Socio-scientific research and practice: evaluating outcomes from a transdisciplinary urban water systems project

  • Courtney G. FlintEmail author
  • Kent Taylor Dean
  • Bo Yang
  • Douglas Jackson-Smith
Research Article


The impact of academic research on socio-ecological practice remains elusive. In this paper we assess outcomes of a National Science Foundation-funded project (iUTAH: innovative Urban Transitions in Aridregion Hydro-sustainability) that applied social and engineering water science to increase urban water system sustainability in Utah, the USA. We combined an assessment of published papers and semi-structured interviews with participants to explore the degree to which this effort generated outcomes associated with successful transdisciplinary projects: providing useful products, enhancing the capacity of water system managers, strengthening social and professional networks, and changing water management structures or decisions. Results suggest that efforts to translate published scientific results in more accessible formats, incorporating stakeholders and decision-makers early and throughout the research process, and cultivating personal and professional social ties between researchers and non-academics are all important ways to ensure that research is relevant and impactful on society. The paper ends with a discussion on the need to further bridge gaps between social and engineering water sciences, and how to make science more actionable for socio-ecological problems through socio-scientific practice.


Utah Interdisciplinary integration Stakeholder engagement Social science Engineering science Actionable science 

1 Introduction

It has long been understood that many socio-environmental problems are complex or wicked (Rittel and Webber 1973, p. 160; Xiang 2013, p. 1; Head and Xiang 2016, p. 4). These problems do not have clear definitions, and solutions are illusive and contradictory for different stakeholders. Brown et al. (2010, p. 4) describe the need to go beyond science to address these problems:

Since wicked problems are part of the society that generates them, any resolution brings with it a call for changes in that society. As well as different forms of governance and changes in ways of living, resolution of wicked problems requires a new approach to the conduct of research and to the decision-making based on that research.

In attempts to address wicked problems and their need for new approaches, many contemporary research projects go beyond traditional scientific research to engage stakeholders as collaborators in designing and implementing research and in the development of management solutions to socio-environmental problems. The emerging adaptive, participatory, and transdisciplinary approach, or APT approach (Head and Xiang 2016, p. 4), emphasizes collaboration and innovation with increased attention to shared learning and managing processes for credible responses to issues (Reed et al. 2014, p. 337; Head and Xiang 2016, p. 6).

Yet, to what extent do major investments in scientific institutions and efforts achieve the practice-relevant objectives of these integrated approaches? Do scientific outputs explicitly consider society’s stake in social and environmental problems? To what extent does APT research impact stakeholder decision-making? Questions of this kind pertaining to the efficacy of participatory sustainability and transdisciplinary efforts have received more attention in recent years, and a growing literature drawing on international experiences focuses on design principles and evaluative frameworks for assessing the efficacy of participatory sustainability and transdisciplinary efforts (Walter et al. 2007; Wiek et al. 2012, 2014 Lang et al. 2012). Examining the effects of such projects should focus on the usefulness of products, whether or not the effort enhanced capacities or networks, and if structural changes and actions resulted in the public or organizations (Wiek et al. 2014, p. 121). It is important to look back on APT approaches to see if goals are being achieved (Lang et al. 2012, p. 30). Some evaluative frameworks for transdisciplinary research include, but separate, results useful for societal and scientific practices (Lang et al. 2012, p. 28; Walker et al. 2007, p. 326). Cash et al. (2003, p. 8086) point to the importance of communication and interaction between communities of experts and communities of decision-makers for effective sustainable development. Following this logic, we posit that more integrated or connected societal and scientific outputs and impacts of transdisciplinary or participatory sustainability research are mutually reinforcing and are more indicative of project success. Three premises of successful transdisciplinary research offered by Hubeau et al. (2018, p. 1138) provide useful evaluative guides. These include: (1) incorporation of varying perspectives and disciplines in collaborations, (2) active co-creation of knowledge through collaboration between scientists and societal actors in the design and execution of research, and (3) facilitation of a mutual learning processes that lead to increased legitimacy of and implementation of recommendations emerging from the research.

Herein, we focus on a large project funded by the US National Science Foundation called iUTAH: innovative Urban Transitions in Aridregion Hydro-sustainability ( As part of NSF’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), the iUTAH Project was designed to catalyze research capacity in the USA state of Utah to address water resource sustainability. Utah is the second driest state in the USA (Western Regional Climate Center 2015) and is experiencing rapid population growth and urbanization. These conditions place competing demands on water resources (Flint et al. 2017, p. 2). Water resource problems in Utah, like water issues generally, are by nature complex and wicked (Freeman 2000, p. 484–487). To address these complex water issues, this project was organized around three research focus areas (RFAs): RFA1 emphasized eco-hydrology and the water cycle, RFA2 focused on social and engineering water systems, and RFA3 conducted coupled human–natural systems modeling. This article focuses on RFA2 efforts to expand understanding of the interactions among built water infrastructure, water decision-making, and urban form (Hale et al. 2015, p. 112). This team of researchers and external partners emphasized integrating social and urban processes with biophysical, climatic, and eco-hydrologic dynamics and included the potential role of green infrastructure in reducing water consumption and improving water quality.

While aspirational goals and expectations for transdisciplinary projects are high, they can be difficult to achieve (Fry 2001, p. 162; Muro and Jeffrey 2012). Even the act of compiling the research team can be a wicked problem in and of itself (Norris et al. 2016, p. 117). In this article, we evaluate knowledge implementation by looking back at the iUTAH’s RFA2 project output and experiences to evaluate markers of transdisciplinary or participatory sustainability research success as outlined by Hubeau et al. (2018, p. 1140–1141) and Wiek et al. (2014, p. 120). Specifically, we assess the degree to which the project achieved: (a) a set of publications integrating researchers from diverse disciplines; (b) co-created knowledge as evidenced by inclusion of non-academic authors in publications; (c) mention of societal actors and applications in publications; and (d) mutual learning leading to implementation of research recommendations in societal decisions. The first three items above were assessed by reviewing project publications. By examining the perspectives of researchers and external partners through interviews, we assessed the fourth objective on implementation and the extent to which research participants discuss or highlight useful products (technologies, goods, or publications), enhanced capacity (new knowledge or enhanced understanding), network effects (created or expanded networks and trust), and structural changes and decisions for the public or involved organizations (implemented plans or decisions) (Wiek et al. 2014, p. 121). The sections that follow describe the methods used to review project publications and gather insights from researchers and external partners, highlight results, and discuss lessons learned. While this evaluation focuses on a region-specific project in Utah in the USA, this case is not dissimilar to other efforts around the world and may provide translatable insights that may be useful to consider as future endeavors are conceptualized and implemented.

2 The research process

2.1 Review of peer-reviewed article outputs from iUTAH’s RFA2

To assess the collective scientific contributions from iUTAH’s social and engineering water science, all peer-reviewed articles authored or co-authored and published by iUTAH RFA2 researchers were gathered. This effort yielded 85 articles published between 2012 and July 2018. Non-iUTAH-supported articles were eliminated, yielding 50 articles at the time of review. A coding scheme guided review of each article by two people (see Table 1 for categories). Paraphrased summaries were captured in a spreadsheet, and coded publication information was synthesized thematically and captured in descriptive tables and figures and narrative summaries to describe scientific contributions. A listing of all 50 articles can be found in Appendix A in Supplementary Materials.
Table 1

Coding categories for content analysis of iUTAH RFA2 articles

Coding category


Paper ID

ID number assigned to article


Full citation for article including DOI when available


Does the article fall into the category of social science, engineering science, or integrated science?


Were any authors from non-academic institutions?


What was the objective of the published research?


What methods were used in the paper?


What was the general finding of the research?


What was the major research contribution as framed by the authors?

Stakeholder application

Were any explicit applications for non-academic stakeholders mentioned in the paper?

Future research

What questions were raised in the paper for further research?


What is the geographic focus of the article?

2.2 Interviews on iUTAH’s partnerships and impacts

To assess the experiences and impacts of RFA2’s social and engineering water systems research for both scientific and societal partners, interviews were conducted with researchers and external partners in the final year of the project. Out of the 33 RFA2 researchers, including faculty and graduate students, 7 did not work with external partners and 9 researchers did not respond. Ultimately, 17 researchers participated in semi-structured in-person or phone interviews. Participating researchers were asked to share contact information for external project representatives, and additional interviews were conducted with 13 external partners, yielding a total of 30 interviews for this assessment.

Interview questions asked about research project details, levels of engagement between researchers and partners, perception of any impacts from the research, and the overall experience. Findings reported here reflect perspectives offered from the full set of interviews with in-depth descriptions of four case studies in which 16 people (8 researchers and 8 partners) subsequently agreed to be identified through revised informed consent procedures. The identity of the remaining 14 interviewees remains confidential. We assessed each set of case interviews to evaluate the efforts for the suite of effects of solution-oriented participatory sustainability research offered by Wiek et al. (2014, p. 120–121), particularly looking for impacts attributed to useful products, enhanced capacity, network effects, or structural changes and decisions in the public or organizations.

3 Results

3.1 Disciplinary and beyond-science integration in project output

The 50 articles representing published work from the RFA2 group included 22 categorized as primarily social science, 17 as engineering, and 11 articles combining social and engineering science approaches or emphasizing integrated landscape design and planning. Across these areas, over two-thirds of the papers (34) were co-authored by people within a disciplinary cluster (social science, engineering or physical science, or landscape planning/design) (Table 2). Co-authorship with external stakeholders only occurred in 9 articles.
Table 2

Disciplinary versus cross-disciplinary and external stakeholder authorship

Disciplinary authorship

Cross-disciplinary authorship or external stakeholder authors


# (%) of articles


# of articles

Social science only

10 (20%)

Social and physical/engineering science

4 (8%)

Engineering or physical science only

14 (28%)

Social science and landscape planning/design

3 (6%)

Landscape planning/design only

10 (20%)

Physical/engineering science with external stakeholder

6 (12%)


Social science with external stakeholder

1 (2%)


Landscape planning/design with external stakeholder

1 (2%)


Physical/engineering science and social science with external stakeholder

1 (2%)

Total disciplinary articles

34 (68%)

Total cross-disciplinary articles

16 (32%)

The topics more likely to be addressed by cross-disciplinary author groups or including external partner co-authors were stormwater infrastructure and management, water quality, and various aspects of urban water systems and management. Geographically, nearly two-thirds of the articles (32) focused on Utah or some location within the state. While iUTAH was focused on water resources in the state of Utah, the goal of building water research capacity led to related work focused on other contexts. Nine articles focused on places beyond Utah, and nine articles were either not geographically focused or were globally inclusive. Nearly all articles (45 or 90%) were focused on urban water issues or set in urban areas, not surprising given iUTAH’s urban focus.

Reviewing the content of the articles revealed that over half of the reviewed articles (28 or 56%) made an explicit reference to research applications for stakeholders or decision-makers, though this was found in a single sentence in most articles. Within these articles, decision-makers (or governments and institutions) were most often mentioned, followed by water system managers, stakeholders or the general public, and landscape or urban planners or architects (see Table 3). Furthermore, while the focus of most articles was on water management, the articles rarely provided suggestions for how stakeholder or water managers might be able to use the research findings in their work.
Table 3

Societal entities mentioned in articles as audiences for information or application (percentages are out of the total 50 articles)






No societal entities mentioned

8 (16%)

9 (18%)

5 (10%)

22 (44%)

Societal entities mentioned in articles

17 (34%)

9 (18%)

8 (16%)

28 (56%)

Decision-makers, government, and institutions

7 (14%)

3 (6%)

4 (8%)

14 (28%)

Water system managers

3 (6%)

6 (12%)

0 (0%)

9 (18%)

Stakeholders or general public

5 (10%)

0 (0%)

2 (4%)

7 (14%)

Landscape or urban architects and planners

2 (4%)

0 (0%)

2 (4%)

4 (8%)

3.2 Experiences of researchers and external partners

Transcripts from interviews with researchers and external partners were analyzed thematically and synthesized for common expressions of project experiences. Subsequently, these transcripts were analyzed using the framework offered by Wiek et al. (2014, p. 120–121) on effects of solution-oriented participatory sustainability research (useful products, enhanced capacity, network effects, and structural changes or decisions) (see Table 4). Additional challenges mentioned consistently by participants were added to this framework. Sixteen of the researchers and external partners are highlighted in the case studies on specific projects below, but first, insights are offered from the full set of interviews.
Table 4

Summary of challenges and participation impacts from iUTAH projects (framework adapted from Wiek et al. 2014, p. 121)



Case 1: Logan, Utah, Green Infrastructure and Stormwater Management

Case 2: Utah Household Surveys and Water Use Data

Case 3: Water Sustainability at Weber State University

Case 4: Three Creeks Confluence Project


Different motivations, work styles, time constraints and incentives; partners not often involved early enough

City funding and time constraints; city did not receive project reports or results; scientific articles not useful

None mentioned

None mentioned

None mentioned

Useful products

Researchers provide information (reports, presentations), but some mentioned too often not provided or not useful

New efforts to get information to users

Presentations, reports, and survey data given to municipalities; information provided to support decisions

Presentation on study findings

Survey findings presented to partners

Enhanced capacity

Researchers provide capacity and confidence to inform decision-making

Better understanding of how native plants help with stormwater management and pollutant removal; changed city perspectives

Provided Riverton, Utah, with data to support awareness and decisions

Allowed intstitutional access to knowledge, theory, technical information, and resources from academic world

Partnership added survey capacity, provided better understanding of a missing demographic, and helped build awareness in community

Network effects

External partners serve as gatekeepers, providing access to info, other partners, and resources; communication essential to building trust and interest

Research–city relationship through communication, consultation, involvement, and collaboration allowing discussions to take place among communities

Building trusting relationship allowed researchers access to sensitive water use data

Collaboration on survey to assess campus water sustainability perspectives; resources, data, and information flowed in both directions

Researchers reached out to see what information would be useful and how to encourage diverse participation

Structural changes and decisions


Changed city practices on plants for stormwater management

Riverton, Utah, decided to change water supply away from well water to address quality concerns; reinforced South Jordan, Utah, decisions

Findings led to training opportunities, allocation of money and resources for landscaping and xeriscaping, smart irrigation system, hiring water conservation specialist, and long-term campus water plan

Survey findings were used to develop designs for green infrastructure project; set new standard for engaging the community

Overall, researchers and external partners revealed keen insights into their project relationships and experiences. Researchers often need strong relationships with external partners to conduct impactful research. External partners act as gatekeepers and provide access to important local information, other partners, and resources that may otherwise be unobtainable. Alternatively, researchers can provide external partners with additional capacity and confidence to inform decision-making. Project interviews revealed that different motivations, work styles, time constraints, and incentives present barriers for people working in academic and professional organizations to interact effectively and ensure effective translation of research into practice. As a result, external partners were not always involved early enough to infuse projects with real-world questions and constraints. Typical outputs of scientific research (such as peer-reviewed articles) were rarely useful to practitioners, and there were too few follow-through efforts to provide partners with project findings. Even when external partners were invited to provide input in early research stages, personnel turnover challenged maintenance of relationships and sustaining awareness of the project among practitioners.

The overall set of interviews also showed that communication throughout the research process was viewed as essential. One external partner’s remark is indicative of a common sentiment on how important it is to work together, “up front, really establishing roles and goals of the research and our expectations as well as meeting what the researcher wants as well.” Working together and communicating well from the beginning builds trust and interest among researchers and external partners. A broad portfolio of final research products, including reports and presentations with accessible information for diverse and less technical audiences, was appreciated by practitioners. Clarifying expectations and desired roles is a critical early step and should be revisited over time. The following four case study summaries shed light on some key impacts of engaged research on stakeholder actions and decisions, as well as inherent challenges.

3.2.1 Case 1: Green Infrastructure and Stormwater Management in Logan, Utah

For years, Utah State University (USU) researchers worked locally in Logan, Utah, on stormwater management and the efficacy of green infrastructure practices to reduce urban runoff and improve water quality. Local study sites established in partnership with city engineers include a bioretention area with treatment bays to better understand how native plants can help with stormwater management and pollutant removal. Professor Ryan Dupont described the research–city relationship on stormwater and green infrastructure research, “We communicated with them, we consulted with them, we involved them in the construction and have collaborated with them on the work.” However, Dupont didn’t believe the city had taken subsequent actions. An interview with the Logan City engineers, Bill Young and Lance Houser, shed additional light on the researcher–city relationship and illuminated gaps between academic research and local water resource management. Young described the city’s collaboration goals:

What we were hoping to get out of it is if we got more involved with having to provide on-site treatment of stormwater within the detention retention basins that get constructed around the city, what kind of things could we do through plant uptake to reduce target pollutants? And what would be our biggest bang for the buck vegetation-wise for this area?

Houser mentioned that they expected they would, “see something come back as a result, you know, copies of results or reports of what happened.” However, research was published in scientific articles and the engineers didn’t recall receiving reports or results. Houser did describe more recent communication improvements, saying “They tried to pull in the users in together to get information and feedback on their research and stuff. And so, I think it’s starting to come down from here down to the working level.”
Young spoke about the different conditions between research and practice:

Let’s face it, when you’re in academia you’re working with unconstrained budgets, anything goes. It’s a utopia in my mind, you know, what you come up with and what you can do. Actually, implementing it in the field is a little more difficult or restrictive. Maybe not difficult, but it’s more restrictive either from time, funding… We start hitting additional constraints.”

Despite concerns about gaps between research and city information needs, Young described the value of having a close relationship with particular researchers. When asked about whether their collaboration with university researchers has had an impact on any city decisions, Houser said:

Have we changed our practices? In a way, yeah. It’s led us to... We went to grass and did the test grass swale up on third east between ninth and tenth north. … It’s opened our eyes. It’s changed our perspectives. But it’s been difficult getting to an applied situation where most of the treatment facilities being designed are being done by facilities. Their biggest concern is cost and we kind of find ourselves trying to force the issue.

Despite challenges, the Logan engineers mentioned that iUTAH provided opportunities for other communities regarding green infrastructure and developing alternative water sources through stormwater harvesting, as Houser described, “I think it’s opening arms. It’s forcing discussions. It’s allowing discussions to take place.”

3.2.2 Case 2: Utah Household Surveys and Water Use Data

A major iUTAH social science effort involved administering surveys to over 4000 households across 23 neighborhoods in 11 municipalities to gather information on water attitudes and water use across northern Utah (Jackson-Smith et al. 2016, p. 45; Flint et al. 2017, p. 5). The survey was designed with input from municipal and state leaders. After conducting surveys, researchers presented findings to state and city leaders and launched a second research phase in partnership with municipalities to integrate their household water use billing records with survey data. The sequential nature of this project helped develop relationships between researchers and external partners as described by USU Professor Douglas Jackson-Smith:

At the back end of the survey, we went to every single one of these places and gave presentations, sometimes two, to elected officials, usually the city council and the mayor, and we got on their calendar and we tried to customize presentations and reports and put things in their hands that we thought were relevant and actionable.

By interacting with local leaders, researchers realized the potential of integrating survey data with actual water use data, but needed municipalities to provide these sensitive data. Jackson-Smith hoped building trusting relationships early in the project would “help significantly advance and reshape the conversations about what [cities] should be doing about water issues.” City response was positive and Jackson-Smith described ongoing partnerships:

They seemed very appreciative that we were making the effort. I think it’s more often that researchers don’t actually deliver on promises to present and have conversation. The beauty of that is it gave us a tangible thing to do that is connected to the survey. The fact that we have trusting relationships and we have the ability to use our data together with their data to answer things seems to be drawing a lot more attention.

In Riverton, Utah, the combined survey and water use data influenced city water decisions about a long-standing problem with bad-tasting water and water supply. The household survey findings showed strong negative perceptions about the city’s drinking water quality and in conjunction with the water use data, helped persuade the city to switch water supply away from well water. Regarding impacts from the water use project, Riverton Water Resources Engineer Dan Woodbury said:

I think awareness is probably the best think that’s come out of that. Trying to help us in our efforts to promote conservation across the city. And a lot of city council members, just give them a little better information, more informed about the types of usage that’s here in the city. You know, it was nice to have actual survey data from residents here in Riverton and then also be able to compare it against other cities in Utah.

Woodbury said the research data helped to manage a “real-life situation.”
Water Conservation Coordinator for South Jordan City, Jordan Allen, also described collaboration on water use data as a positive experience:

They gave us quite a bit of good information on practical ways to help our residents conserve water, save water. Things we could do different as an entity to maybe get that out a little better to have a better plan of how to attack the water saving that we’re trying to achieve. … What’s really funny is a lot of the stuff that we kind of came to a conclusion from, we were already starting to work on before we had the collaboration or the consultation with USU. But after seeing their results, it just kind of reinforced or confirmed what we were going to do which made our decision-making process a little easier. You know, to say ‘Okay, we have proof and the data that this is actually going to work. This is going to change things for us.’ So, yeah, it was helpful in that regard.

Post-doctoral researcher Melissa Haeffner described the concerted effort to build relationships with city partners:

We wanted to create and establish rapport between the cities that the university already has had, but we wanted to make a stronger process of university researchers interacting, studying with managers. … This is a very novel way of doing science because it’s bringing in people outside of the traditional science community into, actually, every single process step throughout the research study.

3.2.3 Case 3: Water Sustainability at Weber State University

iUTAH researchers and faculty members at Weber State University (WSU) led a project on campus water sustainability. Researchers initially sought to study campus perceptions and actions on water sustainability. Dr. Carla Trentelman said, “We wanted to know, What’s the real picture? What are we actually doing at Weber State where water is concerned and water sustainability, water conservation?” After interviewing individuals associated with sustainability and facilities management on campus, a community-based research project was launched. Student-led focus groups asked what university representatives would like to know and what would be useful. This led to a survey assessing campus water sustainability perspectives. When asked about their level of involvement, Jenn Bodine from the Energy and Sustainability Office (ESO) said, “We helped them kind of with what questions we wanted to have answered, but we didn’t determine the methodology at all.” Jacob Cain, WSU’s Operations Director from Facilities Management, described his involvement:

I saw myself mostly as informational. You know, that was kind of my primary role and just helping them understand what we do, how we operate, you know kind of giving them some trade background and experience on you know real world practices and experiences and challenges you face… providing them resources and data and information.

Presenting preliminary findings water management staff had immediate impacts as Trentelman recalled:

By that afternoon I got cc’d on an email from one of the Energy and Sustainability staff who were already using our findings to set up some training opportunities for other entities on campus. So, the class got to see immediate returns… and got to see they were implementing this stuff from day one.

Research findings generated awareness of WSU’s water sustainability attitudes and actions. Previously, campus administrators assumed people expected a grass-based campus, but project findings suggested support for more natural, water-conserving landscapes. As a result, Bodine said permission was given to “start putting money and resources and effort into education and signage and stuff like that on campus.” She added that the research led to hiring a WSU water manager, saying “We decided at the time to hire a part-time water conservation specialist to start gathering data and start going down that road, which then led to creating a full-time permanent position.” The project also led to the installation of a smart irrigation system and a long-term campus water plan.

Partners provided positive feedback on the collaborative research. Bodine said, “I feel like our feedback was incorporated and listened to and that we got out of it what we wanted to… I mean I think it went better than even I had anticipated and hoped.” Cain said:

It was a good process… where you have this administrative, business side of the university and you have this academic piece… There’s good opportunities and cross collaboration across those two worlds. … I think people were open-minded.

Cain summarized the project’s impacts, saying “It allowed us in the maintenance world to leverage some of the knowledge and kind of theory and technical stuff and resources that the academia world has to offer.” In follow-up, Trentelman shared that WSU saved 23 million gallons of secondary water in 2017 over 2016 usage, despite the hottest July on record at that time. Project researcher Dr. Dan Bedford led a subsequent project to assess microclimate effects of xeriscaping. Building on previous relationships and with the newly established campus water manager, he described impacts of direct communication pathways with campus decision-makers:

That was great. We had broken the ice with him because as part of doing background work for the uncovering attitudes project, Carla and I had conducted some fairly extensive interviews with people in Facilities Management. So, we had already established a relationship. It wasn’t a cold call type thing. And, following on with the microclimate project, the person we were working with was terrific, incredibly responsive, very engaged. Helped me identify some sites that we could conduct the measurements on. We really worked quite closely together on establishing the whole, sort of, measurement routine. So yes, it was a very positive experience.

Findings from the xeriscaping project continue to influence landscaping decisions at WSU.

3.2.4 Case 4: Three Creeks Confluence Project

The Three Creeks Confluence green infrastructure project works to “daylight” the confluence of three creeks with the Jordan River and bring added value to a park in that location. Daylighting brings underground creeks or buried culvert water to the surface. Seven Canyons Trust (SCT), a nonprofit organization focused on restoring riparian areas, and Salt Lake City Office of Parks and Public Lands (OPPL) collaborated with iUTAH researchers to set a new standard for community engagement in the area.

USU Professor Mark Brunson described how standard public “open houses” were held in the community before the collaboration, but didn’t draw many participants from the local neighborhood: “What they get at those things are Anglo community residents and various government officials, all of an age. … So, they knew that they weren’t really engaging with the broader public.” In response, iUTAH researchers, in collaboration with Tyler Murdoch from Salt Lake City’s OPPL and Brian Tonetti from SCT, used public intercept surveys to gather local resident perspectives on stream daylighting and desired park features. USU graduate student Taya Carothers described the collaborative effort:

I did a lot of work before developing the research, meeting people, doing a lot of outreach to see what kinds of questions we might use for the survey and then to get some input and advice on how we might carry out the survey in order to get the broadest and most diverse group of people to take it.

Tyler Murdoch described the city’s collaborative intentions:

We wanted to reach a broader demographic that we don’t typically reach, specifically the Hispanic Latino demographic…. We don’t have the capacity to be doing numerous outreach events, and so partnering with USU and iUTAH just gave us more capacity to have people throughout the summer at various events. … to go out and find out what the people want.

Surveys were conducted in English and Spanish at summer public events. Brunson described the research findings:

The community as a whole was much more interested in development. You know, they wanted better access to the river, they wanted fishing access, they wanted a pedestrian bridge, they wanted a pond, they wanted, you know, a cross walk. Latino individuals, people who lived close by are more likely to visit parks in the west side than Anglo respondents. Part of what that did is it gave the Parks Department and then their consulting firm doing the actual design information about what the community wanted.

Carothers described research impacts on the Three Creeks Confluence Project, saying “They used our information to develop three different designs based on feedback that our survey provided.” Murdoch said OPPL used the results to “demonstrate that they did a good job of public engagement and that people were supportive of this particular project,” and added:

I would say in some ways it set a new standard for how we engage the community. …

I think the greatest benefit for the research they did for us was it provided a representative sample of the Glendale community. And I think it was rather eye opening for us to see how we were really missing a demographic. … This was really really valuable to look at the voices we’re seeing and how they represent the community and take that and apply that to all of our projects when we see that throughout the city.

Tonetti described the value of the research in building awareness within the community:

I think it’s pretty cool to get people to understand the sort of gravity and context of that stormwater system sort of in their daily life, teaching people that what they put down the storm drain ultimately ends up in their waterways and we sort of have this underground network of streams and creeks and natural systems that we don’t see every day. … I think it’s the demonstration project to the potential of daylighting. It’s our first project that we really have led the implementation.

The collaboration experience also increased capacity to support a community-based green infrastructure design project.

4 Discussion

The articles and interviews reviewed above indicate considerable movement toward shared learning and managing processes for credible societal responses to issues that are the basis for the APT approach (Head and Xiang 2016, p. 4). Our analysis of the RFA2 team’s peer-reviewed research outputs demonstrates considerable success at collectively including the perspectives of diverse disciplinary scientists and focusing research on a series of theoretical and empirical puzzles related to an overarching applied urban water sustainability puzzle. However, only about one-third of the project’s articles were co-authored by diverse disciplinary teams or included external stakeholders as co-authors. Further, stakeholder-driven questions were less prominent than previous scientific literature and disciplinary theory as underlying motivations for specific research questions, and a minority of the published articles outlined specific actionable policy- or practice-relevant recommendations. The published scientific output from iUTAH’s social and engineering water science endeavors does not alone demonstrate a strong record of co-production of knowledge or practice-focused research. Not surprisingly, peer-reviewed journal articles from the project mainly included information about scientific methods and results, and the language is technical and not well translated for use by a broader audience. None of the non-university collaborators in the interviews pointed to peer-reviewed publications as an important touchstone for informing applied water management decisions. The low rate of co-authorship with non-academics may also help explain the lack of translational quality in these pieces. It is worth noting, however, that practical implications of some RFA2 published researches were also disseminated through parallel technical reports and fact sheets, websites, and oral presentations made with project partners. In summary, the peer-reviewed scientific output from iUTAH’s social and engineering water science can be viewed as making some progress in terms of co-created, interdisciplinary, and societally relevant research, with considerable room for further development.

On the other hand, interviews with researchers and external partners reveal numerous cases where iUTAH’s social and engineering water science had important impacts on stakeholder decisions. The four cases described above highlight examples of more robust researcher–partner relationships and collaborations than was apparent from the peer-reviewed journal outputs. The case studies point to the important role of personal relationships, in-person meetings, and efforts by scientists to maintain contact and share information with stakeholder partners throughout the research process. Efforts to translate and present research findings to water managers were particularly appreciated. It is clear that publication in peer-reviewed outlets rarely reaches the societal actors whose decisions the research was intended to inform. Technical reports and fact sheets are helpful, but personal interactions appear to be more important mechanisms to ensure research has societal impact. Some of RFA2’s most impactful work reflected instances where stakeholders and decision-makers were brought in at an early stage of research design to help provide input into research questions, methods, and interpretation of findings.

When compared to the benchmarks outlined in the transdisciplinary research literature, particularly by Wiek et al. (2014, p. 120–121) and Hubeau et al. (2018, p. 1138), the RFA2 effort appears to have generated some useful products, but is most notable for enhancing the capacity of scientists and decision-makers and for building stronger networks between academic scientists and their real-world practitioner partners. The project was particularly successful at improving levels of scientific integration and interdisciplinarity among social scientists, landscape planners, and civil and environmental engineers across Utah’s major public universities. However, there was less evidence of high levels of collaboration and co-learning between researchers and stakeholders. Most stakeholders interviewed for this paper were only modestly involved in RFA2 (or overall iUTAH) research efforts. That said, efforts made to reach out to and meet with local water managers generated generally positive experiences and improved communication between scientists and practitioners. Moreover, where researchers were able to translate and share their results with stakeholders, there is evidence of increased awareness of findings and impacts on water resource management decisions. These findings highlight the need to further incentivize and support efforts to build stronger engagement among researchers, stakeholders, and water system managers. This may be easier said than done, since such efforts will need to overcome well-documented barriers to collaboration. Clarifying the motivation and goals of all parties and communicating well throughout the course of engaged research is essential to building the trust needed to support impactful outcomes.

These findings are synergistic with the principles for effective knowledge exchange articulated by Reed et al. (2014, p. 341). The first principle, design, suggests the early and consistent involvement of research users and stakeholders in planning for how project goals will be met (Reed et al. 2014, p. 339). Second, representing diverse stakeholders, including co-authorship, is important for both project design and implementation (Reed et al. 2014, p. 341). Third, establishing a “culture of knowledge exchange” through active and informal engagement is key to an adaptive process (Reed et al. 2014, p. 341). Fourth, research impact depends on an array of project outputs beyond scientific journal articles. Fifth, Reed et al. (2014, p. 342) highlight the importance of reflecting on and sustaining project interactions by working together. In other words, it is critical to integrate the societal and scientific aspects of transdisciplinary efforts.

The combined picture of socio-ecological practice research offered by iUTAH’s social and engineering water science suggests a continued need to better integrate the outcomes and usefulness of transdisciplinary efforts for both society and science. Conceptual frameworks of the ideal–typical transdisciplinary research process offered by Walter et al. (2007, p. 326) and Lang et al. (2012, p. 28) suggest it can be common for results directed toward the scientific community to be different from those which are useful for societal practice. Based on our review of scientific outputs and societal use of project information from one major collaborative, interdisciplinary project, we suggest that the scientific research and publication process could be better integrated as shown in Fig. 1. Scientific publications should, where possible, explicitly discuss the relevant societal applications of the science. Co-authoring articles with practitioners could increase opportunities to co-create knowledge and to situate science in applied, decision-making contexts. The weaknesses of the iUTAH project reflect common challenges associated with limited time, resources, and different reward systems within academic and non-academic institutions that mitigate against collaboration. By bringing stakeholders and decision-makers into the research projects earlier and sustaining those collaborations throughout the project and through to scientific publication, there are greater opportunities to more successfully address complex or wicked societal problems through socio-scientific inquiry. In other words, we advocate for a more integrated socio-scientific practice in both process and outcomes of transdisciplinary or participatory sustainability research.
Fig. 1

Integrated socio-scientific practices through transdisciplinary research.

Adapted from Lang et al. (2012)

As part of our analysis of the peer-reviewed articles, and in the spirit of looking ahead to future socio-scientific integration to address complex, or wicked problems of our time, we collated key future research questions and recommendations identified in RFA2’s work (see Appendix A in Supplementary Materials). Interestingly, the list of lingering puzzles and future research questions mentioned in many of the RFA2 publications provides a constructive road map for charting future collaborative efforts to address urban water sustainability in the study region. A number of articles specifically identified a need to incorporate better the perspectives and knowledge from stakeholders and managers with different expertise, and to develop usable tools and methods through greater input from users. We do not suggest such steps need to always be incorporated into scientific inquiry, but our research suggests increased efforts along these lines would support transdisciplinary socio-ecological research efforts and lead to more integrated outcomes.

5 Conclusions

Over the six-year life of the project, the social and engineering team associated with the iUTAH project engaged in a broad range of research designed to help water managers improve the sustainability of urban water systems in the arid Wasatch Front of Northern Utah. While applied knowledge was a prominent goal from the beginning of the project, we found mixed evidence for whether the project succeeded at generating the hallmarks of successful transdisciplinary research: providing useful products, enhancing the capacity of water system managers, strengthening social and professional networks, and changing water management structures or decisions (Wiek et al. 2014, p. 120–121). Notably, the bulk of the tangible outputs from the research appeared in peer-reviewed journals and other academic venues, and few of the published papers either involved collaborations with non-university partners or focused explicitly on applied implications of the research findings. Interviews with scientists and stakeholder partners involved in the project point to the importance of translating peer-reviewed research into messages and products that are more accessible and useful to water managers. Beyond research outputs, efforts to include non-academic partners early and throughout the research process appear to be critical mechanisms to ensuring greater societal impact from research. Moreover, the social and professional networks built during projects provide formal and informal opportunities for greater sharing of data and identification of research needs that could increase the relevance and impact of major university-led research projects. These findings reinforce Hubeau et al.’s (2018, p. 1138) premises of successful transdisciplinary research, particularly the need to integrate multiple disciplinary and beyond-science perspectives through collaboration and mutual learning. The ultimate goal of transdisciplinary socio-ecological research is to support societal decision-making to better manage complex issues. The iUTAH project’s social and engineering water science efforts highlight both advances and continuing challenges.



This work was supported by the National Science Foundation under EPSCoR Grant 1208732 awarded to Utah State University as part of the State of Utah EPSCoR Research Infrastructure Improvement Award. Opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. The authors thank interview participants for their time and contributions.

Supplementary material

42532_2019_7_MOESM1_ESM.docx (32 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 33 KB)


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Utah State UniversityLoganUSA
  2. 2.University of ArizonaTucsonUSA
  3. 3.Ohio State UniversityWoosterUSA

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