Science with society: Evidence-based guidance for best practices in environmental transdisciplinary work

Cara Steger*, Julia A. Klein, Robin S. Reid, Sandra Lavorel, Catherine Tucker, Kelly A. Hopping, Rob Marchant, Tara Teel, Aida Cuni-Sanchez, Tsechoe Dorji, Greg Greenwood, Robert Huber, Karim Aly Kassam, David Kreuer, Anne Nolin, Aaron Russell, Julia L. Sharp, Mateja Šmid Hribar, Jessica P.R. Thorn, Gordon GrantMohammed Mahdi, Martha Moreno, Daniel Waiswa

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Transdisciplinary research is a promising approach to address sustainability challenges arising from global environmental change, as it is characterized by an iterative process that brings together actors from multiple academic fields and diverse sectors of society to engage in mutual learning with the intent to co-produce new knowledge. We present a conceptual model to guide the implementation of environmental transdisciplinary work, which we consider a “science with society” (SWS) approach, providing suggested activities to conduct throughout a seven-step process. We used a survey with 168 respondents involved in environmental transdisciplinary work worldwide to evaluate the relative importance of these activities and the skills and characteristics required to implement them successfully, with attention to how responses differed according to the gender, geographic location, and positionality of the respondents. Flexibility and collaborative spirit were the most frequently valued skills in SWS, though non-researchers tended to prioritize attributes like humility, trust, and patience over flexibility. We also explored the relative significance of barriers to successful SWS, finding insufficient time and unequal power dynamics were the two most significant barriers to successful SWS. Together with case studies of respondents’ most successful SWS projects, we create a toolbox of 20 best practices that can be used to overcome barriers and increase the societal and scientific impacts of SWS projects. Project success was perceived to be significantly higher where there was medium to high policy impact, and projects initiated by practitioners/other stakeholders had a larger proportion of high policy impact compared to projects initiated by researchers only. Communicating project results to academic audiences occurred more frequently than communicating results to practitioners or the public, despite this being ranked less important overall. We discuss how these results point to three recommendations for future SWS: 1) balancing diverse perspectives through careful partnership formation and design; 2) promoting communication, learning, and reflexivity (i.e., questioning assumptions, beliefs, and practices) to overcome conflict and power asymmetries; and 3) increasing policy impact for joint science and society benefits. Our study highlights the benefits of diversity in SWS - both in the types of people and knowledge included as well as the methods used - and the potential benefits of this approach for addressing the increasingly complex challenges arising from global environmental change.

Original languageEnglish
Article number102240
JournalGlobal Environmental Change
Early online date5 Mar 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 5 Mar 2021

Bibliographical note

© 2021 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. This is an author-produced version of the published paper. Uploaded in accordance with the publisher’s self-archiving policy.
Funding Information:
This work was supported by the US National Science Foundation through the Mountain Sentinels Research Coordination Network (NSF #1414106) and the Center for Collaborative Conservation at Colorado State University. MSH would like to thank the Slovenian Research Agency for its financial support (Core Research Funding No. P6-010; Geography of Slovenia), and DK acknowledges support by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF—01LN1315A). In addition, we thank the many civil society organizations and communities that have contributed their precious time, resources, and insights to the transdisciplinary work informing this study. This research was reviewed and approved by Colorado State University’s Institutional Review Board (264-18H), and was conducted with free, prior and informed consent of all participants.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Elsevier Ltd

Copyright 2021 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Collaborative environmental management
  • Knowledge co-production
  • Science policy interface
  • Science to action
  • Social learning
  • Social-ecological systems
  • Sustainability

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