Dr Julia Camara de Assis shares her experience on the challenges faced on engaging in transdisciplinary research during the pandemic and some of the lessons learned.
During my Transdisciplinary Lunch Crowd presentation on Tuesday, February 15th, I had the opportunity to share the challenges my research team and I have been facing since starting the SPLENDID project during the pandemic. The SPLENDID project combines diverse strategies for the transition to circular and sustainable agriculture, to research and advise spatial planning at a regional scale to accommodate conflicting demands for land in rural landscapes in the Netherlands. The main source of uncertainties was the ever-changing corona regulations and how to plan events. Here, I briefly summarize my remarks regarding the main challenges and opportunities for adaptation (both at the project and personal level). Then, I briefly reflect on some open-issues that are not strictly related to the pandemic circumstances, but to transdisciplinary research in general.
Off to a delayed start
For the SPLENDID project, the initial 6 months was planned so that the postdoc (me) would set the groundwork and organize the first of three workshops with stakeholders and partners. I was selected for the position in March 2020, right at the start of the first lock-down and at the same time had to coordinate moving from Brazil to the Netherlands… tough time! The project’s initial start date was June 2020, but had to be postponed to September. Fortunately I could start in June, giving me three months to ‘land’, before the official kick-off. Because the rules were relaxed during the summer of 2020,I managed to work partially at the office and get to know some of my colleagues in-person. During those first months, I could familiarize myself with the Dutch context and the literature regarding the main topics of SPLENDID. One lesson I take from this is that making the best use of my time while facing unexpected circumstances can be very beneficial. Several new colleagues joined our chair group after me, and I ended up informally hosting several of them (online and offline), in attempt to make them feel welcome.
Virtual Team Building
We hired three PhDs six months after the project had officially started. By then, I had established the conceptual groundwork for the project, but needed to work on team-building and get everyone on the same page. My approach was to engage them in regular short online conversations to build team spirit and start sharing ideas about their contribution to each other’s research and the project intended outcomes. This meant that all my previous decisions were put on the back burner and I had to make room for several new ideas and perspectives brought in by the PhDs and the project coordinators. From this, the lesson learnt is to build the team early in the process to ensure a collective effort. Of course, key concepts and project expectations should be revisited from time to time, but at least early and consistent communication will put everyone on the same page and help the team anticipate potential communication challenges among researchers and with non-scientific stakeholders.
On-line vs. in-person interactions
On-line collaboration has exponentially broadened the possibilities of networking. However, from my start-in-a-new-group-during-the-pandemic experience, it considerably limits how people bond.
Two months into the project, we organized a hybrid meeting with our partners to align our expectations Half the participants were on screen and half were in the room. It went well, but the participation of those on-line was way less effective. Being in the room together, you have kinesthetic experience through body language, eye to eye, and informal chats.
On the one hand, I performed ten expert consultations with WUR experts from diverse backgrounds, most of which were online. I am convinced that on-line meetings made it possible to get a time-slot in those busy researchers’ agenda. On the other hand, despite learning from each conversation, I am not sure whether these meetings can translate into a work connection. Probably, if we saw each other in real-life after meeting once online, we wouldn’t recognize each other. Fortunately, those were valuable lessons learned before important decisions were made in the preparation of our SPLENDID workshop.
Further reflection on transdisciplinarity
Other than scientific outputs…
Most obvious products expected from research projects are the scientific papers published in high impact journals. However, in participatory and transdisciplinary research, several products other than scientific publications play a fundamental role in the success of the research project. During the first year of the SPLENDID project we produced a brochure and conducted the first workshop with stakeholders. The brochure is a communication instrument, tailored to address not only the participants of the workshop, but also anyone interested in the transition to sustainable agriculture. It was written in Dutch using simple language to present the three main strategies for circular agriculture and promote dialogue about how these different strategies could be combined in the landscape. The first workshop brought together approximately 50 people, among them policy makers, farmers, citizens, terrain managers, NGOs, business people, and researchers.
Questions: But can a workshop be considered a research outcome? It has generated valuable data which is now being analyzed. But, how do we look at the meeting itself, people’s experience and their direct societal contribution ? We do not yet know how such outcomes will be accounted for, but in transdisciplinary research, these types of materials and interactions constitute fundamental steps.
What is in it for ‘them’?
For SPLENDID, having a common interest – developing more sustainable forms of agriculture while maintaining the successful character of agriculture in Noord Brabant – is what brings stakeholders on board and willing to contribute to the project. However, conflicting understandings and values challenge the dialogue and the construction of common goals. During the workshop, participants had the opportunity to learn each other’s perspective while working in groups in a mapping exercise, which enabled interesting negotiations to take place. Their interactions also provided us with information about disagreements and ‘wicked topics’ that should be carefully considered in the next steps of the research development and stakeholder engagement. Despite sharing general common interests, having a clear idea of what each stakeholder group or individual can get from dedicating their time in participating is crucial. But how to consider stakeholders’ interest while designing a workshops?
Keep the fire burning…
We have lit the flame of stakeholder engagement, with our efforts this past year. But considering how fundamental stakeholders participation is in projects such as ours, how can we keep the fire burning? How can we continuously engage with the non-scientific stakeholders? For SPLENDID, the second workshop will take place one year and a half later. What does this mean for people’s engagement in the meantime? We know there is not a recipe for that, but I am keen to learn from other colleagues how they managed to succeed in this matter. And hopefully, SPLENDID will also demonstrate how to keep a healthy exchange with stakeholders ‘getting’ and ‘giving’.
Have any ideas, questions or suggestions? Please contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org