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Seeking a real-world impact: Insights from our workshop for young researchers

Photo: Jed Villejo / Unsplash.

Between June 3-5, 2020, twenty early-career researchers from all over the world met for an online Young Researchers Workshop to discuss challenges and opportunities for sustainable food systems, focusing on the need to strengthen the link between research and policy. First initiated in 2014 by SLU-Global together with SIANI, the event turned into a highly appreciated opportunity.

”The three-day event was very insightful, impactful and clever! The timing of the event was strategic given the current COVID-19 pandemic and the dire need of evidence-based policy for better social outcomes,” says Oteh Ogbonnaya, a workshop participant from Nigeria.

After the initial talk by Aniek Hebinck, Postdoctoral Researcher at the Dutch Research Institute for Transition, about transformative dynamics within the food system, the workshop provided a platform for cross-disciplinary discussions and networking between the young researchers, during which they could share experiences from their ongoing and past projects. They were also provided with feedback and guidance from senior peers so they could enhance the relevance of their future research to policy and society.

“The best part of the workshop was definitely the opportunity to network with fellow researchers from different countries and to learn from senior experts,” says Chandrima Goswami, a workshop participant from India.

Meeting fellow young researchers was especially appreciated against the backdrop of COVID-19 as other networking opportunities have been put on hold. The network created during the workshop lives on and some participants are currently exploring future possibilities to collaborate.

The value of good communication

During the workshop, Klara Fischer, Associate Professor in Rural Development at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), discussed how information can be the power for change if it is relevant and communicated wisely.

Assem Abu Hatab, Associate Professor in Economics at SLU, reaffirmed the importance of communication across stakeholders when pointing out that sustainable food systems require transformative actions, not only from states but also from the private sector and society at large.

The workshop provided a safe space for the participants to discuss their work with other researchers and to reflect on how they can improve their communication, in order to strengthen their interaction with policy makers and practitioners. This includes outreach through public dialogue and social media.

“Researchers cannot do it all alone, they need to be part of multi-stakeholder projects. To do this we must speak the ’same language’ and re-think how we can contribute, rather than generating findings that end up on the shelf,” says Florencia Garcia, a participant from Argentina.

 Focus on the local

Apart from being well communicated, research also has to be relevant to the level and scale where a targeted policy maker and practitioner can make a difference. This often implies being able to highlight research results that generate an impact on a local scale.

Guntra Aistra, Associate Professor in Environmental Anthropology at the Central European University, stated that the diversity and complexity of the global context force us to zoom into local realities, focusing on where your research can contribute and make a difference. The importance to set research ambitions in line with boundaries of local reality was also stressed by Jennie Barron, Professor in Agricultural Water Management at SLU.

“I considered myself to be very proactive but, at the same time, I felt I should do more and this was very frustrating in many ways. During the workshop Professor Jennie Barron reminded me that there is a natural limit to what our contribution can be and, even though, having a global perspective is good, one researcher cannot address all the problems,” says Garcia.

This workshop created a blueprint for the kind of a platform that’s crucial for future research if it is to have a real-world impact. Through the dialogue with peers and senior experts, early-career researchers can avoid repeating the mistakes of their predecessors and, instead, focus their efforts on research that truly enhances sustainable food systems.