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COVID-19 Implications on Transdisciplinary Research in Africa

The COVID-19 crisis has affected us all, both personally and professionally. The ISC spoke with four researchers from the LIRA programme in Sub-Saharan Africa, and their funding body, on present and future implications that the pandemic has had on early career researchers and their projects.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, early career researchers from the LIRA programme have been particularly hard hit. Facing negative economic consequences, researchers are concerned that they will be less likely to receive funding in the future and complete current research projects that are crucial in advancing their career. The ISC seeks to highlight and address the challenges that early career scientists in Africa are facing at this current moment, and what they expect from funders post COVID19.

The LIRA 2030 programme is run by the International Science Council together with its Regional Office for Africa and in strong partnership with the Network of African Science Academies (NASAC). The Programme is supported by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) and will run until December 2020.

“The ongoing projects will realize that they are facing substantial difficulties,” says Anna Maria Oltorp, Head of the Research Cooperation Unit at Sida. “Field studies cannot be performed, and meetings cannot be held. Meetings are often a big part of doing research together and exchanging ideas. Hopefully, we will improve at using digital equipment to have virtual meetings. But there are great difficulties.”

“We will need to be adaptive when it comes to budgets – we need to support organizations, and find the best way to respond in different situations”.

Maria Oltorp, Head of the Research Cooperation Unit, Sida

Fati Aziz is the principal investigator of the LIRA research project to enhance sustainability in rapidly growing African cities through a Water-Energy-Food (WEF) nexus. The increase in global population and the number of people living in cities has put a lot of pressure on WEF resources in cities across the world. In some African cities, inadequate access to WEF resources has already contributed to rationing of water and energy, increased the cost of living and contributed to poverty and inequality. Climate change presents additional threats to cities’ WEF resources. Fati’s project aims at enhancing resilience and sustainability of two fast-growing African cities, Accra (Ghana) and Kampala (Uganda), through an integrated and participatory assessment.

However, the nature of Fati’s research requires her and her team to conduct household survey visits and engage stakeholders. The COVID-19 lockdown has significantly stalled her research. “In the beginning, we didn’t think that COVID-19 was going to affect Africa,” Fati explains.

“We didn’t think it was going to have any impact on our research. In March, when we started recording cases in Ghana and in Uganda, we started to realize the implications that it would have on our project. We should have finished the household survey in Uganda by now, but it’s on hold.”

Fati Aziz, LIRA Grantee

Despite the fact that Ghana’s partial lockdown was lifted on April 19th, residents are reluctant to return to life as it was. “People are scared,” Fati says. “We were supposed to meet with key government officials to discuss the project recently. Now, we are unable to do that, and there is a big question mark with respect to when we can resume as normal.”

“Right now, countries are battling and everyone is thinking about finding solutions to the pandemic. At this point, it’s not looking so good for early career scientists when it comes to funding. Everybody is feeling the pressure.”

Fati Aziz, LIRA Grantee

Early career researchers have been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic restrictions. Fati hopes to secure funding to continue her research after LIRA, but is concerned about funding cuts as we move into the post-pandemic phase. “I have applied to the CSIRO institute, and other different funders,” she says. “I’ve also applied to some lecturing jobs in Ghana. But I’m not sure I’ll even be considered. Depending on how this whole thing evolves, I think that some of the agencies will cut down on, or cancel funding. Right now, countries are battling and everyone is thinking about finding solutions to the pandemic. At this point, it’s not looking so good for early career scientists when it comes to funding. Everybody is feeling the pressure. If I receive grants, that’s great. But I won’t be surprised if not.”

As global COVID-19 curves continue to peak and then flatten, Fati hopes that funders can take extensions into account, given the time that was lost. “It would be nice to know that it’s possible to have a no-cost extension on the research project. Sometimes you can’t foresee these things, so it would be nice to have some flexibility for future projects.” She also hopes funds can be set aside for future pandemics, or global challenges that may have similar implications.

Nelson Odume, based at Rhodes University South Africa, is leading a project to enhance urban wetland and river ecosystem health in Nigeria and South Africa. “Field data collection of ecological data is on hold,” he says. He is concerned about finishing the LIRA project on time, with research efforts indefinitely stalled.

“The COVID-19 impact on field-based research is huge and has slowed down research effort and progress.”

Nelson Odume, LIRA Grantee

Gladman Thondhlana is currently involved in a research project dedicated to sustainable household energy use practices in Makhanda-Grahamstown, South Africa and Kumasi, Ghana. The project aims to examine household energy use behaviour as a basis for co-designing interventions for improving the efficiency of energy consumption in South Africa and Ghana. A key sustainability challenge relating to cities is unsustainable energy consumption by the residential sector, which in turn, results in negative environmental impacts and energy insecurity.

Similar to Fati’s project, the nature of obtaining and analysing results through Gladman’s research comes from visiting existing households across the nations. COVID-19 lockdowns have compromised the ability to continue with this crucial aspect of the research. “We have not moved beyond the baseline study,” Gladman explains. “Because of the lockdown, we cannot collect monthly consumption data. The next step of the project will have to start supporting, or facilitating the design of alternative household interventions that we think may work.”

However, alternative solutions, such as Zoom and Skype meetings are a luxury– something that many households in these regions do not have and cannot afford. “It’s quite challenging,” Gladman says. “These households we are examining are in the worst condition in terms of access to the internet and gadgets that will facilitate virtual discussion.”

Nelson Odume is facing similar challenges as a researcher in South Africa. “Because we are under strict lockdown regulations, all of our research field work including data collection and workshops are all on hold. The majority of the community participants do not have internet facilities to connect online, making online workshops impossible,” he says.

“As an early career researcher, it’s difficult for me to definitely know what the impact will be on my career, as we are only six weeks into the pandemic. It’s not the post pandemic phase that I am concerned about at the moment. It is now.”

Gladman Thondhlana, LIRA Grantee

Gladman is also hopeful for flexibility from funders during and after the pandemic. “We need to rethink the project long-term, and factor in the lost time. At the moment, there is no active plan to make sure we go ahead with the project because of some of the limitations I highlighted earlier. So if we lose two or three months because of COVID-19, I hope that could be factored in as we move forward.”

LIRA Grantee Kareem Buyana from Makerere University is working on co-creating an urban framework for localized norms on sustainable energy in Kenya and Uganda. He thinks that a positive way forward is ensuring safe physical distancing while in the field collecting data.

Kareem is also concerned that all engagement activities, e.g. co-design workshops, policy seminars – that are critical elements of transdisciplinary research – would have to be cleared by health authorities. He also thinks that the framing of research calls and agendas will change in Africa. Such issues as transition towards sustainable development, climate change risks, food sovereignty, privacy and security in digital transformations, revision of public health guidelines and laws will become high on the agenda. He also believes that transdisciplinarity and cross-sector collaboration are likely to receive more attention than ever before.

“Some of the travel and other budget line expenditures may have to be spent on open access publications, as certain field activities are hampered by mobility restrictions,” Kareem suggests. “Researchers that rely on large population sample sizes may have to embrace electronic means of data collection. The relevance of artificial intelligence in conducting social and natural science research will also have to be explored.”

Learning to live with pandemics and other emergencies, and adapting our methods to continue our research, is on the mind of Sida’s Research Cooperation Unit. “Other important research questions cannot simply disappear just because we have a Coronavirus pandemic at this current moment,” says Markus Moll, Research Advisor at Sida. “That is also something one needs to consider. This will not be the last pandemic. We must look forward and work on pandemic preparedness, and construct sustainable structures that will help when the next pandemic comes.”

Click here to access the International Science Council’s Global Science Portal. The portal shares scientific commentary and analysis and provides access to information on various initiatives, highlighting the scale and scope of response and encouraging ISC members and partners to collaborate and share best practices during this global emergency.

Click here to read more about Fati Aziz, Nelson Odume, Buyana Kareem and Gladman Thondhlana’s projects.

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