20 December 2019
By Prof. Melanie Austen, Programme Director, Plymouth Marine Laboratory

When we produced our first newsletter just over a year ago I wrote about the how proud I was to be able to lead a fantastic team of researchers across the UK and SE Asia in the Blue Communities project. The progress that has been made over nearly 2 years (already!) tells me that my pride was not at all misplaced. Our progress has been achieved through collaborative working and mutual support among the research teams, building research capacity through training events and learning-by-doing.

We have been co-developing and co-delivering novel and innovative research in the four Blue Communities case study sites in Palawan (Philippines), Sabah Marine Park (Malaysia), Taka Bonerate (Indonesia) and Cu Lao Cham (Vietnam). There have been training workshops, stakeholder consultations and data collection. We have had a start-up meeting in Kuala Lumpur, an annual project meeting in Palawan, and this year our second Annual Meeting took place in Plymouth co-hosted by Plymouth Marine Laboratory and the University of Plymouth over a packed 2 weeks in August.

Annual meeting in Plymouth

The Plymouth meeting enabled everyone to get up to date on project progress, to have discussions that ensure we maximise on our interdisciplinary approaches, integrate and synthesise across the different strands of Blue Communities – from governance to ecology and ecosystem services, remote sensing to public health towards delivering support for better marine planning, and sharing our experiences to learn lessons from what has and hasn’t worked well.

A week of training and analysis enabled partners to work together on data analysis and in some cases to start to write up the results for publication. A highlight was our field trip to the North Devon UNESCO Biosphere Reserve to see for ourselves the similarities and differences between this UK example and the case study sites in SE Asia that Blue Communities is focusing on. This, along with visits to e.g. Mount Edgcumbe Park, Kingsand and Cawsand, and to the Eden project gave our visitors an opportunity to see some of our wonderful SW England countryside.

Our packed 2 weeks of meeting and training has been reflected in the high level of research and training activity that has been undertaken already during the Blue Communities project. You can read about some of the research that is underway elsewhere in this newsletter and on our web site, so I thought it might be interesting to reflect here on some of our overarching achievements already in the programme.

Across the Programme we now have around 100 staff currently participating. This is a 78% increase from the staff at the beginning of the Blue Communities Programme, and the largest increases have been in staff in the Universities in our case study sites.  It is also great to see that our gender balance is very close to 50:50.

There has been a lot of progress on building both individual and institutional research capacity. For Case Study Partner researchers this includes individual development through training, co-development and co-delivery of research in the following areas (relating to Blue Communities projects):  
  • Application of evidence synthesis methods.
  • Governance analysis.
  • Ecosystem services synthesis.
  • Assessment of suitable sites for renewable energy.
  • Assessment of health and well-being.
  • Interpretation of earth observation imagery.
  • Application of modelling tools to evaluate the impact of climate change to marine resources.
  • Systematic scenario planning and communicating to stakeholders.
For many researchers this has also involved building capability in facilitating stakeholder workshops and events and gathering suitable data for onwards analysis and interpretation. At an institutional level we have explored and developed capabilities in the following areas: 
  • How to proceed with research that involves human participants i.e. processes involved in ethics applications. This has included developing local ethics processes in the three case study partner universities where this did not previously exist.
  • Best practices for managing data.
  • Best practices for health and safety (particularly when conducting fieldwork).
  • Best practices for financial reporting and administrative trails.

For the UK researchers and partner organisations there has been considerable capacity building to improve understanding of the local communities and stakeholders’ concerns and challenges, particularly by being present at the Case Study when stakeholder workshops were being conducted and engaging where possible with the different community and stakeholder groups. UK researchers have a greater awareness and understanding of some of the local challenges for their collaborating case study partner researchers. For example, intermittent electricity supply and unreliable internet connectivity create challenges for downloading files/data and internet based communications.
Blue Communities has set up its own active Early Career Researchers’ Network (ECRN). This was initiated by Professor Lora Fleming (University of Exeter) and Professor Sabine Pahl (University of Plymouth) and facilitated by Liliana Bastian and Timur Jack-Kadioglu, both from the University of Exeter, as organising Co-chairs with support from the Western Philippines University, and then taken forward by Joel Sumeldan and John Roderick Madarcos (Western Philippines University) as Co-Chairs. Some of our capacity building activities have been tailored to focus on the needs of Early Career Researchers’. These have included proposal writing, and science leadership workshops. We have also run our first competition for funding for Pilot Research Projects for Early Career Researchers within Blue Communities. The funding competition was created in large by the Early Career Researchers themselves and gave them first-hand experience of developing research ideas, working collaboratively with other researchers on proposals, preparation of budgets and management and delivery plans.
I am very grateful for all the support I receive from all of the Blue Communities participants, but special mentions should go to Project Manager Dr Vikki Cheung, all of the members of our Executive Group and our wonderful Advisory Group. I also thank everyone in Blue Communities for their continued hard work, enthusiasm and dedication to the Blue Communities Programme over the last year.

Looking forward to 2020 it is clear that our research projects are already yielding great results and there is a healthy list of expected research publications. We will continue to encourage and facilitate synthesis and integration of research across the different Blue Communities projects so that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. Most important, we will work together to ensure that our research is of benefit and use to the communities and stakeholders we are working with, and the marine environments within our case study sites whilst sharing the lessons that we are learning in Blue Communities more widely.
Finally, to all who are engaged in Blue Communities and all who are interested in what we are doing, I wish you Season's Greetings, peaceful and happy holidays and a very Happy New Year!
  • Discussing ecosystem services at the Annual Meeting in Plymouth
  • Discussions about the case study sites
  • A tour of PML's algal cultivation lab
  • Exploring the sand dunes of the UNESCO North Devon Biosphere Reserve
  • The team at the UNESCO North Devon Biosphere Reserve
  • Other recent newsletter articles

    Update of the Early Career Researchers Network

    11 December 2019

    By Joel Sumeldan and John Roderick Madarcos (Western Philippines University)

    Past activities for Future Scenarios

    18 December 2019

    By Dr Susan Kay, Plymouth Marine Laboratory

    Great progress from partners in Vietnam

    22 November 2019

    By Dr Duong Minh Lam, Hanoi National University of Education (Vietnam)

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