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Linking Knowledge with Action for Sustainable Development: The Role of Program Management - Summary of a Workshop 1 INTRODUCTION United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan characterized the three central challenges facing the international community at the beginning of the new millennium as helping the peoples of the world to achieve "freedom from want, freedom from fear, and the freedom of future generations to sustain their lives on this planet" (Annan, 2000). Science, technology, and knowledge more generally are increasingly acknowledged as central to addressing these three challenges (Juma and Yee-Cheong, 2005; ICSU et al., 2002; UNDP, 2001; World Bank, 1998). There remains, however, a great gap between what decision makers want from science and technology, and what science and technology is offering to decision makers. As a result, much available knowledge is not put to use, and political support for new science and technology (S&T) falters. There is a need to understand why this gap between knowledge and action persists, and what changes in institutions, procedures, and program design can help to bridge it. The concept behind “linking knowledge with action” is that the urgency of sustainability challenges requires that research priorities defined by scientists be complemented with research priorities defined by managers and other decision makers if the potential contributions of S&T are to be realized in a timely fashion. In many fields there is a long tradition of concerned scientists “studying the problems” of society. Today, however, there is a growing realization that more of today’s research, particularly in domains of immediate social concern, needs to move beyond such use-inspired basic research to address directly the creation of solutions most needed by society. Moreover, the need is not only for research targeted at different topics but also for research targeted and governed in a different way, much more closely involving disparate social groups (Jasanoff, 2004; Nowotny et al., 2001; Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff, 1997). With few exceptions, however, efforts to address Annan’s challenge of enabling future generations to sustain their lives on this planet still lack dedicated, problem-driven R&D systems of the scale or maturity of the systems for security and development (Clark, 2002). Relevant knowledge on this topic, as produced by such systems, is generally considered under-produced, underutilized, and unevenly distributed throughout the world (Juma and Yee-Cheong, 2005; ICSU et al., 2002; UNDP, 2001; World Bank, 1998). Furthermore, the knowledge generated by the existing R&D systems related to sustainability is seldom integrated into systems that can support decisions and applications on the ground. The world has substantial experience with systems of research, observations, assessment, and decision support or knowledge systems that have been designed to foster goals of economic prosperity, human development, or environmental conservation—examples include the international agricultural research system, the world’s campaigns against malaria, and efforts to reduce transboundary air pollution. But many international research efforts for sustainable development have been initiated and developed ad hoc, learning little from relevant social science knowledge, analogous efforts in other fields, and reflection on their own experiences. Historical experience has rarely been critically examined to determine what reliable lessons it can offer contemporary efforts to build more effective decision support systems for
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Linking Knowledge with Action for Sustainable Development: The Role of Program Management - Summary of a Workshop sustainability. As a result, we know much less than we could about which kinds of knowledge systems work (and which do not) under what conditions. Myths accumulate and blunders are repeated. There is both a great need and a great deal of enthusiasm for systematically and critically comparing experience with knowledge systems across a wide range of sectors and regions. Previous studies of international agricultural research, health research, and environmental research systems (e.g., Ruttan et al., 1994) have identified two general features of S&T systems that are able to link knowledge and action successfully: (1) organizational and institutional linkages between the suppliers of knowledge and their users (i.e., bridging institutions) and (2) recognition that location-specific needs must be taken into account when developing usable knowledge. Although this earlier work has provided important insights into what makes some S&T systems successful in linking knowledge and action, it only considered a few areas of research and did not focus on the barriers that prevent success. Members of the National Academies’ Roundtable on Science and Technology for Sustainability discussed the shortfall of research on linking knowledge with action for sustainable development as described above. Members of the roundtable affirmed that a more comprehensive and systematic examination of systems that link knowledge with action for sustainable development could provide important lessons that might lead to improved development and implementation of such systems in the future, resulting in important contributions to sustainable development. The roundtable therefore selected “Linking Knowledge with Action for Sustainable Development” as its first focal area. Under this initiative, the roundtable has undertaken a series of activities related to linking knowledge with action, with the goal of identifying what works and why, including lessons or techniques for linking knowledge with action, barriers to effective linkage, and areas in which further research is needed. One of the key lessons learned at previous workshops related to linking knowledge with action for sustainable development was that strong leadership at the program management level is a common feature of most successful efforts to link knowledge with action. The workshop summarized here was therefore designed to explore more thoroughly the roles and experiences of program managers in linking knowledge with action. Task force members identified potential case studies and program managers through an informal nomination process making use of their own experiences and networks. The list of candidates that emerged from this process was evaluated by the task force with a view toward inviting to the workshop a diverse group of cases and managers spanning a wide range of topical and institutional settings. Program managers were selected largely from the federal government and in many cases were responsible for managing research programs within or funded by their institutions. However, the subject matter of their programs varied widely, including technology, health, the environment, and engineering. In addition to these managers, workshop participants included task force members, several of whom held or had held leadership positions in the federal government. For workshop participants, among the benefits of the workshop was the opportunity to meet program managers working on very different projects and share valuable insights on how to make their programs more successful.
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Linking Knowledge with Action for Sustainable Development: The Role of Program Management - Summary of a Workshop The workshop benefited from having been the fourth in a series of workshops in which some of the task force members participated (see the preface for more detail). Informed by discussions at the first three meetings, the workshop co-chairs put forward a set of hypotheses as a framework for the workshop discussions. These hypotheses were provided to workshop participants in advance of the meeting. The hypotheses were also rephrased and included as questions in a request for case summaries that invited participants were asked to prepare before the meeting for distribution to all attendees (see Appendix A). Participants’ written answers to the questions were collected as a set of case summaries to be discussed at the meeting and for future reference; they are included in Appendix A.1 The case summaries served the following purposes: Provided a framework for participants’ presentations and discussions at the workshop that encouraged them to reflect upon a set of hypotheses and consider how the hypotheses play out in the context of their own programs; Facilitated the identification of lessons from a group of program managers in diverse subject areas who are recognized as successful in linking knowledge with action; and Began a compilation of cases on linking knowledge with action for sustainable development that can be used for future research. The hypotheses and questions that the task force asked the participants to address are summarized below. 1. Problem definition Hypothesis (of the task force): Successful programs linking knowledge with action require dialogue and cooperation between the scientists who produce knowledge (producers) and the decision makers who use it (users) (see Box 1-1 for a brief clarification of terminology). Especially important is that the problem to be solved be defined in a collaborative but ultimately user-driven manner. Question (posed by the task force to the program manager participants): What is the problem to be solved by your program? How—if at all—did the program provide for a user-driven dialogue between scientists and decision makers to shape problem definition? How—if at all—did the ultimate problem definition differ from initial formulation by scientists and decision makers, respectively? 2. Program management Hypothesis: Successful efforts to develop programs linking knowledge with action generally adopt a project orientation and organization, with dynamic leaders accountable for achieving 1 The case summaries are included as an appendix because they: provide valuable information about the programs represented at the workshop and how they contribute to sustainability; offer specific examples of and lessons from program managers’ efforts to link knowledge with action; and include resources for additional information, such as program URLs and program managers’ contact information. These cases may provide the reader with a more thorough and nuanced understanding of some of the key points made at the workshop. Note: Participants’ case summary responses are included in the appendix as submitted to the National Academies, without substantive editing. They represent the perspectives of the individual authors, and not necessarily those of the National Academies or the organizations that employ them.
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Linking Knowledge with Action for Sustainable Development: The Role of Program Management - Summary of a Workshop user-driven goals and targets. They avoid the pitfall of letting a study of the problem displace creation of solutions as the program goal. Question: Was your program developed in such a project mode? Did it have specific, measurable goals and targets? If so, what? To what extent and in what ways was goal and target definition driven by scientists or decision makers or both? To what extent and in what ways were program leaders held accountable for achieving those goals and targets? 3. Program organization Hypothesis: Successful programs linking knowledge with action include boundary organizations committed to building bridges between the research community on the one hand and the user community on the other. These boundary organizations often construct informal and sometimes even partially hidden spaces in which project managers can foster user-producer dialogues, joint product definition, and end-to-end system building free from distorting dominance by groups committed to the status quo. In order to maintain balance, most effective boundary organizations make themselves jointly accountable to both the science and user communities. Question: Did your program involve a boundary spanning function or organization? If not, how did you organize the dialogue between producers and users? If so, where and how was the boundary organization or function created? What did it do? To what extent was it accountable to both users and producers for achieving its goals? 4. The decision-support system Hypothesis: Successful programs linking knowledge with action create end-to-end integrated systems that connect basic scientific predictions or observations to decision-relevant impacts and options. They avoid the pitfall of assuming that a single piece of the chain (e.g., a climate prediction) can be useful on its own or will be taken care of by someone else. Question: To what extent is the decision-support system developed by your program an end-to-end system? What are its discrete elements (e.g., a climate forecast, an impact model converting climate forecasts into yield forecasts required by decision makers)? Which were the hardest elements to put in place? Why? What changes in research, decision making, or both, have occurred as a result of the system? 5. Learning orientation Hypothesis: Successful programs linking knowledge with action are designed as systems for learning rather than systems for knowing. Because of the difficulty of the task, such programs are frankly experimental—they expect and embrace failure in order to learn from it as quickly as possible. Success requires appropriate reward and incentive systems for risk-taking managers, funding mechanisms that enable such risk taking, and periodic external evaluation. Question: Did your program have an expressly experimental orientation? How did it identify which risks to take? How did it identify success and failure? How did it engage outside
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Linking Knowledge with Action for Sustainable Development: The Role of Program Management - Summary of a Workshop evaluators to help it reflect on its own experience? What are the most important lessons you have learned regarding pitfalls to be avoided, or approaches to be followed in the future? 6. Continuity and flexibility Hypothesis: Successful programs linking knowledge with action must develop strategies to maintain program continuity and flexibility in the face of budgetary and human resource challenges, such as the dual public-private character of knowledge-action systems; budgetary pressure to highlight short-term, measurable results; uncertainty regarding future budgetary priorities in a dynamic political environment; and shortages of people who can work effectively across disciplines, issue areas, and the knowledge-action interface. Question: How do budgetary requirements and/or human resource pressures influence your program? What, if any, collaborative funding mechanisms have you developed to ensure continuity and relevance to user needs? If applicable, how do you maintain public funding, or incorporate private funding, for the provision of a partially private good? What, if any, innovative approaches have you developed for enhancing human capacity in your program area (e.g., building curricula or providing incentives to reward interdisciplinary activities)? BOX 1-1 Terminology The cases and examples considered in this report are in general highly complex systems involving the production and utilization of scientific or technical knowledge. For convenience and clarity, this report often simplifies that complexity by referring to the producers and users of knowledge. In this simplified terminology, producers are meant to encompass the scientists, engineers, and practitioners who through their experiments, observations, and trial-and-error probing create knowledge about how the world works. Users are those who may use knowledge in shaping actions that change how the world is working. This category includes decision makers, such as policy makers, managers, executives, householders, and citizens. Of course, the experience of such users also is a source of knowledge and in good collaborative arrangements such as those discussed in this report, the distinction between producers and users of technical knowledge may become (intentionally) blurred. Workshop participants nonetheless found the distinction between producers and users of technical knowledge to be helpful, and we retain it here. The first day of the two-day workshop featured panel presentations in which most of the invited program managers gave brief, informal presentations on their experiences linking knowledge with action for societal goals. Participants were asked to focus their presentations on the topics featured in the case summaries, adding other key themes if appropriate. Panels were grouped by a few critical fields of research for sustainable development: Air Quality and Climate, Technology Co-Development, Agriculture and Ecosystems, and Public Health (see workshop agenda in Appendix B). At the end of the first day, the participants reviewed key themes from the discussions and determined which of those merited exploration in greater depth during the second day of the workshop.
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Linking Knowledge with Action for Sustainable Development: The Role of Program Management - Summary of a Workshop Many participants expressed their general agreement with the principles of linking knowledge with action that were offered as hypotheses (offering some objections and modifications as described later in this summary). Instead of focusing on whether the hypotheses hold true, program managers from the federal government tended to focus on why some techniques for linking knowledge with action can be more difficult to apply given institutional constraints of the federal government. More specifically, discussions consistently tended toward the nature of federal government programs and the institutional hurdles to innovation that program managers in such organizations face. This workshop summary is therefore divided into two sections. The first addresses the feature of effective knowledge-action systems that received the greatest attention in case studies and in the workshop discussion: the need for collaborative, ongoing user-driven dialogue, including the role of user-producer dialogues, the boundary organizations that facilitate such dialogues, and the importance of user-driven problem definition. The second section describes several barriers to linking knowledge with action in the federal government, such as structural barriers to collaboration; risk aversion and barriers to collaboration as reflected in evaluation systems; a funding environment that can stifle innovation; human resource constraints; and political uncertainty. The insights lay an important foundation for future work identifying opportunities—ways to work effectively given existing barriers or ways to overcome barriers. In addition, it is important to note that although many of the barriers discussed are unique to the federal government, others are not. Many participants emphasized the need to conduct similar discussions among program managers in other sectors, including nongovernmental organizations, other branches of government, and especially the private sector. Several participants pointed to the need for follow-on activities that would include program managers, users, and producers from the above-mentioned sectors in order to learn from their different but related experiences. Although this workshop focused primarily on the federal government context, the interdependence of the public sector, civil society, and the private sector in linking knowledge with action for sustainable development was widely acknowledged. It should also be noted that because this report is a workshop summary, its contents are limited in scope to the discussions that took place during the workshop and written material that was submitted by participants in case summaries. In the interest of promoting candid discussions, the workshop was held with the understanding that comments from the discussions would not receive individual attribution in this summary. Therefore, comments in this summary, whether taken from the workshop discussions or the case summaries, are not given attribution. As a record of those discussions, the report includes opinions from individuals and groups who attended the workshop. However, the opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the views of all workshop participants, their affiliated organizations, or the National Academies. The report does not contain consensus findings or recommendations from the workshop participants as a whole.
Representative terms from entire chapter: