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The Future of Boundary Spanning for Science & Society

The definition of "boundary spanning” has evolved since the term first emerged in the 1950s. Read about present-day trends and best practices in today's blog. 


Science Transcending Boundaries” was the theme of the 2019 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held in Washington DC. In addition to the usual call for interdisciplinary scholarship, the meeting revealed a surge of interest in “boundary spanning.” An entire day was dedicated to science communication, followed by numerous sessions on public engagement, science communication, and science policy and diplomacy as boundary-spanning disciplines.


The concept of boundary spanning first emerged in the context of organizational management and technology innovation in the 1950s. At that time, the phrase “boundary spanning” described a practice centered on the exchange of knowledge between two or more organizations to make their operations more effective. The definition of boundary spanning has expanded in recent years to encompass the people and processes in the scientific enterprise that facilitate two-way communication, mutual learning, and trust-building between researchers and the public to guide research, inform policy and management decisions, and help address “wicked challenges” that defy simple technological fixes.

The heightened emphasis on boundary spanning at the AAAS Annual Meeting prompted us to ask, what emerging trends will shape and define the practice of boundary spanning at the interface of science and society over the coming decade?

1. A Team Approach. We see the focus of boundary-spanning programs and funding initiatives shifting from training individual scientists to building collaborative teams of researchers and practitioners who co-lead initiatives at the science-society interface. We believe that the growing need and complexity of this work will require building teams that embed boundary spanners at the outset of the research process. A team approach will reduce the need for each scientist to develop multiple new areas of expertise, help build constructive relationships with partners, generate innovative and policy-relevant science, and increase the impact of such research on decision-making. Embedding boundary spanners within universities and research groups can also expand capacity for undertaking interface work at local to regional scales, which is typically beyond the scope of scientific societies, who have led many boundary-spanning efforts to date. The Harvard Center for Climate Health and the Global Environment, Science Policy Exchange, and Hubbard Brook Research Foundation are leading examples of groups taking this team approach.

2. Evidence-based Practices. We see the practice of boundary spanning rapidly advancing from current lists of best practices to evidence-based approaches that combine social science research with professional experience from the front lines. We believe research and practice partnerships will yield new theories and conceptual models that address essential boundary-spanning questions such as how to design and sequence engagement activities to best generate mutual learning, trust, and reciprocity, and achieve societal impact. They will also address how to align boundary-spanning practices with the needs of specific social, cultural, and political contexts. We expect research and practice partnerships will begin integrating knowledge from the fields of informal science learning; science, technology, and policy studies; and the science of science communication to gain new insights for practice from transdisciplinary work. The collaborative research project Embedding Public Engagement with Science at Long-term Ecological Research Sites (PES@LTERs) funded by the National Science Foundation is an example of a this type of research and practice partnership.

3. Diversity, equity, and inclusion. We believe that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) will be at the center of successful boundary-spanning initiatives. Leaders of research enterprises will be much more intentional about DEI to combat current and historic institutional injustices and social patterns and gain the value and excellence in science that welcoming and cultivating all talent helps to achieve. More inclusive programs will emphasize the importance of collaborative leadership, include conversations about values, make room for the voices of women and underrepresented groups of all genders and ages, respect Indigenous and local knowledge, and co-create usable knowledge with community partners. By designing for DEI, boundary-spanning programs will build strong networks of science users, address questions intentionally designed to be more responsive to the needs of traditionally underrepresented communities, and ultimately deliver greater value to society. DEI resources can be found at AAAS’s SEA Change initiative.

4. Boundary-spanning STEM workforce. Finally, we expect that boundary spanning will become a valued career path for STEM graduate students and professionals. More graduate students and researchers looking to make a difference in the world will choose to focus their professional pursuits on boundary spanning and receive substantive training and professional support for this path. Given the depth of experience needed for ethical and effective boundary spanning, future STEM leaders will demand more training and experience at the science-society interface through their traditional graduate programs, rather than through extracurricular programs. By supporting the boundary-spanning role in the STEM enterprise, professionals and researchers alike will benefit from diversified career options and be better equipped to meet grand challenges in medicine, climate change, poverty alleviation, and education. As graduate programs work to integrate boundary spanning into their curricula, fellowships such as AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, Sea Grant Knauss Marine Policy Fellowships offer one way to support students interested in learning more about the intersection of science and policy.

As articulated throughout the recent AAAS meeting, boundary spanning is a practice and profession that informs research questions and practices, supports the public role of science, expands the positive impacts of science, and increases public trust in the processes and findings of science. We believe that these four trends: team-building; evidence-based practices; the centrality of DEI; and growing a STEM boundary spanning workforce will continue to define and shape this rapidly expanding field over the next decade. Investing in thoughtful and professional boundary spanning will deliver on the AAAS promise of advancing science, technology, and knowledge for the benefit of all people.



About the Authors


Kathy Fallon Lambert is a Senior Advisor at the Harvard Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment and Co-founder of the Science Policy Exchange. You can find her on Twitter at @kflambert.




Sarah Garlick is the Director of Science Policy and Outreach at the Hubbard Brook Research Foundation. You can find her on Twitter at @sarah_garlick.




Melody Brown Burkins is the Associate Director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding, Dartmouth College. You can find her on Twitter at @mbbvt




Marissa Weiss is a Program Manager at Harvard Forest, Harvard University. You can find her on Twitter at @msrweiss.




John Besley is the Ellis N. Brandt Professor of Public Relations in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences, Michigan State University. You can find him on Twitter at @JohnBesley.




Emily Therese Cloyd is Director of the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology. You can find her on Twitter at @EngageClimate.

Representative Image Caption
Photo credit: Robb Cohen Photography