Guide to Collaborative Science


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Define Your Project’s Purpose

Be mindful of what has been done in the past, what is of interest now, and the level of coordination and momentum around different ideas.

What exactly could your collaborative science project do, generate, or achieve to address the management needs you see? Try to identify the next logical step for the issue and end users, knowing there will likely be more to do down the road.

  Tip: Keep your project simple, focused, and manageable

This is a key piece of advice for all stages of a collaborative science project. Sometimes this means breaking down the complexity of a challenging problem into manageable pieces. At the scoping stage, this can be focusing on a specific information gap, or on a product or tool that is needed to inform and catalyze action. This does not mean losing sight of the complexity of the larger issue —  in fact, you should name it. Instead, you should focus the work in a way that makes meaningful progress towards addressing the issue at hand. If necessary, teams can sequence a project to address multiple complex aspects over time.

Remember that a significant portion of your project's work will be dedicated to ensuring a meaningful level of collaboration with partners and end users. It is important to keep your technical work focused and realistic in scope. It can be tempting to articulate grand goals, but funders, as well as partners, will be considering the feasibility of your plans. A focused project can be equally or more compelling to potential partners and funders, and all subsequent stages of your planning and execution will be easier.

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  Tip: Articulate the core purpose of your project

Identifying the core purpose of your project can help sharpen the focus of the project objectives you draft for a proposal. In addition, once you have identified the core purpose you can more easily design an approach and structure a project to best achieve those objectives, as you will see in the Design Your Project section of this guide.

We have noticed that the objectives of our Science Collaborative projects tend to fall into one of four categories. Even though a proposal might lay out several related objectives, the emphasis of the core work falls primarily into one of these:

  1. Producing new science to inform management
  2. Developing tools to foster the application of science
  3. Generating policy and planning guidance
  4. Sharing knowledge and advancing coordination and action

To spark and deepen your thinking, we describe each of these four types of project objectives in the table below and offer links to project examples from the NERRS Science Collaborative project catalog. See also the Resource below for example problem statements.

The categories of management needs below are based on observations of Science Collaborative projects supported between 2010 and 2020, but it should have relevance beyond our program. Although example projects likely had a couple related objectives, we have found it helpful to elevate the core purpose of the work, which in turn shaped design and management of the project.

Four Categories of Management Needs

1. A need for new science to fill critical gaps in knowledge about an ecosystem’s structure, dynamics, and functioning.

New science projects fill gaps in knowledge that are currently impeding action on a pressing management need. They are primarily scientific research processes intended to improve understanding of a socioecological system so that management actions may be informed by science. While some of these projects may include a tool, a model, or planning/policy guidance as one of their products, the primary purpose of these processes is to create new science. The complexity of these processes depends on the technical, ecological, cultural, and social complexity of the management need and its context and scale. Projects in this category require rigorous research and collaborative processes to ensure that the specific management needs are understood, the research questions are explicitly framed to address those needs, and project products have a form and content tailored for users’ application.

Project Examples

2. A need for new tools, models or protocols that will enable improved monitoring, assessments, and management actions.

The primary purpose of new tools, models, or protocols projects is to couple existing science and, at times, new research to develop a tool, model, or protocol that can be used to help guide management decisions and future research. All of these projects engage end users in an iterative, highly interactive manner throughout the process. Sustained engagement of intended users enables them to inform and test the products to ensure that they are tailored to the management need and usable by the intended users.

Project Examples

3. A need for science to be consolidated, synthesized, downscaled, and translated into a form that provides planning and policy guidance that will lead to improved management decisions.

Projects with a planning and policy guidance purpose enable communities, landowners, resource users, planners, Indigenous partners, elected officials, and others to learn from existing science — and sometimes undertake new research — explicitly to develop planning and policy guidance that will influence future management decisions.

Project Examples

4. A need for knowledge sharing and coordination that can expand understanding of systems and their stressors, enable transfer and adaptation of knowledge in new places, and build support for management actions.

Knowledge sharing and coordination projects enable collaboration between researchers, managers, agencies, communities, Indigenous partners, and practitioners who are conducting similar research, are confronting similar management challenges, or possess different knowledge about a system. Each of these projects is quite different, responding to a particular need or opportunity in a unique context.

Project Examples



Resource: Example Problem Statements

This resource, Example Problem Statements from NERRS Science Collaborative Projects (Google Doc), offers examples of projects addressing the four categories of management needs. The 16 example problem statements can prompt thinking about how to envision and design a new project.

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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.