Guide to Collaborative Science


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Old Woman Creek Reserve in Ohio. Photo credit G. Wright.

What Is Collaborative Science?

Our preferred definition: Collaborative science is a knowledge co-creation process that informs natural resource management decisions by involving scientists, managers, communities, and others to advance understanding in a manner that none of them working alone could accomplish.

Collaborative science is fundamentally about advancing knowledge about socio-ecological systems in a way that enables better-informed management, planning and policy decisions. It recognizes the complexity of these systems and the reality that, to have impact, knowledge generation must be designed to help inform responses to pressing management needs.

Collaborative science also recognizes that sometimes knowledge may already exist but it is dispersed and/or not readily accessible in a form that is useful for managers, decision-makers, and communities. To be usable, it needs to be collected, analyzed, and/or translated.

Let’s break down a few of those terms.

Knowledge co-creation is an inclusive term for collaborative efforts to develop new information and tools.

This can include collaborative research efforts with rigorous research methods that are guided by the information needs of intended users. The term can also refer to projects that are engaging different types of experts, community leaders, and other users to generate new training curriculum, educational materials, or policy analysis.

Intended users or end users are the target recipients of the products of a collaborative science project.

An end user is defined as a person or group in a position to apply the information or tools being produced, evaluated, or transferred through a project in a way that is of direct consequence to the ecological, social, cultural, or economic integrity of the natural resource. Examples of end users include, but are not limited to, reserve staff and public, private, or nongovernmental decision/policy makers, including Indigenous governments, landowners, regulators, resource managers, land use planners, leaders of impacted communities, and educators at all levels. Collaborative science practitioners work hard to build relationships and understand the needs of all potential end users. And a small set of representative end users typically participate in projects to ensure the project addresses their decision-making needs.

Informing natural resource management decisions and action is a central purpose of all collaborative science projects.

For example, a project could work closely with a state agency to test a suite of locally appropriate living shoreline techniques to help regulators decide how and when to permit living shorelines. Or a project might provide locally relevant outreach tools to help community leaders understand and talk about the risks and options related to storm impacts.

Why choose this approach?

Successful collaborative science is inclusive, builds on a foundation of strong relationships, and rewards a mindset grounded in respect, inclusivity, humility, patience, and reciprocity (see: Collaborative Science Mindset and Principles).

The National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS) excels at the practice of collaborative science and has pioneered many techniques that make it successful. As you explore this guide, you will find observations and lessons learned from collaborative science projects supported by the National Estuarine Research Reserve System’s Science Collaborative Program since 2010. 

We encourage you to take the guidance provided here and make it your own, modifying it as needed to best fit your circumstances. We also encourage you to reach out to us with feedback on how to improve and expand upon this resource. 

This guide distills key observations and lessons learned from Collaborative Science projects funded by the NOAA NERRS Science Collaborative Program. Copyright 2022. For questions or permissions, please contact

Citation: NOAA National Estuarine Research Reserve System Science Collaborative. Guide to Collaborative Science. 2022.