Expert advice for continuing agricultural research during COVID-19

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Researchers visit a rice field in Benin. Photo by: Jawoo Koo / IFPRI / CC BY-NC-ND

CANBERRA — International agriculture is one of many areas of development that have been impacted by COVID-19. The ability for agricultural researchers to access remote and regional communities has been restricted, as has the access of agricultural communities to markets and transportation.

For researchers, time frames and expectations of their projects have changed dramatically.

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Humera Iqbal, project manager of an Australian aid-funded dairy-beef project in Pakistan at the University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, said that the biggest change in her research, which is focused on improving access to markets for farmers, was the fact that such access was restricted.

“In our research, we have planned with farmers to link them to markets and sell their animals to markets, but due to this situation, the plans have just shattered — transport and animal markets are all restricted,” she said.

But facilitating agricultural supply chains is still a priority area in the response and recovery from the coronavirus, with recent funding including a $50 million commitment to enhance food supply chains in developing markets by the Netherlands Development Finance Company and a $314 million commitment for the export and import of agricultural and health products in Central America by the World Bank Group and International Monetary Fund.

In this changing environment, researchers explained how international agricultural studies are transitioning to continue their work.

Alter timelines and expectations

“I think a lot of people will be asking for time extensions on their projects,” said Bradley Campbell, a research fellow with the Centre for Crop Science at The University of Queensland, in a webinar hosted by the Research in Agriculture for International Development Network, with his first international agricultural project based in Fiji just beginning.

The inability to travel — both to and from project countries — has been the largest impact for agricultural researchers.

Di Mayberry, a senior research scientist at CSIRO Agriculture and Food, has just begun work in Myanmar to improve the profitability and sustainability of livestock and had been anticipating travel to engage with collaborators to build networks and relationships.

In the past, her experience has been that international agricultural research and capacity building worked better when it was “hands-on.” But within countries, travel may also be restricted between major cities and rural areas impacting the ability to conduct field research.

For Mayberry, this means readjusting expectations and timelines. “We spend a lot of time talking and planning and adjusting our expectations of what we can achieve at the moment,” she said.

Tarni Cooper, a veterinarian at The University of Queensland, is also currently focusing on administration to realign deliverables for livestock projects in East Timor and the Philippines, which she said is particularly challenging for the short-term projects.

“For us, our projects end this year,” she said, noting that while they have been extended, they are expected to be completed while travel is still limited, severely changing goals.

Conduct analysis on secondary data

Primary data collection through surveys and fieldwork is an important part of agriculture research, as it helps provide new insights and answers. But Cooper said the limitations that exist for primary research can open the door to the wider collation and analysis of secondary data, which has been collected from previous research projects.

“As much as we would love to be collecting primary data as well, it is certainly great to frame our ongoing research based on what is already there and what we know,” she said.

As part of her research, a team member is being designated to focus on collating and analyzing secondary data relevant to their project, which aims to fill the gaps of their time-limited research projects.

Pivot to online and mobile solutions

In collecting data, however, mobile and online solutions can also help. Cooper’s team is working on collecting data from partners and analyzing it remotely. But she said there is the possibility to use online and mobile solutions better to collaborate and build capacity.

Online training is supporting her work in the Philippines and East Timor, with Cooper saying a lot of experimentation now happening is expected to generate insights on what works and what doesn’t.

But she noted that “it all comes down to good tech.”

“We spend a lot of time talking and planning and adjusting our expectations of what we can achieve at the moment.”

— Di Mayberry, senior research scientist, CSIRO Agriculture and Food

As international agricultural research is a collaborative effort between organizations and institutes, continuing to foster relationships and partnerships is important and is an area that online and mobile solutions can support.

“Now is a time we certainly wouldn’t want to be abandoning our partners who give us so much,” Cooper said.

Online collaborations are working through problems and establishing new project goals — a space that Campbell said is important to ensure “everybody is on board with what has to be done and keeping the finger on the pulse.”

For Iqbal, building a community of practice related to agricultural research is also “a bit challenging now.” Amid the move to online solutions, she said it was important to focus on each issue that arises to continue engaging with a wide base of researchers.

Build capacity in new spaces

The limitations that are currently placed on research, however, can also be an opportunity to improve skills in other spaces.

While Iqbal noted that her research had dramatically changed, she said there were also opportunities to build the capacity of research teams and farmers that they support in technical knowledge and communication skills, with an eye to the resumption of data collection activities in the future.

But Iqbal also said that it was a chance to explore the capacity that exists within countries, to build and support networks of young researchers, and to engage young farmers through mobile and online capacity building.

Gain experience in science where possible

For young researchers beginning a career in international agriculture, the advice is to get experience wherever possible.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s Australian agriculture, Indonesian agriculture, or Myanmar agriculture, the underpinning science is the same,” Mayberry said. She urged researchers to get local experience and “build up your science,” adding that if they are talented, good communicators, and able to collaborate with others, work will be waiting in the years to come.

Expect less travel in the future

There is an expectation that the nature of agricultural research will change permanently.

“Having everyone flying into a country is expensive, and the aid budget is not enormous,” Cooper said, with Mayberry warning that traveling in the future “is going to cost a lot more to get there as well.”

Online collaboration and capacity building may be here to stay, with Cooper saying that online forums have seen wider engagement from individuals and organizations than in-person meetings amid travel restrictions.

But the expectation of higher travel costs will also place limitations on already restricted research budgets, with Mayberry saying partners will be required to “make better use of time” when they have in-person visits.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.