Photo of a group of people talking on the beach


By Tiffany Woods

An Oregon Sea Grant (OSG) scholar has recommended that the National Science Foundation (NSF) add a sixth element to its broader impacts criteria that would encourage scientists to make stakeholders part of the research team.

Laura Ferguson, who is now doing a year-long, Sea Grant-funded John D. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship in Washington, D.C., made the recommendation after spending 18 months studying the roles and expectations of stakeholders involved in the NSF-funded Willamette Water 2100 project (WW2100).

Ferguson, who received her master's in marine resource management from Oregon State University (OSU) in 2015, proposed the idea during a meeting of NSF program managers and NSF-funded researchers in the nation's capital in March.

If it comes to fruition, her recommendation could impact the NSF's funding decisions. In addition to intellectual merit, when evaluating grants the NSF looks at how a proposed project would benefit others, also known as having broader impacts. It takes into consideration factors such as whether the proposed project advances discovery while promoting teaching and training, broadens participation of under-represented groups, or enhances infrastructure for research and education. Ferguson's proposed criterion would say, "develop the research community."

Launched in 2010, Willamette Water 2100 was a five-year, $4.3 million project that examined how climate change, population growth, development patterns and other factors might influence water scarcity in the Willamette River Basin during the 21st century. Led by OSU, in partnership with researchers from the University of Oregon, Portland State University and University of California at Santa Barbara, the project involved dozens of scientists from 18 disciplines, and representatives of 101 stakeholder groups. WW2100 made stakeholders part of the research teams from the start.

Ferguson was brought into the project by OSG's watershed and invasive species specialist, Sam Chan, who served on the project's executive committee and led its broader impacts team.

"The applications and process for achieving broader impacts are evolving, and I felt we needed to study the benefits of researcher-stakeholder engagement and the process," said Chan, who was Ferguson's adviser in graduate school. "It was important for us to know why people even wanted to come together, what kept them there, and what products they hoped would come out of it."

Ferguson participated in WW2100 meetings, observed how scientists and stakeholders interacted, then surveyed and interviewed them about what they expected and hoped would come out of the project. She learned that stakeholders valued the opportunity to connect with scientists and other stakeholders throughout the Willamette Valley, share in discussions, and better understand the natural and socioeconomic processes that influence water quality and availability. She concluded that scientists should not only ask stakeholders for feedback but also involve them in the research from the beginning. The relationships that develop in the process, she said, could result in better science and a better-informed public.

Based on her work with WW2100, Ferguson has written a manuscript, which she hopes to publish. In it, she wrote, "Future projects can look to WW2100 as an example of what their stakeholders and research team members may expect, and use these results to better define and improve their own engagement processes."

While conducting her research, Ferguson reviewed 134 journal articles about natural resource research, management, policy and modeling. She summarized the key points in a 20-page report published by OSG called Collaborative Science-Stakeholder Engagement. The document is available as a free download from OSG's publications catalog.

"Laura's work demonstrates that we need to connect the researchers to stakeholders at the start of the process," said Chan. "They need to understand how their work connects to stakeholder needs and motivations. Stakeholders can not only provide feedback and reality checks, they can also help define the research goals and improve the relevance of the research."

--First published in Confluence, Spring/Summer 2016