Knowledge and learning for policy
A key aim of the Ecolise knowledge and learning strategy is to help address current deficiencies in the evidence base on community-led action on sustainability and climate change that limit its ability to inform policy-related work. Significant deficiencies exist in relation to scope and depth of documentation, mobilisation of existing knowledge, and procedures for generating new knowledge. All of which limit the chances of formulating policy based on robust evidence. Our work seeks to address all these areas, by promoting more coordinated and policy-aware approaches to the creation and sharing of knowledge and information.
Significant volumes of academic research have been undertaken on or relevant to community-led action on sustainability. However, its coverage is patchy, both thematically and geographically. No systematic or coordinated research efforts exist or have been undertaken. Instead, individual projects and programmes choose their geographical and thematic scope based on the interests, expertise contacts and sometimes location of the researchers and research institutions involved. While some initiatives are reasonably well-studied, in large areas of Europe and many areas of community-led action no formal research has been undertaken, nor do any reliable data exist. The knowledge base is thus shaped more by academic fashions and the distribution of grant-raising capacity than policy, practical or indeed intellectual needs. ECOLISE is attempting to address this via networking among and seeking collaboration with appropriate researchers and institutions across Europe, developing the capacity to attain funding for its own research and contribute to that of others, and in doing so join up research effort and align it with practical and policy needs.
Such knowledge and information as exist are fragmented, and dispersed across multiple formats and media, severely limiting accessibility, intelligibility and usability. The priority publication formats for academic researchers remain academic journals and book series, often difficult and/or expensive to access beyond academic institutions and structured and written in ways meaningless outside largely self-referential academic debates. Most EU-funded research projects address requirements for dissemination to non-academic audiences, but in practice this tends to be tokenistic, often an afterthought and neither adequately resourced nor competently executed. ‘Policy briefs’ commonly produced by projects typically do not present policy-relevant information in appropriate formats, and limit themselves to rather general statements that are difficult to operationalise or implement. Dissemination is often limited to project websites of limited time duration. In addition, the time-bounded nature of research projects and pressures on tenured academics to deliver new research grants and on non-tenured researchers to find new jobs guarantees that topic-specific expertise developed during any major research effort is largely lost to whatever research topic happens to be funded next. ECOLISE is addressing the fragmentation, dispersal and inaccessiblity of knowledge by creating and curating a knowledge commons. This will integrate all relevant information from academic, grey and vernacular literatures as mobile and dynamic documents, accessibility written and rigorously evidenced, available on an open source and open access basis to a wide community of co-users and co-creators from academic, practitioner and policy fields. It will form the basis of regular releases (every 2-4 years) of a Status Report on community-led action on sustainability that compiles and synthesises all existing knowledge and translates it into concrete, effective and realistic policy proposals.
Delivery of the above actions, and more general development of an evidence base adequate to inform policy in this area, are hampered by the ways new research is funded and supported, particularly in the EU’s Framework Programmes. Procedures for allocating research funding effectively limit access to funding to organisations able to dedicate substantial volumes of staff time to writing grant applications, and risk that this time is wasted in competitive all-or-nothing processes in which evaluation is often capricious, takes little or no account of work programmes’ relevance to policy or practice, and favours rather conservative research approaches inimical to meaningful involvement of non-academic partners from policy or practice fields. Applications that promote transdisciplinary methodologies integrating academic, practitioner and policy knowledge are systematically discriminated against by evaluators, in ways that undermine the integrity of evaluation procedures and sometimes directly contradict the requirements of call texts. At worst this amounts to basic structural incompetence, at best to co-option of framework programme research by cadres of self-interested academics. Accordingly, ECOLISE is part of a coalition of civil society organisations advocating a shift in funding priorities and allocations and procedures for the Ninth Framework Programme, in particular concerning civil society involvement in agenda-setting and project delivery, in order to make these priorities with rhetoric on ensuring scientific effort responds to social needs and goals.