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Cornell Lab of Ornithology


Partnerships between local and scientific knowledge

Flickr photo by stuckincustoms,

The growing field of Public Participation in Scientific Research’ is increasingly recognized to have benefits for environmental education and scientific and community-based research. Healthy partnerships between local communities and scientists have the potential to make research more relevant, accurate, complete and capable of positive contributions to local communities.

An online discussion, inspired by a working group at the 2011 workshop on Engaging and Learning for Conservation, addressed four questions, listed below. Each question links to responses summarized by discussion co-host, Anne Toomey.

Additional resources:


What methods have been, or look promising for supporting collaboration between local and scientific knowledge in PPSR? What methods or processes have not worked and why?

Examples of promising methods for collaboration between different types of knowledge came from contributors working with communities in diverse parts of the world.  Karen Matsumoto from the Seattle Aquarium cited a partnership between government agencies and the Coastal Salish indigenous group through the monitoring of water quality and ecosystem conditions along ancestral water highways in British Columbia.  Jonathan Long described some of the benefits of working with youth on an Apache reservation in Arizona, such as their ability to serve as intermediaries between the traditional knowledge of their elders and scientific knowledge learned through formal education.  Pamela Zevit of the South Coast Conservation Program described the use of BioBlitzes to offer a good snapshot of biodiversity in a given area and creating a baseline of information that local interests can add to over time, and Gary Martin of the Global Diversity Foundation discussed an example of Chinantec communities in Oaxaca, Mexico that set up a regional committee for the community-based management of natural resources, using methods such as participatory mapping, focus groups and community video. 
Greg Newman, reporting from the ELOKA conference that took place Nov. 15-17 in Colorado listed some approaches that may help support collaboration between local and scientific knowledge as methods that (1) perpetuate practice, (2) connect people, (3) tell stories, (4) recognize community ownership, (5) provide community access, (6) share information, and (7) compare trends in resource condition over time, space, and discipline.


What assessment tools exist, or could be developed, to investigate the success or failure of these methods?

Jonathan Long posted links from the Terralingua website about useful case studies of efforts focused on bio-cultural diversity conservation and an interesting assessment tool called VITEK, "Vitality Index for Traditional Ecological Knowledge," which is intended to "focus on rating the vitality status of TEK (i.e. inferrable trends of retention or loss over time) within selected groups and allow for relative comparisons of that status among groups at different scales of inclusiveness.” 

What model or models of knowledge do we each implicitly (or explicitly) adhere to, what are the accompanying assumptions, and what do those mean for collaboration between local and scientific knowledge?

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What kind of ‘cultural competence’ is needed to facilitate collaboration between different kinds of knowledge, and how can we continue to learn and grow and gain such competence?

The discussion initially focused on the importance of worldviews and on understanding that different kinds of knowledge are based in the wider practice-belief-value system of a given culture.  Beth Brockett from the Lancaster Environmental Centre reminded us to first take a look in the mirror, and posed the question, “if we, as scientists, do not know about the assumptions, belief-systems and context for the development of 'Western science', how can we properly understand other societies?”

Jonathan Long mentioned the need to understand how certain scientific methods used in experimental design may make little sense to local collaborators whose worldview focuses on the idea of interconnectedness, and that they are likely to be more interested in finding holistic solutions that apply to their context-specific issues than to generate more generalized data.  A member of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada added that the spatial and temporal scales through which different forms of knowledge observe the world are unique – Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge is more localized but can include observations over many generations, while scientific knowledge might be broader in scale but more limited in timeframe – and thus researchers should expect that each knowledge system will detect different patterns and processes.


In addition to the above contributions and others, groups of students and researchers met on several different occasions from both the Lancaster Environmental Centre and the Zoology Department at Cambridge University to discuss the forum questions.  They posted the summaries of those discussions on the forum, which tended to result in a comprehensive and provocative list of key issues and best practices to consider.  They suggest that those of us who are seeking to create partnerships between local and scientific knowledges should:


  1. Be aware that no community is homogeneous, and that every community is unique;
  2. Discuss ideas in a context and language that local people can understand;
  3. Continually question what you are doing and why, and share what you find out with all those involved in the research;
  4. Understand that there is a “continuum of knowledge”, and that it is often not helpful to dichotomise scientific and local knowledge so that they are mutually unrecognizable;
  5. Ask what type of local participation/collaboration is desirable for the specific project;
  6. Ensure to “do no harm”, which requires a commitment to clear communication of the goals and expectations of the project from the initial to the final stages of the research.


Additional questions were raised throughout the two months of discussion, including:

  • What is a good measure of participation or partnership? 
  • What are our motivations for sharing local knowledge?  Why should we participate?
  • Is it possible, or even desirable, to try to bridge or combine different knowledge systems?  Or are they best used to complement one another in a mutually inclusive way?
  • How can synergy between local and scientific knowledge be accomplished in a form more balanced than in the past?

Visit the forum to discuss these questions or related topics, to dig deeper into the responses offered above, to see who is making these comments and connect with them directly, and/or to add your own thoughts and ideas to this community resource.

Flickr photo by stuckincustoms, 

Citizen science, volunteer monitoring, participatory action research... this site supports organizers of all initiatives where public participants are involved in scientific research.

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