Theoretical Background: Developing Professional Expertise
Actionable Science Competencies
Competency & Definition
Number of Scientists
1. Systems Thinking involves thinking about how an actionable science project and its outcomes interact with the whole system or context in which the project is occurring, including history among partners or the organisations they represent, work culture and hierarchy, or other relevant cultural context, and politics. This also includes thinking about partners’ decision contexts and how the researcher themself fits into or interacts with partners and the larger system.
“The very first thing is knowing … that there are external constraints that shape what is and is not actionable. … [For example, during certain times of year, water managers in my project area have no] freedom to choose how to operate the dam. We could come up with all the most amazing information about streamflow predictions or new information for November, and we’d have to have an act of Congress for them to be able to use it, right? If we came up with the same information for streamflow in January, they could use it. … If you’re trying to improve management, you should look at the flexible period because that’s when [managers] can change things. … This is how understanding constraints can help direct you to science that can actually be useful, as opposed to science that ends up shouting in the void.” (S19)
2. Strategic Planning involves planning for the impact of current decisions on future events or designing a project backward from the desired outcome, as well as identifying the most feasible or effective partners, based on factors such as personality, background, and in the case of non-scientific partners, their potential to be champions for the project among practitioners. Strategic planning also includes thinking about future steps within the project, what current partners will need from the scientist once the project is over (e.g., updates to a data tool), and how a current project can lead to future projects.
“We’re not just throwing [our research] on the table and walking away. We’re actually thinking about, okay, here’s the science. Here’s how it’s going to come across to people. It’s going to have this effect or that effect or whatever in people’s thinking. Let’s think about what the rest of the world out there is really thinking about and what the stakeholders need, what’s important to them, and then we can figure out ways to move forward much more efficiently, really.” (S01)
“I find it helpful, actually, to have a multi-year strategy with a lot of this, and you can’t predict the success of various projects being funded, but if one can daisy-chain a number of different projects that are related, then they feed back on themselves quite well—and these actionable science projects tend to benefit the largest group of people, when you can do that.” (S21)
3. Transdisciplinary Thinking involves thinking about a topic or question from multiple epistemological perspectives (e.g., academic discipline, indigenous knowledge, lived experience), which requires flexibility in thinking and an appreciation for multiple perspectives.
“I think that you need to be able to connect with and draw on others’ science. Science that you’re not necessarily an expert in, but you need to—so much of actionable science doesn’t fit in disciplinary boundaries or topical boundaries, or … what is needed doesn’t necessarily align with your expertise. You have to have an ability, a willingness to go beyond using the hammer that you know how to use and go figure out how to use the screwdriver instead. [Or work with others with expertise to] help you understand what it means in this other context.” (S19)
“Curiosity, humility, that sense of value of other ways of knowing and other knowledges, like truly valuing them. That their knowledge is not more valuable, inherently, than other forms of knowledge. Valuing practical knowledge, local knowledge, indigenous knowledges.” (S14)
4. Metacognition is self-awareness of one’s own learning processes and how one self-regulates those processes in order to more efficiently learn from and recollect relevant experiences (Ormrod 2016). In practice, this can include self-awareness of one’s strengths and weaknesses, such as knowing the skills or knowledge one brings to the research team, as well as when it is best to rely on other team members. Metacognition can also include awareness of one’s own biases, which may influence one’s research and collaboration habits and decision-making.
“…to stop and really think through what’s happening in this process. What’s going well, what isn’t going well, to challenge your own biases and assumptions on an ongoing basis through a project…” (S06)
5. Ethical Thinking involves recognising the ethical dimensions of projects, such as whether and how research should be conducted so as to maximise benefits and reduce risks and negative impacts to research participants and collaborators. The Institutional Review Board (IRB) emphasises three foundational ethical principles, based on the Belmont Report (National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioural Research 1979): respect for persons, beneficence, and justice; these may guide interactions with stakeholders as well as research. When developing ethical research partnerships, Wilmer et al. (2021) propose “four principles: (1) appropriate representation, (2) self-determination, (3) reciprocity, and (4) deference, and two cross-cutting themes: (1) applications to humans and non-human actors, and (2) acquiring appropriate research skills” (p. 453).
“Communication, making sure community members felt good about the work that I was doing, that they were getting copies that they could use for their own purposes, that they’re adequately recognised in the work. When I presented the work, I tried to co-present if possible so they could share their personal experience…” (S24)
“Why do we need to do … [the Institutional Review Board certification process]? Because people have treated others very, very badly in the past, and now we have to deal with that. [We have to consider] the legal and political frameworks surrounding working with indigenous populations. That there are particular standards that we have to meet when we work with indigenous populations. Then, the principles of those really apply to how we work with anybody.” (S06)
6. Developing and Maintaining Common Vision involves working with team members to develop a collective vision for the project, including defining objectives, ensuring objectives are useful to partners while advancing scientific aims of researchers, and scoping activities and projects. This skill also involves iteratively maintaining this vision among team members as a project progresses and responding flexibly to challenges encountered in a way that meets all team members’ goals and needs.
“You can’t come in with, ‘I think this is what they need,’ and start working on it, and go down that path. That just isn’t successful. We’re most successful when the products are really thought through from the very beginning with everybody in the room. The foundations, federal government partner, or private sector partner, whoever they are, that it starts at the very beginning of the conversation. I find that sometimes we try to get ahead of something and say, ‘Oh, I think this is going to be really important.’ Once in a while that works, but often you miss the mark and there’s not somebody there to catch what you do, and it doesn’t really connect or have the impact that you hope.” (S04)
“Keeping the end use in mind and having the people there who would be the end users and working back from that, really pragmatically and theoretically, around how to get to the useful end product that people would actually use.” (S14)
7. Developing and Maintaining Relationships involves demonstrating a desire to form a longer-term relationship, developing trust, and then maintaining the relationship throughout a project and beyond. Developing and maintaining relationships involves demonstrating respect and curiosity through behaviours such as visiting partners in-person to learn about their context and remembering to check-in with partners.
“Being open to that slow building of trust and time. If you ask them a question, come back with an answer. If you’re going to take their time, then come back to them with, ‘Here’s what I did. Here’s what I heard, and here’s what I did. Does this help?’ Don’t just ask and never be heard from again. If you’re going to take the time, make it worth their time.” (S11)
“[Continuing] to be in touch with [partners]. Following up. ‘You have this information. What’s your next step?’ We continue to be, through our … network, in really close long-term relationships with a lot of these government entities. We’re closely ingrained with what they’re doing. A lot of their planning, and regulatory, and policy work. It’s really a commitment to a long-term relationship with these different entities.” (S22)
8. Communicating for Audience involves adjusting the way the scientist communicates depending on who the audience is and what they need. Communication adjustments include changing the messenger, the mode of communication, and the content and form of the message, such as the level of detail. Some scientists also mentioned the importance of using humour to create a less formal atmosphere. Many scientists also emphasised the importance of connecting their message to relevant local contexts. Most scientists described communication as a two-way process; as such, scientists with this skill also described adjusting their message based on audience interactions.
“You pick and choose how you deliver messages to different audiences. If you’re trying to impose the perspective of an ecologist, in terms of what they think is important, onto a local audience, sometimes, I mean, you can tell pretty quickly when they begin to lose interest. I can tell you that. If you want to drone on and really put them to sleep, I guess that’s your choice. … [I]f I knew what that audience was, or thought I knew what that audience was, I would always try to gear my presentations to appeal to that particular audience. I think that’s part of the key, is trying to learn what would be important to your audience. Sometimes it surprises me because there would be times where you would start with maybe that general message, and there would be folks in the audience that would say, ‘Tell me more.’ You would go into it. You would peel that onion back a little more and go into a little more of the basic ecological detail. Sometimes that worked that way.” (S18)
9. Listening involves asking appropriate questions, remembering to ask questions, following up for clarification, and determining the right time and way to check in with collaborators such that they can provide their perspective while not overwhelming them with unnecessary detail. Some aspects of listening mentioned by scientists included asking open ended questions, creating venues for listening (e.g., workshops, regular check-ins), and doing background research to ensure sufficient context so that one asks questions in an informed way.
“Learning and knowing how to ask questions, how to ask follow-up questions, how to be listening really carefully for what somebody is saying and not saying. So that I’m understanding what they are getting, what they’re not getting, what might be unsaid or unstated that is maybe just they’re not—they’re not certain about it. They don’t feel comfortable asking.” (S06)
10. Negotiating Boundaries, Roles, & Expectations involves being able to adaptively negotiate the project timeline, project roles that are appropriate to ability and capacity, how project decisions are made, and who is involved in decision-making.
“Just making sure there’s an agreed-upon set of ground rules about who makes decisions, how we change decisions, who has power, who gets to be the author, who gets to be the co-author, how much work you get to contribute. Or you should need to contribute in order to be considered a co-author. … [A] set of ground rules about how we are going to work together, and who has ownership over which piece … Being really explicit about the expectations about the process and the project.” (S11)
11. Managing Conflict involves both avoiding or preventing conflict, as well as managing or resolving conflict when it does occur. One form of conflict resolution commonly mentioned by scientists was to remind people of a common goal or vision.
“Just a lot of a lot of talking. I don’t even know how else to put it. We had a just a lot of meetings and a lot of diplomacy. I really don’t know how to put it. It just had to be hashed out. … We had a shared mission and that part made it really easy, because we all wanted to do the right thing and have the right—well, right is a very value-laden word, but we all had the same goal in mind. That helped grease the wheels of getting us to consensus.” (S14)
12. Facilitation involves managing group processes effectively or knowing when to bring in an external facilitator to help do so. Facilitation involves tasks such as planning an achievable agenda, keeping meetings on-time, finding ways for group members who have not met to get to know each other, and implementing methods for collaboration (either analogue or digital). Facilitation involves also designing and implementing group structures and activities that support other competencies. For instance, group activities can be designed and managed in ways that enable teams to develop shared conceptions and goals or encourage group-level transdisciplinary thinking (Cravens et al. 2022).
“‘How are you going to elicit that kind of information in the process, and what do you need to be sensitive to, and what would be the best facilitation style to elicit that, and what should you be really transparent about?’ State it in the agenda or have a pre-meeting meeting just to talk about the ground rules.” (S03)
13. Performing Multiple Rolesa is the ability to adaptively perform multiple roles or functions within a team, across contexts, and as the project evolves, especially when a project has limited staff and funding.
“I think another skill is the flexibility in your training to do many parts of the chain of knowledge and information yourself. You need to be able to fill in for whatever else isn’t there, and we never have the ideal team to do the kinds of things that we want to do as perfectly as we want to do them. That means adapting on the fly.” (S10)
14. Communicating Uncertaintyb involves presenting complex scientific data, including its insights, caveats, and other limitations, in a way that makes sense to the audience and allows them to use the data appropriately. When effective, this usually takes a dialectic form, such that the communicator and audience reach a shared understanding. Several scientists also mentioned their use of visual communication aids.
“We were able to explain the uncertainty associated with it in a way that made sense and kept people from using it incorrectly. That gave them all the caveats. Thinking through all the caveats that you needed to warn them about without making them unusable because there’s so many caveats. Finding that place where both the managers felt it was useful, and the scientists felt it was robust. It was rigorous. That it was real science. It didn’t just get mushed into something that no longer meant anything and was going to be used incorrectly and more likely to give a bad result than an uncertain result.” (S07)
15. Empathy involves actively trying to understand others’ lived experiences, without imposing one’s own experiences or views. Therefore, the practice of empathy also typically involves self-reflection and/or metacognition about one’s own experiences or views, to limit their influence on understanding others’ experiences.
“If you’re going to be in that world, you need to sort of think how they think and understand the pressures and responsibilities and limitations of their job. You need to be able to get into their head on some level and, sort of, understand what it is they’re looking for and where their sensitivities are, and what kind of pressures they face on the public or their bosses or their agencies.” (S25)
“While you might feel like it’s your priority, it may not be somebody else’s priority, and so sometimes these projects take longer than you would expect because the other people are doing it on their time as they can.” (S16)
16. Emotional management involves noticing and regulating one’s own emotions. Among study scientists, one common way this manifested was remembering that negative interactions with team members and partners were not personal.
“I think, definitely learning to be able to let go, and move in a different direction, even though you’ve put a lot of effort into something. I think is something that you have to get used to.” (S04)
17. Persistence is the ability to continue with a project or activity despite setbacks. Many scientists who mentioned this competency also mentioned the importance of patience and flexibility, whether when dealing with partners’ schedules, slow progress on a project, or unexpected changes to the project.
“An ability to see things through even when they’re challenging and uncertain.” (S19)
18. Humility was described by scientists as approaching a project knowing they don’t know everything. Several scientists mentioned the importance of knowing that their knowledge is limited, and that science cannot achieve all goals, just like other ways of knowing have limits. This competency also involves admitting to oneself when one can’t do something.
“Walking into a room, saying—’I do bring some knowledge and expertise in this area. But I don’t know this area. I don’t know this region. I don’t know the dynamics of this community, but everybody in this room that I’m meeting with knows their little piece and their work so much better than I ever am going to. If I approach that—approach them as being experts, and that we all bring a piece of expertise to this—that combined is the only way this is moving forward.” (S06)
“Complex Demands:” The Cognitive, Interpersonal, and Intrapersonal Challenges of doing Actionable Science
The Process of Becoming an Actionable Scientist
Method of expertise development
Number of Scientists
Peer to peer learning and mentorship. Methods of learning through talking with peers and mentors, learning directly from peers or mentors, and emulating competencies as performed by experienced team members.
“Collaborating with social scientists in particular has probably been really important to my development, to be able to understand how you engage with what their needs are and how you can fit your science to it.” (S05)
“I would say that’s the number one thing—learning from others, watching them do it, watching people who do it and do it well.” (S11)
Participation. A social learning process through which the learner develops an increased understanding of norms, social structure, language, and other socio-cultural contextual factors, such that they are able to function appropriately and contribute effectively within a particular community (Lave and Wenger 1991).
“[I joined] when I was 27 years old. I wasn’t taking charge right then, but I was introduced to folks, and person-to-person communication was key, and so you can start to participate in those conversations, and then build that trust that you’re working on things that they think are useful to help them accomplish their mission.” (S15)
“[Reflexive practice] asks the researcher to stop and really think through what’s happening in this process. What’s going well? What isn’t going well? To challenge your own biases and assumptions on an ongoing basis through a project.” (S06)
“A lot of it has been learned the hard way. Not by somebody saying, ‘Just think about this,’ but by saying, ‘Oh, that didn’t work. How would I do that differently, or how could I modify that to have it work better?’” (S10)
Formal learning experiences. A discrete process of learning a competency, or aspect of a competency, through a workshop, training, or class provided while in school or during the learner’s career.
“I was very lucky to have a lot of communications training [from a science communication organisation] after grad school. That has been critical.” (S14)
“So, 19–20 years old, I had somebody training me to do interviews with community members, viewing them as holders of knowledge.” (S06)
Language development. A process of learning language for actionable science, such that the learner can identify and interpret their experiences using the perspective and context that the language provides. Many scientists learned language by reading papers from peers.
“When it has a name, and there’s a community around it, you can think more deeply about it.” (S01)