Removing boundaries to link knowledge with action

Liz Kahurani and Kate Langford

For research to be taken up it must be at the heart of negotiation and decision-making processes and cut across traditional disciplinary boundaries, a new study shows.

Published in the influential Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the study analyzes experiences of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) in linking knowledge with action in developing countries.

“A key challenge in linking knowledge with action is having research embedded into negotiation and decision making processes at local, national and international levels,” says Meine van Noordwijk, Chief Scientist at the World Agroforestry Centre. “But at the same time, scientists must remain independent, free of political interference and/or personal interests.”

Van Noordwijk acknowledges that it is essential to have a boundary between science and politics to give free enquiry a chance, but it also implies that the boundary must be bridged for new findings to be appreciated and used. Approaches to such boundary work have been mostly developed and analyzed in developed countries, but have not previously been tested for their applicability to the circumstances and context of developing countries as they are in this study.

There was a time when international agricultural research was mostly about developing new crops and associated fertilizer and pest control technology, usually referred to as the green revolution.

“To help farmers and policy makers weigh the options, so-called decision support systems were developed,” says van Noordwijk. “But in the reality of rural landscapes and tropical forest margins where natural resources are over-exploited, stakeholders tend to have many different interests and varied perspectives on legality. Different groups refer to multiple types of knowledge to justify their positions.”

It was in this context more than a decade ago that researchers from the World Agroforestry Centre working under the ASB Partnership decided ‘decision support’ should be replaced with ‘negotiation support’. This new study explores the foundations of this work in the context of linking knowledge with action.

The study identifies and discusses six types of boundary work, all of which are illustrated with examples from the work of the ASB Partnership which started as a systemwide program within the CGIAR in the 1990s.

The term ‘boundary work’ refers to approaches or activities that mediate among the often different cultures of scientific research, learning from field experience, and making management or policy decisions. Organizations working to facilitate these approaches are increasingly referred to as boundary organizations, while some of the tangible outputs developed in the process and potentially replicable elsewhere are known as boundary objects.

ASB’s work and experience as a boundary organization extends to sites across Africa, Latin America and Asia, and provides key lessons on effective strategies that can lead to successful interventions which link knowledge with action.

According to the study, all aspects of successful boundary work must satisfactorily meet the criteria of being salient (relevant to the decision or policy), credible (technically adequate in handling of evidence), and legitimate (fair, unbiased, respectful of all).

“These criteria provide recognition of the fact that the pursuit of knowledge in action contexts is both a scientific and a political act,” points out Bill Clark, lead author of the study from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Clark adds that depending on whether researchers find themselves engaged in simple enlightenment, or providing advice to decision makers or supporting complex negotiations between farmers and the state, the challenges they face in meeting these criteria and the strategies for doing so vary in a systematic manner.

The ASB Partnership has been able to meet its challenges for producing useful knowledge by adopting key strategies to bridge the knowledge - action gap. The program has not only developed and documented research methods, tools and maps for use by the scientific community but has also produced non-scientific publications and materials such as policy briefs that explain science in formats and languages that can be understood easily by policymakers and community members. These outputs have been highlighted and referenced in high-level policy channels such as the European Commission’s Science for Environment Policy News Alert Service.

An important element of boundary work is the creation of safe spaces where stakeholders can explore new options and critically examine evidence underpinning widely held perspectives. This can be achieved informally during joint field visits, or more formally in working groups. Trust building within and between groups is essential for learning to take place. A shared understanding of key dynamics of the system is needed before negotiated solutions can manage the tradeoffs involved.

Accountability needs to be enhanced at all levels, and participatory research methods can ensure farmers voice their concerns. Scientists who gain the respect of both the research and policy communities can become champions who effectively engage policy makers, while official steering groups allow policy concerns to be expressed.

Van Noordwijk says these demonstrate how ASB has been able to achieve success in boundary work. “We have departed from the one-directional transfer model, where the role of science has been to inform decisions on development,” he says. “Instead, our science is responding to the knowledge which is needed by different groups and also we are helping to develop mechanisms which will allow these groups to use such knowledge effectively.”

Download the full article, Boundary work for sustainable development: Natural resource management at the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR)

Also see ASB Policy brief 19: Linking scientific knowledge with policy action in Natural Resource Management