On 9 December, the University held an event intended to showcase the rich and varied work taking place right across the disciplines to address issues of inequality, social justice, resilience and sustainability. It also provided a much-needed opportunity for researchers to meet and discuss some of the challenges and opportunities presented by the COVID-19 pandemic this year. In this short piece, Sophie De Pauw reflects on the discussion and what she heard.

As someone who is relatively new to the field of Global Development, whenever I attend a workshop or event, I am taken aback by the wide range of research topics and disciplines represented. Last week’s Global Partnerships event was no exception – from Brazilian cinema to snakebite prevention programmes in India, an astounding diversity of projects were presented (and all the posters can be seen here). I’ll be the first to admit, that coming from a natural science background, I find this diversity both daunting and exciting in equal measures. In each presentation I discovered new themes, theories and methods stimulating my interest and capturing my curiosity. At the same time, my brain was doing backflips, it all felt so foreign, so unfathomable, in short, so out of my depth. I’m sure this is a feeling that many early-career researchers can relate to, finding your feet within an academic community is challenging at the best of times, let alone during a pandemic when face-to-face contact has been so limited.

Needless to say, conducting global development research during COVID-19, has made 2020 a challenging year for most, irrespective of their career stage. Indeed, many of the researchers at the event acknowledged that the travel restrictions had represented a major barrier in carrying out their work as usual. However, casting my memory back to the discussions we had when the pandemic was still in its infancy, I couldn’t help but contemplate how much the tone of the conversations had changed. Back in May, the over-riding sentiment was one of uncertainty, and at times, trepidation. Just six months later, a very different and unexpected emotion has emerged; hope.

Grady Walker aptly described the pandemic as a “disruptor”, transforming the way we work and reframing the future of global development research. For most, managing research remotely has placed an unprecedented reliance on global collaborators. In many cases, this has meant transferring research responsibilities and, ultimately, relinquishing control. The new normal has seen a number of unanticipated yet beneficial outcomes arise. Partnerships have been strengthened and novel ways of supporting one another have been developed. For example, Faustina Hwang explained how she and her team produced training videos to complement existing protocols for partners. Meanwhile, Nugun Patrick Jellason commented how devolving power and building trust has helped international research relationships flourish while also enhancing local capacities.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the environmental benefits as well. Indeed, the so-called “antropho-pause” has seen the greatest reduction in global carbon emissions since World War II. Moreover, time that would have been spent travelling, has been reallocated to making more bilateral research decisions. It seems, that despite initial misgivings and fears about the pandemic, in many ways it has precipitated long-overdue changes at the University of Reading and further afield. We have all been compelled to examine our research partnerships and practices. Accordingly, 2020 has been as a much a time for reflection as it has been for reaction. As the year draws to a close and vaccine prospects are looking increasingly promising, I am certain most of us will be glad to turn over a new leaf.  Personally, I believe these unprecedented times have taught me invaluable lessons that will undoubtedly outlive the pandemic and equip me to face the future challenges of my PhD.

Sophie De Pauw is a PhD student in the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development studying Farmers’ Burn Practices in Northern Mozambique.