From the field

Power to the people?

When everyday citizens bring their knowledge to academic research, it’s a challenge to decide how to proceed

Patchen Barss
Nicole Klenk

Nicole Klenk studies what is called “transdisciplinary research,” in which researchers and non-academics collaborate in studies.

Scientists instinctively claim ownership of knowledge creation. But Nicole Klenk thinks the devotion to scientific method can miss important information that could diminish the real-world value of research.

Klenk, an assistant professor in the Department of Physical & Environmental Sciences, studies “transdisciplinary research,” when university researchers partner with non-academics to design, execute and interpret studies.

The relationships among collaborators can be complicated. Scientists often enter transdisciplinary projects without realizing how much they may disrupt the process.

“I don’t question that they want to produce knowledge that is helpful to decision makers,” Klenk says. But reality doesn’t always match that intent. “In climate science, for instance, questions are answered dominantly through quantitative analyses. Research that deals with in-depth experiential knowledge — from, say, fishermen or farmers who are tied to certain space and place — may not be easily aggregated into those analyses.”

Klenk describes a team of engineers and anthropologists who were analyzing the sustainability of Caribbean coffee plantations. The anthropologists did in-depth interviews with local growers. The engineers resisted acknowledging the value of these personal narratives. Ultimately, the engineers let go of what Klenk refers to as “the power distribution of different types of knowledge claims.”

The coffee growers’ subjective experiences mattered just as much to the research as did the objective information about rainfall and yields. Without this alternative source of knowledge, the results might have satisfied the engineers, but would have been useless to the coffee growers.

Klenk recognizes that complications can go both ways. Non-academic partners can help create innovative approaches, and often become the champions when the research is brought into practice. But they can also derail a project, take it in an undesirable direction or damage its credibility.

“The history of western science has been a constant struggle against false claims of all sorts,” she says. “The whole point of the scientific method is to show that knowledge works consistently and we can trust it. When you open yourself up to different types of knowledge, does that mean anything goes? That can’t be. But I struggle with who adjudicates those different types of knowledge.”

Transdisciplinary research is gaining ground not only in climate science, but in fields ranging from gerontology to urban planning. Klenk says there’s plenty of work to be done to understand how to best make these projects work for everyone.

“I think we have a naive view of these collaborative research projects,” she says. “The transformation that we see can sometimes mean letting go of power. But sometimes it’s reinforcing that expert role and trying to keep those boundaries clear.”