Scientific research plays a big role in our lives. We have come to rely on it in so many ways. It seems that every day we hear someone say, “well, research has shown …”

But we are coming up against the limits of research as it traditionally has been done. The image of science — the one in popular culture of the lone lab-coated researcher hitting upon a brilliant idea — is fast becoming outdated.

Instead, efforts are being made to find better ways of ensuring that research helps solve our increasingly tough societal challenges. Maine is leading the way in developing some of these new forms of science.

Consider several of our problems: poverty, pollution, failing school systems, racism and discrimination, income inequality, elder abuse. Pick up the daily paper and one is beset with story after story about these seemingly overwhelming problems. Many such difficulties are referred to as “wicked problems,” which won’t be solved with facts alone.

According to John Camillus, writing in Harvard Business Review, environmental degradation, terrorism and poverty are all classic examples of wicked problems. Wicked problems have innumerable causes, are interconnected with other problems and rarely have single acceptable solutions. Hundreds of studies can be carried out, and still the answer can be up in the air as to what should be done.

To solve wicked problems we need to approach science in new, more complex ways. Researchers with different kinds of expertise need to put their heads together. Scientists and decision makers need to interact regularly and become more familiar with each other’s worlds. Citizens and laypeople need to be involved in the research.

This new kind of science goes under various names: citizen science, community-based participatory research, science democratization and participatory action research. But, in each case, science is being transformed in ways all of us need to know about because we have important roles to play in making this new approach succeed.

At the heart of these new approaches is the need to move away from what David Cash, a world leader in science-policy analysis, points to as the all-too-common “ loading dock” approach to science. This approach has been likened to scientists following the model of a factory where widgets are produced and then trundled out to the loading dock where someone eagerly waits to pick up the supposedly useful product. But the audience for the science product may not be there. We may be creating a product that people struggling with wicked problems like poverty or hunger, for example, can’t use because it is built on science that does not take into account the full set of complications out there in the real world.

We need stakeholder-engaged, solutions-focused, interdisciplinary work if our scarce science resources are to be mobilized to help solve wicked problems.

The problems are interconnected. We know there is hunger and food insecurity at the same time we struggle to address ever-higher rates of obesity and ever-increasing amounts of food waste ending up in landfills. We know that while we try to address the state’s economic problems by encouraging young entrepreneurs to take up our traditional resource industries, the very resources their future will depend on — such as seafood and shellfish beds — are in decline or threatened by polluted runoff.

Traditional studies provide incomplete tools to understand wicked problems of these sorts. But Maine researchers are changing the ways they do research in order to make inroads on such issues.

Under the framework of sustainability, they tackle research on safe beaches and shellfish, for example, by bringing together stakeholders such as harvesters and policymakers with biologists, economists, engineers and even researchers who study how groups can more effectively solve problems together.

Or they take up declines in major resource industries such as Maine’s blueberries, which face the prospect of collapsing pollinator bee populations, and they work with stakeholders to create tools such as the BeeMapper software to bring together solutions-focused information often treated independently. Researchers working with the University of Maine’s Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions are focusing on this style of complex collaborative research, which is leading to many payoffs.

Not all scientists think the democratization of science is a good thing. Some scientists claim anyone who lacks formal training as a scientist can’t do good research. Some insist that only their discipline does the science right. Some view any science built on citizen science or partnership approaches as second rate. To them it smacks of opinions instead of science.

But we are not talking about going back to the era of matters being decided by opinion instead of scientific results. We are not talking about reverting to times when whoever argued loudest and longest won. Instead, as Roger Pielke teaches us in his highly regarded book, The Honest Broker, a big part of the job of scientists in this new era is to learn how to bring data to decisions and to understand that research is but one piece of an increasingly complex puzzle.

Linda Silka, a social and community psychologist, is a senior fellow at the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions at the University of Maine.