ORONO — Researchers from the University of Maine Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions have found that community-university collaborations focused on local concerns can help communities make decisions and take actions to resolve them, even when complete agreement isn’t possible.

In their recent essay for the journal Issues in Science and Technology, Mitchell Center Director David Hart; faculty researchers Bridie McGreavy, Darren Ranco and Anthony Sutton; and Ph.D. student Gabrielle Hillyer share lessons about collaboration based on more than a decade of experience helping clammers from Maine communities and Wabanaki Tribal Nations tackle various challenges associated with shellfishing in mudflats along Maine’s coast.

Partnerships sometimes begin when researchers attend town halls and other community meetings, primarily as a listener. This can lead to discussions of issues that could benefit from scientific research and other ways of working together. Productive collaborations are more likely to emerge when partners co-develop the research questions and methods, as well as participate in collecting and interpreting data. 

As the researchers began meeting with clammers and other community members, they learned about a variety of concerns. For example, many mudflats were closed to harvesting by the Maine Department of Marine Resources due to water pollution problems. This eventually led to a number of collaborative projects to improve water quality and reopen closed flats.  

Learning about such community concerns is an on-going process, and often leads to the development of collaborations focused on other challenges. For instance, Passamaquoddy tribal citizens also expressed concerns regarding access to mudflats, the impact of toxins in sustenance practices, and the negative effects of dams on rivers and Wabanaki cultures. This has led to innovative partnerships focused on some of these issues.

In all their work, the researchers emphasize that strong partnerships are usually characterized by empathy, flexibility and trust, as well as deep commitments to equity and justice.  

The researchers also discovered that the goal of “finding common ground” is often unrealistic. Instead, they underscore the value of building collaborative capacity by learning about differences among partners and fostering constructive deliberation that draws upon multiple forms of knowledge and points of view. 

“If common ground exists at all,” says McGreavy, “we find it in the shared belief that these differences, and the creativity they spur, motivates problem-solving and other kinds of connection.” 

The Mitchell Center researchers have found that community-university partnerships can yield broad-based benefits. Community members who participate in these problem-solving collaborations not only benefit from the results, but can also gain a sense of empowerment through shared work.  

Faculty can acquire insights that bolster their other work and the satisfaction of helping tackle real-world problems, sometimes in their own backyards. Local partners may also assist researchers when complications arise. 

Student researchers, in particular, can find purpose and greater motivation to conduct scientific investigations by working with community members to resolve problems that affect them, according to the essay. They also can gain skills that can help them in their future careers, new relationships and lifelong passions. In fact, doctoral student Hillyer was recently invited to speak at an international conference based in part on her leadership roles in these collaborations.

These collaborations also hold great promise for learning how to work together more effectively. 

“At a time when surveys show that many Americans are concerned about political polarization, we are finding that local partnerships may allow for a more tailored approach to working across differences,” Hart says. “We hope these collaborations can generate the kinds of ‘small wins’ that grow the social capital needed to address even bigger challenges.”