15 December 2010

A Guest Post: Science on the Conveyor Belt

Sharon F. currently works for the Forest Service in land management.  In the past, she worked in FS Research and Development, and with USDA extramural research at the agency now known as NIFA.

Roger asked me to give my thoughts on the recent GAO report “Forest Service Research and Development: Improvements in Delivery of Research Can Help Ensure that Benefits of Research are Realized.” It can be found here.

The report's main recommendation was that
"the Forest Service assess the effectiveness of recent steps FS R&D has taken to improve science delivery and take steps to ensure that individual performance assessment better balance the various types of science delivery activities." (from "what GAO recommends.")
In their letter to Senator Reid, GAO states,
"FS R&D conducts basic research in a range of biological, physical, and social science fields and applies this knowledge to develop technologies and deliver science to federal and state land managers, industry private landowners and other entities."
Not to be pedantic, but there seems to be a disconnect. If we go by the formal OMB definitions of basic, applied research and development
Basic research is defined as systematic study directed toward fuller knowledge or understanding of the fundamental aspects of phenomena and of observable facts without specific applications towards processes or products in mind. Basic research, however, may include activities with broad applications in mind.

Applied research is defined as systematic study to gain knowledge or understanding necessary to determine the means by which a recognized and specific need may be met.

Development is defined as systematic application of knowledge or understanding, directed toward the production of useful materials, devices, and systems or methods, including design, development, and improvement of prototypes and new processes to meet specific requirements.
By using the terms "basic research" and "science delivery" it seems as if they are using what I call the conveyor belt model for bringing science to management. Under this model, scientists determine what research is needed, design it, fund it, publish papers and set the results on the conveyor belt- the user's job is to pick it up and use it. According to this model, all that needs to be done is to focus on the conveyor belt, reward scientists for putting research on the belt, and everything will be fine.

Unfortunately, much research designed without the input of users is not framed in a way to be particularly useful to them. Busy practitioners know exactly what is useful and what is not. So they may disregard most of what comes down the belt.

I have been in multiple meetings over multiple years where the same phenomenon occurs. Users are rounded up (the usual suspects) and asked what we want. If people really cared, this would be an ongoing conversation at many organizational levels and approached systematically. There is a section in the GAO report "Increased Stakeholder Involvement in Setting Research Agendas," but the distinctions of "users" are not clear; for example, universities are also discussed as "stakeholders." If researchers think different things are interesting (or easy to get funded, or more likely to get published) than do practitioners, it is likely that university and FS researchers would tend to be on one side, and practitioners on the other. So mixing in other researchers as "stakeholders" tends to dilute the practitioner vote.

At land grant institutions, the USDA developed a model of research, extension and education. Under that model, people who wanted research knew who they should talk to- professors, the Dean of the school, for example. Extension folks had to go out and talk to real users and communication went both ways (at its best). Students were linked to the real world through extension activities and people.

Through time, less of that funding has been available, due to the ideological hegemony of the "investigator- initiated competitive grant is best" worldview, which can have the result of research "of the scientists, by the scientists, and for the scientists." This may be a good approach for basic science, but not when a problem calls for clear stakeholder involvement in framing and design and a variety of alternative approaches.

If research is funded by other agencies (e.g. NSF, NOAA) with scientist-based criteria, it is putting the scientists between a rock and a hard place to ask them to produce research that's relevant and used. Redesigning the science delivery conveyor belt won't help if no users are standing at the other end.