Recently, I was impressed by Kayleigh Dodd’s vivid views about the precarious financial status of a young research scientist in a poorly funded field (http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/brain-flapping/2013/apr/26/research-scientist-thats-why-i-drink). I share the feeling that “the biggest struggle isn’t the pursuit of the undiscovered; but in fact getting the cash to do the work”. However, I am very likely in a much more comfortable situation. I work in a field with a large audience (Climate Change) and in a part of the world that international funding agencies favour working towards an educational/economical/environmental/e***al redistributed world (Africa).
As Kayleigh highlighted, this system is not necessarily encouraging the best of research. But the point I would like to put up for discussion is that it creates an additional challenge to get research outcomes into public hands, and that in fact it undermines the more-and-more-often-present funder objective: share and make your research accessible.
Let’s take a research field close to my heart and my brain, agriculture and climate change. I do not recall a call for proposal (where research mostly gets its funding from) that was not urging the researchers to at least facilitate and more and more often to include scrupulously in their plans and objectives the involvement of the appropriate audience at some if not every step of the project. I am not talking about scientific journal publications or regional and international conference audiences. Here I am talking about the funder demand to engage with farmers (in my case) and propagate our research outcomes/findings to these farmers. I fully agree and though I may not be the most efficient at doing it, I do push my research in that direction. Please note that I am not a core agricultural scientist, I entered through the computer science and crop model back door. And indeed those close to me will argue that farmers are not necessarily the public audience that I interact the most with. However they definitely are among those that my research can benefit. Using researcher-farmer example only points out with more clarity the research-public interaction challenges laid down by funding systems.
Now, close your eyes, sit down at one of these farmer dissemination workshops with me, and place yourself in a farmer’s shoes. Farmers look at me and see me for exactly what I am; a geek who rarely ever pokes a finger into cropping ground and who is clearly incapable of getting a basil plant to grow up to cooking maturity. Nevertheless the chap uses words that make sense, makes up a story that is coherent, and to some extent he even describes bits and pieces about climate change and agriculture that we can relate to. He sounds like he knows a thing or two that could be beneficial to the farming community. I am even confident that most of the farmers are glad they made the trip and that they would happily come again and get a better understanding of these findings and give their opinion/experience about the matter. But then comes the growing season, and attention turns to getting the field ready, sowing, fertilising, irrigating, harvesting… When the time comes to get back into what this (probably crazy) research fellow was saying, the project is over, the fellow has moved to another country if not to another academic field.
We are lucky that farmers are motivated and interested folk, and most of them will come to the next project dissemination workshop, listening to the new research fellow using words that make sense to them and who is making a coherent agriculture and climate story. But if any connection at all existed between the former and the latter fellow, it is lost already. I have no doubts that it feels like the chap was forced somehow to do this exercise, rather than genuinely trying to tell the farmers anything useful at all. And you know what, the research fellow (I) most likely feels the same (I do). In my experience the few academics who are successful in bringing forth a useful message to farmers are those that have been around for decades (I mean… a significant period of time), those who have repeatedly met with those farmers, those who are capable of linking the former fellow’s research with the latter’s research. It is a repetitive and frequent enough exercise, which enables the building of consistency, trust, and of developing a true sharing of knowledge, a true involvement of farmers into agricultural research and a true appreciation from agronomists to farmer’s concerns.
Certainly the funding is not solely to blame. But fundamentally, how could you expect to build such a long term relationship with projects of 1 to 5 years (5 years being considered rather long projects)? Maybe am I a bad example, but in the last 5 years (since my PhD graduation), and though I was lucky enough to work solely with CSAG, I have been involved in 7 projects. Though all of these relate to my research interests and build up my academic capacity (thanks for that), none of them were in the same geographical area, maybe a couple are focusing on the same piece of research, but not one project will contribute and help me to build a long term relationship with a farming community. What did the funder say? Get the farmer involved in your research objective development? Assess the in-field impact of your study? Capacitate farming communities to climate change and its impact on agriculture? Sure I will, but you know what would help to build solid and long term relationships with farming communities? Having solid and long term funding…
At the end of the day we make it work, actually we do better than make it work, we make it work well. The scientific peer system helps a lot, experienced researchers being there to keep some consistency in those ‘public’ disseminations. ‘Intermediary’ institutions such as governmental and non-governmental agencies play a major role as well by working at understanding research and translating it into field accessible realities. But I believe these two systems are subject to similar financial constraints. Of course time appears to have a crucial role in the equation. And it just seems I did not spend enough time doing it yet. I am optimistic that someday I will have spent enough time doing it, and I will be able to connect in a solid manner with the appropriate public audience. But reaching that point will mean that I had been the lucky one who grabbed the appropriate funding, more often than not in consistent areas and close research topics. Working with 1 to 5 year projects simply makes the risk of failure higher than I wish it would be, and strangely it feels diametrically opposed to funder’s interest for research propagation into public. See the snake biting its tail? It is not the only snake undulating around anyway.
Maybe the balance is not that bad after all. Indeed, this very blog IS a mode of dissemination and it forms a small part in building a solid relationship with you.