Knowledge synthesis communities as the answer?

Another guest post from 3DLab-member Ronja Wedegärtner on how we can do better science in these times of global change, and include the whole of society from the start.

We are producing much science, but not using it effectively enough – this is how I would summarize my last blogpost after the OIKOS 2020 conference, which left me wondering what we can do as ecologists to find answers to global issues. “Knowledge synthesis is the key to changing the world.”, was a statement in the final discussion that has kept my head spinning through the last weeks. (At those moment when the COVID-19-the-world-is-breaking-down-and-I-am-in-quarantine spinning came to a brief rest.)

The wonderful thing is that there are many of us out there think along these lines. I was therefore super-excited when I saw the article “A new ecosystem for evidence synthesis” by Shinichi Nakagawa and colleagues that proposes a new framework for knowledge synthesis.

They are envisioning a community of empiricists (data collectors) and synthesists working together from the start, thereby making sure that data is meaningful to answer big questions, is not pre-filtered by publication bias and synthesized in a timely manner.

The authors suggest a web-based synthesis platform to connect researchers and to communicate the findings of this “living system of synthesis” to the interested public.

It is a wonderful and timely article and I suggest you go and read it here (https://rdcu.be/b3bMp).

And now I am going to venture in into an adventure. I am going to share my thoughts about the solution they propose. Much of my thinking on how we can solve global challenges as a collective has gone into similar directions. I see the building of communities as a central foundation for finding the solution for global challenges as well. And I completely agree with the authors that a web platform that connects people might be an integral part of finding solutions.

But one thing struck me when reading through the article – stakeholder engagement was through consumption of synthesized data only. Maybe the engagement of stakeholders in identifying the most pressing questions for which we need knowledge synthesis is implicit for them. But I think that this is a key foundation of making synthesis that matters. I think that we need to extend the community framework to include the non-scientific community. This is challenging and we need to think as a community about how we can do this and still gather our synthesis about pressing global issues at the speed that is necessary to actually face them and not only do an autopsy of a collapsed system.

What gave me most hope when reading through the article? The fact that initiatives such as the Evidence Synthesis Hackathon exist. After a brief stint in the start-up world before I started my PhD I have come to love hackathons. Hackathons originated in the tech-world and bring together interested people for a purpose – this can be solving a global challenge as much as developing an app. The participants bring their knowledge, experiences and creativity and collaborate over a fixed timeframe (often a weekend) very intensely on this topic and try to find solutions. I think that coming together for a short time, working extremely focused and solution-oriented, is very rewarding, often with great outcomes. The article discussed above is just one point of evidence in that regard.

I am going to keep an eye out for new opportunities to move things quickly on the website of the Evidence Synthesis hackathon: https://www.eshackathon.org and will see if I can secure a spot in their next hackathon.

And I am closing this post with the question: Should we have a have a (digital, socially-distanced) hackathon about how we can involve non-researchers in such knowledge synthesis communities? Having students, policy makers, and holders of Traditional Knowledge involved from the start and throughout the process? – if you think ‘yes, this is exactly what we need!’, then get in touch and we will try to make this happen!

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