Co-production of knowledge…the next big thing?

Returning to the current Congressional interest in criteria for funding research at NSF as well as other federal science agencies

Recall that the suggestion from the House Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith is that

…the NSF director… post on NSF’s website, prior to any award, a declaration that certifies the research is:

1) “…in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;

2) “… the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and

3) “…not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.”

These ruminations from the Congress have produced a bit of a dustup… probably something of an overreaction. Some have suggested that this language is different from current NSF guidelines for “intellectual merit” and “broader impacts.” But the fact is that the proposed Congressional language is the same as that used back in 1950 to establish NSF: “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…”  Presumably, then, there’s no argument there. Similarly, scientists and political leaders alike want U.S. research to be groundbreaking and non-duplicative. Any discussion might best be limited to whether it’s helpful to have the NSF director certify, prior to each and every award, however big or small, that the award meets those criteria. It’s hard to see that this does more than add bureaucratic overhead and delay to funding for science… overhead and delay the United States can ill afford given the international race to bring S&T to the global marketplace.

But even here, we’re not on new ground. In the 1980’s, the politics were reversed… the Republicans controlled the White House and Democrats controlled the Congress. During that time, as the National Weather Service consolidated and relocated its local offices as part of the NWS Restructuring and Modernization, Congress required that the Secretary of Commerce certify, for each individual move, that it would result in no degradation of service for any and all communities in the affected areas. Was there delay? Sure. But the sun still rose in the east.

So the fact is, this discussion ought not to pit scientists against politicians, or Republicans against Democrats. If we stand back, we realize that we’re all in it together…

…and we all face a common challenge.

That challenge is this. In the aftermath of World War II, the country realized it needed to get more purposeful and strategic about its approach to R&D. The National Science Foundation and other science agencies were the result. The R&D has paid for itself many times over. The entire IT revolution, nanotechnology, breakthroughs in human health, and much more have been the result.

However, despite the progress, all parties realize that there is a widening gap between what scientists and engineers know and society’s ability to reap the full benefit. We all seek some means to accelerate societal uptake of science and technology… in order to address virtually every aspect of the national agenda.  This has proven so difficult that some have taken to referring to efforts to bridge the gap between science and application as crossing the valley of death. The Department of Defense has contended with this problem for years and along the way has developed a  6.1-6.7 nomenclature to articulate a series of steps between basic research (6.1), applied research (6.2)… all the way to operational system development (6.7).

But the sought-for answer likely lies in a different, less-linear approach: co-production of knowledge (the link is to a brief Wikipedia article; Googling the phrase will take those interested to further material). The phrase might seem abstract but basically it suggests technical experts working together with other groups in society to generate new knowledge and technologies in direct collaboration and partnership. In the Earth sciences, NOAA’s Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments (RISA) program, for example, climatologists and other Earth scientists work side by side with farmers, ranchers, foresters, fisheries managers, emergency managers, and practitioners from many other fields to tease out those aspects of climate science that might be useful to these professions, and those aspects of these professions that might be in need of a little more scientific attention. [Note that as the RISA and DoD experiences imply, such research activities best come additional to basic research rather than at the expense of basic research.] The National Weather Service’s Weather-Ready Nation thrust lends itself to the same co-production of knowledge.

Researchers and political leaders of every political persuasion ought to favor more attention to co-production of knowledge: (1) accelerating its use, while at the same time (2) arriving at a better understanding of its strengths and limitations, and the best ways to implement and foster it. [It turns out that much of this latter understanding can come primarily if not only from the social sciences.]

There’s much more to this, but it turns out it’s virtually impossible for people to work together in this way without rapidly learning from each other and accelerating the rate at which society adopts the best-available knowledge and understanding, and the rate at which such science becomes more relevant.

Who’d have thunk it?

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3 Responses to Co-production of knowledge…the next big thing?

  1. James Correia Jr says:

    If the language is the same or nearly identical then why is a new bill required? Furthermore how can anyone be sure that duplicative work is not being performed? Will Lab directed discretionary funds (possible a feature that will be extinct in the future) have to be inspected by NSF (and vice versa), or will NOAA have to check with NSF to see if similar work is being performed?

    A bill doesnt improve accountability. The accountability still lies in the peer review process deeming such research worthwhile. So do you create an oversight board (more bureacracy) to check on the peer review which is for intents and purposes already present in the funding managers of organizations like NSF? I cant tell if this is thinly veiled attempt at command and control or a just an abrupt public display of miscommunication.

    However, from the testimony of the NSB chairman:
    “As you know, the final FY 13 Continuing Resolution restricted what NSF could fund in political science. The NSF and the National Science Board will fully comply with the law, however we would like to raise concerns about how these strictures can undermine the merit review process and the progress of science. While we understand that it is Congress’s responsibility to set spending priorities, the Board believes that legislatively imposing restrictions on a class of research will not serve the national interest.” [ ]

  2. Michael Cunningham says:

    Bill, you wrote that “Any discussion might best be limited to whether it’s helpful to have the NSF director certify, prior to each and every award, however big or small, that the award meets those criteria.” The whole point of research is, of course, that you don’t know what you will find. While it is reasonable for publicly-funded research bodies to have a broad remit intended to serve the public interest, you can’t certify in advance that the outcomes will comply with the required criteria without heavily constraining your research. The most innovative companies allow employees to spend a portion of their time on research of choice, often with benefits from left-field.

    As regards it being “virtually impossible for people to work together in this way without rapidly learning from each other and accelerating the rate at which society adopts the best-available knowledge and understanding, and the rate at which such science becomes more relevant,” most innovation comes from large conurbations where people from different bodies and with different skills intermingle and cross-fertilize. Most knowledge transfer occurs informally, there are merits to the structured interactions you envisage, but also great benefit from unstructured interactions, which research bodies should also seek to foster.

    • This sparked an intriguing thought (at least to me). As a way to better assess the societal value of research AND to aid in dissemination and understanding, why not require the peer review panels for physical science proposals to include social scientists, and vice versa? This would also provide a necessary corrective to “the Old Boys club” that seems to pervade many peer review decisions. A major problem in our society is the lack of links between C P Snow’s “Two Cultures.” This could provide another type of bridge.

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