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Against the current: Obstacles to knowledge co-production for Early-Career Researchers in the Marine Sciences

Knowledge co-production, the collaborative process of different types of expertise cultivating context-specific knowledge, increasingly proves to tackle sustainability issues. Social-ecological systems (SES) like marine and coastal areas face diverse challenges, among them a variety of social injustices that call for participatory approaches. While being increasingly recognized and understood in the science community, knowledge co-production is still difficult to implement, especially for Early-career researchers (ECRs). In their new paper, Rölfer et al. (2022) assess obstacles ECRs face in the marine sciences when engaging with knowledge co-production projects. They conducted a survey and two workshops in the frame of the International Conference for Young Marine Researchers (ICYMARE) in January and October 2021. The analysis reveals personal, engagement and institutional challenges. Rölfer et al. suggest mitigating actions at the individual, supervisor, institutional and community level (see Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Summary of obstacles (left) to be tackled at different organizational levels (pyramid) with corresponding mitigating actions (right) and action pathways (horizontal arrows). The pyramid represents the hierarchy of needs with institutions (bottom) that are to be met before the needs at the individual level (top) can be resolved. The community (peer and broad scientific community) and supervisory level (middle) were considered as support systems to overcome obstacles and improve the engagement with local actors. Vertical arrows on the right side represent top-down and bottom-up actions that are needed to leverage change towards a more inclusive environment for ECRs engaging in knowledge co-production.

Personal obstacles are decidedly diverse and context-specific, but the study nonetheless reveals underlying themes: First of all, research in marine SES requires transdisciplinary approaches due to the complexity of these systems. However, study programs are still often focused on one discipline, thus deciding on a research topic and finding suitable supervisors can be difficult for ECRs. In addition, some ECRs experience discrimination based on their age and/or gender, face career uncertainties like short-term contracts, or have difficulties managing a healthy work-life balance. These issues can have an extensive effect on the ECR’s confidence, making it difficult to develop their careers or self-advocate when encountering institutional barriers. Here, Rölfer et al. highlight the role of supervisors: They can help to secure career paths for ECRs, aid access to academic networks, and foster an open environment for addressing and supporting mental health. Additionally, ECRs should prioritize self-growth and assess their learning process in order to balance ambition with practicality.

As marine SES are often subject to diverging interests, engagement with a variety of actors is crucial. ECRs often face issues with both identifying and effectively engaging with these actors. This is for example due to a lack of time or opportunity to build strong networks or even disinterest by actors after experiencing previous negative interactions with academia. In that case, if ECRs maintain humility when listening to non-academic actors, space can be created for new and positive recognition. A researcher’s self-reflection can weaken possible power relations, but frequent age differences between the ECRs and non-academic actors might nullify such effects. In this context, Rölfer et al. further point to the issue of parachute sciences: Neo-colonial practices that ignore local contexts and responsible engagement increase distrust in research, and must be addressed by the research community and on an institutional level.

Lastly, academic or institutional structures prove to create several obstacles:  On the one hand, pre-defined academic or institutional requirements often work against the nonlinear nature of knowledge co-production and limit ways of engaging with non-academic actors. On the other hand, ECRs need to prove their academic ability and thus are required to balance traditional academic expectations and more practical engagement. Soft skills to fulfil these demands are often not taught or recognized in academia. Universities should implement programs and courses that facilitate work in knowledge co-production, as well as promote non-traditional inter- and transdisciplinary approaches. This entails reassessing academic success and excellence criteria. Finally, Rölfer et al. point to funding requirements or a lack thereof that limit the opportunities to develop sustainable engagement. Funding mechanisms should account for full-time employment, flexibility and travel costs, and funding bodies can help in navigating different conflicts, communicating with grantees and establishing effective funding agreements.

In their paper, Rölfer et al. explore both bottom-up and top-down actions to facilitate easier implementation of knowledge co-production for ECRs. If the non-linear nature of participatory processes is acknowledged and deep-rooted institutional obstacles can be overcome, the waters are clear for meaningful engagement and relationship-building between a variety of societal and academic actors.

Find the details & additional ideas in the original paper by Rölfer et al. (2022) here.


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