New roles for researchers in system innovations: case study of the Knowledge-Action Programme on Water

Laurens Hessels, Michaela Hordijk, Andrew Segrave

Onderzoeksoutput: Bijdrage aan conferentieAbstractWetenschappelijk


Sustainability transitions require transdisciplinary knowledge production, going beyond traditional role divisions. In order to contribute to system innovations, researchers often engage in action research, and participate actively in system innovations. This configuration raises questions about their role and position with regard to the practical context, about quality assurance and about intervention legitimacy: how intensively should they participate, and how do they preserve their unique contribution as a researcher.

Existing literature about the rise of transdisciplinary research provides some building blocks for understanding the complex relationships in these situations. There is some literature about the different roles researchers can play in action research for sustainability, but so far the literature has limited sensitivity to the way researchers combine and balance different roles. In particular the role of social scientists is understudied. The research question of this paper is: what roles are required of social scientific researchers in system innovations and what are the advantages and disadvantages of the combinations of roles that can be adopted?

Our theoretical framework builds on transition literature and studies on the role of researchers in sustainability science and action research. We will apply and problematize the analytical framework by Wittmayer and Schäpke, who claim that sustainability researchers typically encounter four key issues: ownership, sustainability, power and action. This corresponds with five roles of researchers, reflecting how they deal with these issues: the reflective scientist, process facilitator, knowledge broker, change agent and self-reflexive scientist (Wittmayer and Schäpke 2014).

The paper analyses a case study on the Knowledge Action Programme on Water (KAPW), a transdisciplinary initiative on innovative water governance carried out in the Netherlands (2017-2019). The main aims of KAPW are to address the governance challenges that water authorities experience in sustainability transitions, and to more effectively link ongoing research and knowledge generation to decision making processes. KAPW is a particularly interesting case because of its action-oriented, dynamic and reflexive nature. Over the course of the past few years, it has shifted its focus and strategy repeatedly, in response to its changing policy context and internal reflections. These reflections highlighted the need to change the self-understanding of researchers and our role in the process, and to redefine the expectations from researchers in processes like KAPW. Our data sources include 45 interviews, analysis of (online) documents, and self-reflection of the authors, who are personally involved in the program.

In the paper we will analyse which key issues the researchers of the programme have experienced and which (combinations of) roles they have adopted in response to these issues. KAPW researchers faced several dilemmas, such as providing answers or formulating questions, active participation versus systematic documentation and producing scientific publications versus societal relevance. In addition there were some issues with ownership (appropriation of results versus collective branding of the program), sustainability (defining the circular economy and sustainable energy) and power (negotiations between the water authority, infrastructure utility and municipality).

KAPW researchers have adopted and integrated several roles, most prominently the knowledge broker, process facilitator and change agent. In many instances researchers struggled with a combination of roles, because of the conflicting values and demands associated with them. For example, while practitioners frequently asked for the guidance and leadership of a process facilitator, researchers were looking for space to act as a knowledge broker or self-reflexive scientist.

Based on this analysis we will enrich the framework of Wittmayer and Schäpke with additional issues and with insights into the relationships and interactions between the different roles.

Wittmayer, J. M., and N. Schäpke. 2014. Action, research and participation: roles of researchers in sustainability transitions. Sustainability science 9:483-496
Originele taal-2Engels
StatusGepubliceerd - 12 sep. 2019


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