuals, i.e., their personal characteristics and ability to effectively collaborate in a transdisciplinary team, can make a significant impact at multiple levels of the science-action partnership, from interpersonal relationships to the functioning of the team and the efficacy of the boundary organization itself (Morse et al. 2007). Specific personal characteristics that are valuable in science-action research teams, and how these were evident in D’RAP, are shown in Box 3, and include, for example, flexibility and adaptability, patience, openness, and past experience of similar partnerships.
To contribute to solving societal problems, institutions must recognize the importance of explicitly bridging the science-action gap to address complex, interlinked social-ecological problems (Max-Neef 2005, Shackleton et al. 2009). This requires bridging traditional disciplinary and institutional boundaries through a transdisciplinary process (Lang et al. 2012) and investing in building collaborative capacity (Hall et al. 2008, Cheruvelil et al. 2014). By documenting and reflecting on such a process, this case study has provided conceptual and practical guidance on bridging the science-action gap through partnerships. This includes the following:
Through continuous evaluation and reflection of successes and failures, we have established that this partnership is on a successful trajectory based on the following aspects: (1) strong working relationships growing over time; (2) trust and social capital developed; (3) human capacity built; and (4) implementation-driven knowledge generated. The success of this partnership lies not necessarily in completely bridging the gap and reaching all the research and implementation objectives, because this is a work in progress, but in building the partnership and thereby creating suitable conditions and mechanisms needed to bridge the gap. We encourage similar partnership initiatives to use and evaluate our framework, and to document individual case studies to fast-track the learning on how to establish effective transdisciplinary boundary organizations in a wide range of contexts.
The authors would like to acknowledge funding from eThekwini Municipality and from the South African Research Chairs Initiative of the Department of Science and Technology and National Research Foundation of South Africa. Thank you to Dr. B. Egoh and Dr. G. Cundill for reviewing earlier versions of the manuscript. The students and other participants in the KwaZulu-Natal Sandstone Sourveld Research Programme are thanked for their participation in this science-action partnership, particularly for the feedback they provided in the process evaluation questionnaire. We are grateful to two anonymous reviewers who provided valuable comments and suggestions that assisted us greatly in improving the paper.
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