Deepa Senapathi, a researcher in the University’s ‘bee team’, reflects on her experience working in a large integrated team with a wide range of stakeholders, and suggests reasons why their engagement work has been so successful in different contexts.
Research is pretty much the bread and butter of our work here within the University, and chances are, that if you’re reading this blog then you are involved in primary research or research communication in some way. I am an ecologist, and my day-to-day activities involve exploring and quantifying the impact of environmental change on a wide range of plant and animal biodiversity and the associated ecosystem services they provide. However, if I truly want my research to have any real-world impact, I need to be able to engage with audiences beyond academia and connect with diverse groups of people from very distinct walks of life.
I’ve had some experience working in the policy environment, but quite often I swap my researcher hat for another one that involves knowledge exchange activities. This means I meet a wide range of stakeholders in the UK and across Europe but also within the international aid and development context – and drawing on these experiences, I hope to offer some insights gained over the years as to how we might be able to create space for engagement beyond the research that we do.
Regardless of the context we work in, there are some common threads that weave through engagement beyond research. One of the key threads for me has always been about investing in long-term relationships. This was proved in action in two studies I have been involved in over the last couple of years, which have been included in our REF submission. One of them was underpinned by relationships that my line manager Professor Simon Potts, had built with policymakers at national, EU and international levels over the last decade, and the other one was based on the relationships that my colleague Dr Michael Garrett had established with farmer and grower communities over an even longer period of time – since he was an early career post-doc.
While the target audience and stakeholder groups of these two case studies were very different, the common denominator was the trust that had been built up over time and the strong working relationships between Reading researchers and these diverse groups of external stakeholders. That trust meant that when asked whether our research had created an impact within their sphere of influence, they were only too willing to provide the evidence that backed up our claims, which would have been impossible without those lasting relationships.
Equally important is ensuring that any engagement or impact activity is co-designed and co-developed with the communities we work with. This may be as simple as a public outreach event like the one we do for Bees Needs Week –an annual event held at Carnaby Street in London where we work closely alongside Defra to design activities that would be interesting and draw people in, and which enable us to highlight the importance of pollinators and our research at Reading. In a different context, this could be working in tandem with smallholder farmers in developing countries, where they get the opportunity to design and choose ecological interventions for their fields that would have the most benefit for boosting biodiversity as well as enhancing their own livelihoods. Having this co-design and co-development with communities we engage with, is key to finding context specific solutions and ensuring the success of any interventions we put in place. It also empowers people to have a voice, and that is extremely important, especially if we’re working with communities whose voices are often lost in the global context or remain unheard for various reasons.
I also firmly believe that empowering people to have a voice shouldn’t be confined to just the stakeholder communities that we engage with. It’s also vital to give voice to early career researchers and less experienced colleagues in our teams. Whether that’s post-docs or PhD students, technicians or seasonal field assistants – these are the individuals who often have amazing and practical ideas but may not have the confidence to voice them. Allowing them the space and opportunity to be heard, almost always enriches the engagement activity that we are undertaking, not to mention enhancing the quality of the research itself.
When we work with diverse people with varied levels of experience it is also important that we learn to speak ‘other languages’. Research terminology that works for us within our own discipline very rarely works outside of the academic sphere. As an ecologist and conservation biologist I find that rather than using science jargon, I get a much better response if I talk to policymakers about ‘Post-2020 targets for biodiversity’ or the ‘25 Year Environment Plan’, or mention ‘natural capital’ or ‘green infrastructure’ when speaking to industry collaborators. Speaking ‘their language’ for want of a better phrase, helps us to immediately find common ground and there is a genuine sense of appreciation for the effort taken.
Another means of effective communication is through the simple act of sharing stories and experiences. The impact case studies we developed for REF highlighted the importance of narrative storylines, and while it is critically important to share success stories, I think it is equally important to reveal instances where things might not have gone to plan or where alternate strategies proved better. The advantage of sharing both the ups and downs of our experiences is that there is an authenticity and integrity to our work, people tend to trust us more for it, and this helps build the foundations of long-term relationships and trust.
My final point about creating space for engagement is to say that we all need to be brave enough to step out of our comfort zones. This last year, with all the challenges thrown our way due to COVID-19, has stretched all our capabilities. However, it has also created space both for us, and for the people we are connected with, to expand our horizons and engage in new ways that we hadn’t considered before the pandemic.
So, in summary I suggest that we find the courage to step out of our safe research bubbles, build those long-term relationships, learn to speak ‘other languages’, and co-design and develop solutions with diverse groups of people. This will ensure that we will be able to not just create space to engage but also generate genuine impact from the research we do.
Deepa Senapathi is a Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Agri- Environmental Research. Her current work focuses on the impacts of climate change and land use change on biodiversity and ecosystem services. She works with avian populations and insect pollinator communities in both tropical and temperate regions and engages with a wide range of stakeholder in her role as a NERC Knowledge Exchange fellow to enable context specific solution in the area of ecological intensification.