Contextualizing climate science: applying social learning systems theory to knowledge production, climate services, and use-inspired research

Gigi Owen, Daniel B. Ferguson, Ben McMahan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


Scientists need to acknowledge the inherent social contexts that drive the scientific process if they want their research to improve complex societal problems such as vulnerability to climate change. Social interactions and relationships are essential elements for conducting use-inspired research, creating usable knowledge, and providing climate services. The Climate Assessment for the Southwest (CLIMAS) program was founded on theories of use-inspired research and co-producing knowledge with non-academic partners. A recent program evaluation illuminated gaps in these underlying program models and led to the inclusion of social learning systems theory and communities of practice. Using grounded examples, we demonstrate the CLIMAS program’s ongoing role in fostering, maintaining, and expanding a climate resilience social learning system in the U.S. Southwest. Broader implications from the evaluation focus on the importance of establishing and maintaining relationships, increasing institutional and individual flexibility in response to change, and improving the practice of transdisciplinarity. These findings inform new program evaluation metrics and data collection techniques. This paper contributes to current theory and practice of use-inspired science and climate services by identifying and demonstrating how social interactions inform climate knowledge production. The reconceptualization of the CLIMAS program as part of a growing regional social learning system serves as an example for similar types of programs. We encourage climate services and use-inspired research programs to explore applications of this framework to their own operations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)151-170
Number of pages20
JournalClimatic Change
Issue number1
StatePublished - Nov 1 2019


  • Climate services
  • Communities of practice
  • Evaluation
  • Social learning systems
  • Use-inspired research

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Atmospheric Science


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