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Making Knowledge Actionable for Sustainability

April 16, 2020

Contact: James Arnott, (970)-300-9080,

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the world in unimaginable ways and at a rapid pace. The crisis has revealed, very dramatically, how science can inform bold societal actions in response to risks. At the same time, the use of science for decision-making on COVID-19 and other major societal challenges reveals a very complex relationship between science and action.

The relationship between science and action on sustainability is the focus of a newly released special issue of the journal Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability. A team of researchers from different social sciences disciplines came together to understand what makes knowledge “actionable,” and how scientific organizations can fund and foster the production and use of knowledge to advance sustainability solutions.

“All knowledge has value and is potentially useful. But if we want to put science to work at the speed and scale that current challenges demand, we need more systematic understanding about how actionable knowledge is made and used,” said special issue co-editor James Arnott, executive director of the Aspen Global Change Institute, a non-profit research center.

Researchers and advocates have long desired to see sustainability research triggering aggressive responses in areas such as climate action. Yet scientific research and tools often go unused or ignored by those in society who can make decisions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, take steps to prepare for climate change, or improve environmental amenities like clean air or water. In many instances, scientific knowledge has not been actionable as many would hope.

“As researchers, we always hope our work can contribute to solve problems, but we seldom think about how to go beyond our training of teaching and publishing to make it effectively usable by others outside academic circles. As a result, valuable scientific research and tools go unused by those in society who are working on the ground to implement the solutions,” said Maria Carmen Lemos, a professor at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability.

The special issue was led by researchers from the Aspen Global Change Institute, University of Michigan, Stanford University, and the University of Miami. The work is also the basis for a new network of scholars across many research institutions focusing on the “Science of Actionable Knowledge” (SOAK), which seeks to apply scientific methods to understand what factors contribute to science that successfully supports societal needs. “Through SOAK, we hope to change that dynamic by making scientific knowledge more usable and actionable,” said Lemos.

Actionable knowledge is defined as the variety of knowledges that can be readily utilized by decision-makers of various types to inform actions that will improve societal and environmental well-being. “Strategies like producing research collaboratively with decision-makers have been shown to increase the likelihood that it will be used in decision-making. But not all collaboration is practical or genuine. And not all knowledge must be collaboratively produced to be usable. We need to learn more about how different forms of research engagement will make knowledge more actionable in different settings,” Arnott said.

“There are diverse options for making knowledge more relevant in the world. And there are important lessons for doing so equitably, respectfully, and effectively. The special issue brings together many voices and insights towards knowledge that resonates within society,” said Katharine Mach, associate professor at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and the Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy, a co-editor of the special issue.

The special issue focuses on many aspects of engaged knowledge such as approaches to engaged research, studies of decision-making and politics, science skepticism, Indigenous knowledge holders, science funders, decision-support tools, and boundary spanners. Some of the high-level findings from the articles are:

• There are many different ways that researchers and stakeholders can interact to make knowledge actionable. Past experience provides crucial lessons for ethical approaches. Evaluating engaged research requires attention to the perspectives and priorities of all involved. See more by Katharine Mach and colleagues here.

• Understanding how usable knowledge is produced requires a better understanding of decision-making processes. Understanding whether knowledge is used because it is consequential, appropriate, or meaningful can inform practices of environmental knowledge production. See more by Art Dewulf and colleagues here.

• Instead of seeking to ‘integrate’ Indigenous knowledge into Western science and governance processes, knowledge co-production scholarship and the broader research infrastructure in which it operates ought to make way for Indigenous research leadership and knowledge sovereignty. See more by Nicole Latulippe and Nicole Klenk here

• Science skepticism, such as about climate science, often beleaguers public trust and use of science. Psychological theories offer insight and promising directions for fostering engagement with climate change among diverse audiences, including those who might be skeptical of the science and proposed solutions. See more by Gabrielle Wong-Parodi and Irina Feygina here.

• Funders of science can support actionable knowledge, and help to learn more about it, by experimenting with different approaches to solicitation design, peer review procedures, evaluation and more. See more by James Arnott and colleagues here.

• Collaborative research on climate change adaptation often report success in generating actionable knowledge. But, as of yet, collaborative research on the scale of individual projects has not resulted in the kinds of deeper transformations required for successful adaptation. See more by Kripa Jagannathan and colleagues here.

• The success of collaborative research processes depends on the extent to which they provide equal opportunities for all participants to contribute. Unfortunately, in practice, scientists or policy elites often have a stronger voice than citizens and social groups, creating problems for the legitimacy and usability of outcomes. See more by Esther Turnhout and colleagues here.

• Meeting environmental challenges requires unique individuals who are able to operate at the boundary between science and policy to advance actionable knowledge, i.e. boundary spanners. Acknowledging the role of these actors while establishing training and professionalization may help overcome these challenges by increasing support and building capacity. See more by Kristen Goodrich here.

• Decision support tools have been one strategy for translating complex information into usable frameworks for decision-makers, but they are not always as useful as expected. Taking key characteristics of decision support tool success into account in the design, development, and deployment of tools may enhance the chances that they are useful for their intended audiences. See more by Gabrielle Wong-Parodi and colleagues here.

• Achieving sustainability demands ambitiously progressive political transformations. Surveying three broadly distinct and complementary approaches (‘structural’, ‘systemic’ and ‘enabling’), this paper explores practical implications with concrete examples. See more by Ian Scoones and colleagues here.

“This is an exciting collection of papers on the topic of actionable knowledge that may usefully inform the practice of actionable knowledge in the realm of environmental sustainability,” said special issue co-editor Gabrielle Wong-Parodi, assistant professor in Earth System Science and center fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University.

This research was funded by the National Socioenvironmental Synthesis Center, a research forum sponsored by the National Science Foundation and located in Annapolis MD.

The entire special issue may be accessed through the following link: