How to engage stakeholders in strategic foresight for ecosystem research

Many parties have an interest in the ecosystems around us – local communities, decision-makers, social actors, and NGOs – collectively termed stakeholders. Improving interactions between stakeholders and scientists to make ecosystem research more management-relevant is a priority of the Fram Centre.

By: Sandra Hamel // Université Laval (Canada). 
Nigel G Yoccoz and Rolf A Ims // UiT The Arctic University of Norway  

The relation between scientists and stakeholders is most often perceived as a one-way street: scientists ask stakeholders to define some relevant issues at the beginning of a project, but then proceed on their own. By not involving stakeholders in the process leading to a better understanding or forecasting the impacts of, for example, management actions and consequences of climate change, scientists prevent the building of trust among parties, with consequences that results may end up being unused or rejected by stakeholders.

Putting strategic foresight to use

In the SUSTAIN project, we used Strategic foresight, a framework for stakeholder involvement in research developed within the social sciences.

Our aim was to explore, in a structured way, multiple possible futures of different ecosystems, with particular emphasis on the impacts of climate change within the boreal and arctic regions of Norway.

The underlying principle of strategic foresight is that multiple stakeholders participate to develop broad perspectives of future ecosystem states, of potential impacts of different stressors and management actions, and of what information and tools are relevant to take appropriate actions.

As we addressed a wide range of issues and ecosystems in a set of case studies, we experienced considerable heterogeneity in stakeholders’ involvement and scientists’ interest in building such common perspectives and tools. We focus here on some salient points, both negative and positive, that are likely generally relevant for improving the interaction between scientists and stakeholders.

Meeting with stakeholders of the SUSTAIN willow ptarmigan case study in Lakselv, autumn 2017.

Photo: John-André Henden 

Creating commitments

Not surprisingly, the success of such an approach depends on the willingness and long-term commitment of stakeholders and scientists.

Carl Walters, an eminent population ecologist and ecosystem modeller, emphasised this issue to explain why adaptive management, despite the initial enthusiasm for the concept, has so rarely been implemented in practice:

“Most of the failures can be traced to […] lack of leadership in the form of individuals willing to do all the hard work needed to plan and implement new and complex management programs”.

For the SUSTAIN case studies, the lack of commitment came in part from scientists, particularly early-career researchers who perceived such collaboration with stakeholders as infringing on their own projects or competing with the time needed to write and publish in high-ranking journals. Clearly, rewarding collaboration should become a strong priority within the scientific community – both so young scientists trust that such work will be a valuable asset on their CVs and so stakeholders see that collaborative efforts are valued within the community.

We also noted a lack of enduring commitment among stakeholders, particularly when high stakeholder turnover led to shifting priorities. This was the case for an effort to develop an application to aid management of the Svalbard reindeer. In Svalbard, personnel turnover is high both within the local community and at the governor’s office.

Another unfortunate aspect of high turnover and lack of continuity was pointed out by stakeholders who had prior experience of being involved in research. Research projects are short-term, and scientists must frequently change focus according to the shifting priorities of the agencies that fund their research. Consequently, researchers must often stop working on topics prematurely, which may leave stakeholders feeling more exploited than supported.

Overall, the strategic foresight process in SUSTAIN worked best when the following premises were in place: (1) Stakeholders had a clear idea of what could be achieved, for example, models to make near-term forecasts than can in turn be used in management decisions; (2) Stakeholders and scientists shared a significant common understanding of the ecosystem and its most important stressors; (3) There was a shared sense of urgency for achieving more understanding and/or identifying better management actions; (4) Sufficient amounts of high-quality monitoring data were available to increase understanding and assess management.

These premises were fulfilled in the case study of how climate, harvesting, and food web interactions jointly determine the population dynamics of willow ptarmigan in Finnmark. The success of this case study was succinctly described in a newsletter from the EU-commission’s “Science for Environment Policy Service” (see Further reading) that was sent to over 20 000 policymakers, academics and businesspeople across Europe.

Building common understanding and trust

A common thread was that building trust and models takes time. Hence, the strategic foresight process should start as early as possible in the project, particularly given the short time horizon of most research projects (3-5 years).

Ideally, one should start the process when writing the proposal, so that stakeholders feel ownership for the whole project. This is particularly important when analyses lead to results that run counter to stakeholders’ or scientists’ expectations.

That was the case for a subproject assessing the impact of red fox population control on the lesser white-fronted goose, a highly endangered species in Finnmark.

Having agreed on how to include different drivers in the analysis – not just red fox control but also changes in the foxes’ alternative preys and resources – made it easier to agree that the recent increase in the goose population was more likely due to indirect effects of larger rodent population peaks that occurred naturally after the red fox control started.

One could draw a parallel with the increasing requirement – in particular within medical research – of pre-registering analysis strategies before data become available. Here, it was about agreeing beforehand about possible drivers and pathways.

Improving communication

Another common thread regarded the efficiency of communication between stakeholders and scientists. One mistake we made was underestimating the importance of stakeholder input during development of the communication plan. When developing the more technical components, for instance when constructing models to explain ecosystem dynamics and effects of management actions and climate change, we worked closely with stakeholders.

For communication, however, we opted for websites and newsletters that did not work well. The recent explosion of digital platforms like TEAMS or SLACK has shown that it is quite easy to communicate effectively through such platforms. Still, the communication plan, like other aspects of the strategic foresight, should be discussed early on and reassessed regularly according to the needs of the stakeholders and scientists. In complex cases, professional moderators may be required to help build common understanding of the different objectives and values of stakeholders and scientists.

What’s next?

As emphasised by much research on what makes such collaboration successful on the long term, institutions and governance are crucial.

For marine ecosystems, and in particular the Barents Sea, various institutions have a long tradition of developing management plans that integrate different perspectives. For terrestrial ecosystems, the Climate-ecological Observatory for Arctic Tundra (COAT) has the ambition to provide such a long-term commitment.

One central goal of COAT is to provide assessments of combined effects of climate change and management actions on ecosystem condition, and to develop near-term forecasts as well as exploring the likelihoods of long-term possible states that are relevant for stakeholders. Such endeavours are required to promote further the efforts made with SUSTAIN to build social capital among stakeholders and scientists.

The project SUSTAIN 

“Sustainable management of renewable resources in a changing environment: an integrated approach across ecosystems (SUSTAIN)” was a large, nationally coordinated project among three main research groups at the University of Oslo, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, and UiT The Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø during 2016-2020. SUSTAIN was funded by the Research Council of Norway, while the Fram Centre’s terrestrial flagship contributed additional funding and scientific competences – the latter through active participation of researchers from the Norwegian Polar Institute and the Norwegian Institute of Nature Research. The aim was to determine how climatic changes in combination with other anthropogenic stressors affect different harvested food webs, and how management strategies could be improved to ensure sustainable exploitation and resilience. To facilitate a broad perspective, the project was designed to focus on terrestrial, marine, and freshwater ecosystems in boreal and arctic climate zones within Norway. Arctic case studies focused on populations subjected to harvesting or conservation efforts in food webs of the Barents Sea and the arctic tundra in Svalbard and Finnmark. The strategic foresight framework was suited for this project that aspired at producing outputs applicable to management, which needs to plan for unpredictable future impacts of climatic changes, other stressors, and their interactions.

The strategic foresight process

Strategic foresight involves six steps that explicitly involve a stakeholder panel at each stage. First, scientists and stakeholders must together identify the needs, determine the limits of the system, key issues, and actors to be involved; this scope-setting step includes a wide range of perspectives and alternatives. Second, they gather data and knowledge from various sources and use the past to build a solid understanding for anticipating the future. Third, they integrate data, explore signals, identify drivers, and assess uncertainties with analytical tools and simulations. Fourth, they investigate the impacts of uncertainties and assumptions behind the results, plan scenarios, and explore the consequences of alternative decisions. Fifth, they use structured decision-making to define actions that will enhance chances of reaching the desired future state and overcome potential obstacles across various timeframes. Finally, they implement the strategy and pursue the monitoring of the system to assess how actions are implemented, the consequences of these actions, and the changes in the system that will affect either the objectives or the underlying assumptions of the models. Continued monitoring is thus essential to be able to adapt the strategy when needed.

Further reading

Henden JA, Ims RA, Yoccoz NG, Asbjørnsen EJ, Stien A, Pope Mellard J, Tveraa T, Marolla F, Jepsen JU (2020) End-user involvement to improve predictions and management of populations with complex dynamics and multiple drivers. Ecological Applications 30(6): e02120, https://doi. org/10.1002/eap.2120

EU Commission (2020) Stakeholder inclusion aids adaptive management of wildlife populations, finds ptarmigan study in Norway.

Cook CN, Inayatullah S, Burgman MA, Sutherland WJ, Wintle BA (2014) Strategic foresight: how planning for the unpredictable can improve environmental decision-making. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 9:531-541