Editor’s note: Heidi Huber-Stearns is a Visiting Associate Professor of Practice for The Western Forest and Fire Initiative at the University of Michigan, and is also an Associate Research Professor and Director of the Ecosystem Workforce Program at the University of Oregon. Emily Jane Davis is the Interim Director of the Forestry & Natural Resources Extension Fire Program and an Associate Professor in the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University. Michal Russo is a PhD candidate in the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, and part of the The Western Forest and Fire Initiative. In this blog, they comment on the relationship between wildfire social science researchers and practitioners engaging in various wildfire resilience efforts, and how this partnership can evolve and grow. This is the first part of a two-part series on the researcher-practitioner relationship. 


Who can wildfire social science serve?

Social science research can help us expand and improve how we live with fire. It can explore a wide range of relevant topics from policy implementation to community adaptation and communication. Insights from social science can provide a wide range of benefits to practitioners and others with limited time and funds to devote to questions that could help inform their work. Research and partnerships can help organizations to understand an information gap, how implementation is aligning with planning, and how to strategically accomplish their work. 

At the same time, practice can also inform research. The questions that practitioners wrestle with as they work can help shape study design. Which questions researchers ask and how they ask them can be informed by on-the-ground experience. Practitioners can provide critical insight into how dataset selection can impact perception, funding, and future research. Practitioners can also help apply results and/or support researchers as they communicate the potential impact from social science studies. However, there are definite challenges in finding effective ways to link research and practice. For example, some communities or partnerships have found themselves the repeated subjects of multiple research projects that ask for their time and ideas, without always learning the results or having a chance or clear idea of how to apply them. Others may feel under-represented, ignored, or unsure of how to partner with social scientists. 

We acknowledge the challenges of linking research and practice, many of which we have encountered (or even created) ourselves. Writing about this here is one part of larger efforts in which researchers, practitioners, and others are working together on imagining improved ways forward. Ideally, we can share and learn from each other more equitably and knowledge can flow in many directions. At the same time, we acknowledge some of the inherent realities of differences between the worlds of research and practice.


We are working in partnership with FAC Net to understand current issues and opportunities in practitioner-researcher relationships in doing wildfire social science research, and explore ideas for improvements for all involved. At the 2023 FAC Net annual workshop in Princeton, New Jersey, two of the blog authors ran a breakout session with a couple dozen FAC Net members to reflect on past experiences working with researchers, research needs, and how future work might navigate some of these challenges. Evident throughout this session was a strong interest in thinking and talking about how to improve relationships between science and practice. In this post, we provide some reflections from that session.


Communities and Social Scientists as Partners in Research

Research engagement benefits and challenges 

In our breakout discussion, FAC Net members acknowledged the value and utility of research. They gave examples of the wide range of ways in which they engaged in research, from asking for a researcher to share lessons learned from their project, to working in or with a research team, to looking for existing data that they could use in their project/place. There are a variety of ways in which practitioners can be asked to participate, engage in, or otherwise support research.

Examples of what a “research ask” might look like.

Our experience, along with those in our breakout session, is that linking research and practice is challenging and can be unduly extractive of those it is requesting information, time, and resources from. The unfortunate irony is that in many instances, social science research is working to understand these exact kinds of capacity challenges and needs. 

 Some points on this include:     

  • Practitioners, coordinators, volunteers, and others working in these places often don’t have time or resources to field the increasing number of research requests they receive. Research may not compensate participants directly or sufficiently.
  • Adequate credit is not always given to those who provided information to make the research possible. This is particularly true with qualitative research, where quotes and key insights from interviewees typically directly inform the basis of findings, from which researchers then receive benefit and recognition for publishing and sharing. 
  •  Multiple research teams can be pursuing similar questions in overlapping landscapes. This has the potential to make research duplicative and uncoordinated. Researching the same places over and over can further exacerbate inequities between communities that appear more successful in their project work than other places that are not as far along or well-resourced. 

Notes from discussion about experiences of FACNet members in engaging with research.


Imagining different ways to improve engaged research

Our workshop group imagined a range of different ways to improve engaged research. This included a focus on research that can inform practice and putting transparent data, methods, and tools (e.g., communication or facilitation toolkits) directly in the hands of practitioners. FAC Net members also identified the preference for more well-packaged stories and lessons learned that were accessible and transferrable to local communities and settings, rather than results in the form of more data to sift through, i.e.,“stories we can share with our communities.” This range of different levels of preferred engagement relates to another key point, which was FAC Net members wanting researchers to meet them where they are, and vice versa. Engaging with scientists in whatever state of work and capacity a practitioner is in was noted as key to building long-term relationships. Members imagined building closer relationships with scientists, perhaps even a “scientist buddy” that could help them move their work forward as a thought partner.


Other models for knowledge sharing between research and practice

We also discussed a “flipped model” where instead of viewing practitioners as the consumers of knowledge, researchers would come to places to learn. In this approach, researchers would not just be asking questions and gathering data on a relatively short visit, but would instead learn through experience, dialogue, and building relationships with community members. FAC Net members also described the importance of place-based or community-based research to help researchers better understand the relationships and connections between people in places and how they are conducting their work. 

There is a potential synergy between cross-project insights and scaling up research and embedding research into a community over a longer period of time. Experiential learning and co-generation of knowledge, in our experience, have always been emphasized by practitioners and researchers alike.

Notes from discussion of FAC Net members in improving relationships between research and practice.


Improving incentives for linking research and practice

To change relationships between practice and science (or between researchers and practitioners) institutions will need to change. This includes changing how institutions like funders, granters, and agencies view and incentivize research at the interface of communities of place and practice. As noted by researchers working on public health practice-research connections, “scalability and sustainability require big picture thinking. Collaborations between individual researchers and specific staff are not sufficient (and pose potential risks). Organization-to-organization relationships are needed.”  Individuals changing how they conduct informed, authentic, and engaged research can help on a project-by-project basis, but for larger system-wide change, organizations, institutions and others will need to change. For example, funding is often short-term and prefers novelty over continuing work, and researchers are also incentivized to publish in scientific journals as lead authors over more mainstream outlets and co-authoring with communities and practitioners. These changes could range from universities rethinking incentive structures, hiring and position descriptions, and support structures for applied work, to funders reconsidering the pace, scale, longevity of funding, and especially what end deliverables look like for grantees.


Potential of intermediaries and coordinators in informing research and practice

Boundary spanners – positions or organizations that span science and practice and policy boundaries – may reduce the burden on individuals and communities, help bridge to ongoing and related work, and support scientists engage more meaningfully with practice. Boundary spanners can also buffer practitioners and others from inherent research transitions and destabilizing factors like funding continuity. University extension faculty, research institutes that have both scientists and applied technical assistance staff, or civic engagement centers, among others, can function as boundary spanners.


Concluding thoughts

Throughout our workshop session, there was clear acknowledgment that both research and practice need to work together on changing these relationships. This blog reflects on some aspects of current relationships between research and practice. We are working on key considerations for tactically addressing many of the challenges we presented here, to be featured in a future blog. We welcome your engagement as we continue to try to understand how we can adapt and redesign intentional and beneficial relationships between research and practice.