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Sustainable Science Partnerships: Belief is the First Step

hutchinsmunicipalResearchers at the Sustainability Solutions Initiative (SSI) have broken new ground in the pursuit to better understand how sustainable science partnerships between municipalities and universities can be successful.

The key ingredient: belief.

In a large survey of Maine municipal officials, the factor that made stakeholders most likely to consider a problem-solving partnership with a university was personal belief that such a venture held value. Neither the severity of a particular local problem nor its financial burden on the community was as big an influence.

Building research ties has been a challenge for universities and municipalities alike. Misunderstandings, wrong assumptions and difficulty finding common connections have added up to frustration and missed opportunities. Researchers at SSI want to build new models, to rethink partnerships from the inside out. The municipal study by SSI’s Knowledge to Action Collaborative springs from the heart of that mission, one that seeks to evaluate universities themselves as thoroughly as any outside entity. The approach led to surprising results.

“Municipal officials who expressed interest in partnerships with universities have something in common: belief that these partnership will help solve local problems. It is the key factor and provides universities with a context in which to reach out to potential local partners,” said Karen Hutchins Bieluch of SSI’s Knowledge to Action Collaborative and the lead author of the study. The research was part of Bieluch’s doctoral dissertation and was advised by Knowledge to Action team co-leaders Laura Lindenfeld, Associate Professor of Communication and Journalism and the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center and Linda Silka, Director of the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center and Professor of Economics. The study was funded by Lindenfeld’s and Silka’s group. 

Bieluch, Visiting Assistant Professor of Communications and Journalism, and colleagues sent surveys to more than 2,400 municipal officials in Maine and had an astounding response, with over 1,000 surveys returned. About 86 percent of Maine municipalities are represented in the survey results. The team wanted to find out what issues these important stakeholders were facing and what they were looking for in a university partnership – if they were looking for one at all. One of the study’s main objectives, says Bieluch, was to make no assumptions about what Maine towns and cities wanted or needed. 

Published in August issue of the journal Sustainability, the study comes at a time when community-university partnerships have never been more essential. Climate change, booming development and natural resource protection bind sustainable science to on-the-ground realities. The Knowledge to Action Collaborative and many other SSI teams are working with municipalities around the state to find creative solutions to complex problems such as storm water overflow, sustainable energy and protection of threatened ecosystems. It’s just a beginning, researchers say. There are still many unknowns 

Thanks to Bieluch and colleagues there are a few less unknowns. Here are some of their other important findings:

  • Municipal leaders were more apt to be interested in a university partnership if there were severe problems within the community – but only if those problems were economically based. Social, policy, and environmental problems did not elicit the same level of interest 
  • Distance is an important cost consideration when thinking about entering a partnership. Municipal officials from municipalities farther away from universities and colleges reported lower interest levels in partnerships.
  • Prior experience working with researchers was a strong indicator in favor of a stakeholder’s willingness to develop partnerships.

These last two points are of concern, Bieluch says. They add up to a real hurdle for universities when reaching out to distant communities

“How do we increase interactions with these communities when living far away is negatively related to interest? Without overcoming the distance piece, we may have a harder time increasing experience,” Bieluch said.

She knows universities can’t be everywhere, but says the survey provides researchers with information necessary to face the challenges head on. Overall, Bieluch says the study can help change the way scientists and university officials approach towns and cities 

“The results show us that science, even great, solid science, is not enough to get people interested in working with those of us in higher education,” she said. “We have to understand what, specifically, is important to them, relevant to them, and then we’ll be able to develop partnerships that are meaningful to all of us – partnerships that will help us tackle pressing problems facing Maine and the country as a whole.”

Bieluch’s SSI co-authors are: Lindenfeld, Silka, Kathleen Bell, Associate Professor of Economics and Jessica Leahy, Associate Professor of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources.

Supported by National Science Foundation award EPS-0904155 to Maine EPSCoR at the University of Maine.

Get more information on the Knowledge to Action Collaborative