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What can social-ecological research learn from the COVID-19 pandemic? Reflections and recommendations

Landschaft in der Mongolei

International research visits have not been possible since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Lukas Drees (ISOE)

Social-ecological research is highly dependent on social and physical interaction on-site in order to allow for a thorough analysis of diverse ecosystems and include stakeholder perspectives, amongst others. This corresponds with an increased vulnerability to restrictions of mobility and social contact. Accordingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed multiple challenges to research processes that can arise in the context of a crisis. Now, which mechanisms do researchers have at their disposal in order to cope with these challenges? Another question is which lessons can be learned to make future research endeavours more resilient to various kinds of crises?

These questions were at the centre of a digital workshop in October 2020 during which 20 scientists from the field of social-ecological research shared their own experiences and then discussed potential strategies to reduce setbacks on research outcomes. Given that COVID-19 has likely not been the last crisis disrupting research endeavours, they developed recommendations focused on three aspects to provide guidance for future research projects and place-based activities (see full article in GAIA 30/2 2021).

Adaptive research design

Project design and management requires recognising risks and uncertainties as well as increasing flexibility and an adaptive capacity in order to curb the impact of potential disruptions. Such adaptive project designs and management structures that maintain the capacity to conduct place-based research can include i) a modular design of research projects (incl. PhD theses) meaning that projects are divided into sub-projects with varying levels of interdependency (in contrast to sequential project designs with individual parts building upon each other), ii) contingency plans, that should be developed in the initial project design and should include alternative methods, data or case study regions in case of local disruptions, and iii) scenario planning as an effective tool to acknowledge the existence of uncertainties and their potential effects on research.

Methods of remote and digital data acquisition

Many methods that are at the heart of social-ecological research, such as collecting biophysical data or participatory approaches, cannot be applied under conditions of social distancing and travel restrictions – especially if fieldwork abroad is required. Consequently, under COVID-19, researchers have had to come up with ways to collect crucial context-sensitive data remotely. This has contributed to a major push for novel tools and methods, incl. social media data and citizen science, and the advancement of already existing technologies, such as online or phone surveys. Due to recent advancements and the general spread of digital technologies, the use of digital methods has become more feasible and common across the globe and it does indeed offer valuable advantages. Nevertheless, there are a number of practical, conceptual and ethical challenges that must be considered, including issues of data robustness and confidentiality as well as potential barriers to participation in research (e.g., lack of stable internet access or a suitable safe and quiet space for interviewees). Moreover, established networks, respondent contacts, and prior knowledge of the study area remain indispensable for effective remote research.

More responsible and equitable research and partnerships

In the authors’ view, the current pandemic is urging us to fundamentally rethink how we do research and thereby offers a window of opportunity for systemic and long-term change. With that in mind, they highlight three key areas for action. Firstly, increasing independent and equitable involvement of research partners abroad has the potential to contribute considerably to the resilience of projects, for instance, by enabling continuous local research activities despite international travel restrictions. Here, it is important to note that a greater inclusion and empowerment of partners require more involvement and capacity-building at all stages of the research process, including project design, funding strategies and publications. This would likely pave the way for more collaborative knowledge production, co-design and implementation, which are core principles of transdisciplinary research. Secondly, there is a need for more flexibility regarding funding provisions and resource allocations to efficiently manage fieldwork disruptions. Funding provisions determine the leeway for sharing resources and responsibilities with partners and come into play, for example, when resources are required unexpectedly to employ local staff or to purchase electronic tools for data collection. Thirdly, liaising with project partners to draw from institutional open access data repositories and library resources could further promote symmetrical and productive scientific collaboration.


Reference

Hermans, Kathleen/Elisabeth Berger/Lisa Biber-Freudenberger/Lisa Bossenbroek/Laura Ebeler/Juliane Groth/Jochen Hack/Jan Hanspach/Kendisha Soekardjo Hintz/Jude Ndzifon Kimengsi/Yim Ming Connie Kwong/Robert Oakes/Raffaella Pagogna/Tobias Plieninger/Harald Sterly/Kees van der Geest/Jasper van Vliet/Charlotte Wiederkehr (2021): Crisis-induced disruptions in place-based social-ecological research – an opportunity for redirection. GAIA 30 (2), 72–76


Autor*innen

Charlotte Wiederkehr

Charlotte is currently completing her PhD at Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig as a member of the MigSoKo research group and interested in different ways to communicate science. Her PhD thesis is focused on the links between environmental change, human migration and conflicts over natural resources in different world regions. // Charlotte promoviert derzeit am Helmholtz-Zentrum für Umweltforschung (UFZ) in Leipzig als Mitglied der Forschungsgruppe MigSoKo und interessiert sich für verschiedene Arten von Wissenschaftskommunikation. In ihrer Arbeit beschäftigt sie sich mit menschlicher Migration im Zusammenhang mit Umweltwandel und Konflikten um natürliche Ressourcen in verschiedenen Weltregionen.

Kathleen Hermans

Kathleen is the head of the interdisciplinary MigSoKo research group at the Landscape Ecology Department at Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ). She aims to connect various disciplines and scales for establishing an understanding of the complex links and feedbacks between environmental change and human migration. // Kathleen leitet die Forschungsgruppe MigSoKo im Department Landschaftsökologie am Helmholtz-Zentrum für Umweltforschung (UFZ). Sie verfolgt das Ziel, verschiedene Disziplinen und Skalen miteinander zu verbinden, um ein besseres Verständnis der Dynamiken zwischen Umweltveränderungen und menschlicher Migration zu schaffen.

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