18 December 2020
By Prof. Melanie Austen, University of Plymouth

Blue Communities focuses on building research capacity towards improving the health, well-being, livelihoods and environmental outcomes of the interactions between people and their marine environment.

Although much of this newsletter inevitably and rightly focuses on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on our activities, we can also recall that at the start of the year we were hearing about the extreme floods in Jakarta (Indonesia), which affected the homes of some of our Universitas Nasional (UNAS) colleagues in Jakarta, and then on-going natural disasters in the SE Asian region, such as the multiple typhoons making landfall in Philippines and Vietnam recently. These all make the work that we have been undertaking in Blue Communities extremely relevant and important.

A recurrent theme in this newsletter is the adaptability and resilience of all who have been working on and delivering the Blue Communities programme, as well as of the coastal communities that they work with and for. Undeniably the pandemic has been challenging to our research and capacity building activity. The health and safety of partners and stakeholders has been our first priority including considerations of workload, work-life balance, mental health and wellbeing. We have missed out on face-to-face training workshops, meetings, and mentoring. Keeping individual researchers and research teams engaged when working remotely is difficult, especially with poor, or unstable internet connection for some staff members working from home, including many of our UK colleagues living in rural areas. In some cases a complete lack of internet has meant that substituting in-person meetings with online meetings is not always successful. A further challenge being the time zone differences, with SE Asia colleagues having to meet with their UK colleagues towards the end of their working day (fine if you are a night owl), and UK partners joining meetings first thing in the morning (great if you are a morning person). Yet, we have all appreciated the reduction in time and carbon emmissions spent travelling. 

Fieldwork in Vietnam once COVID restrictions had liftedWe have adapted to delivering online training courses, we have many online meetings and have all learnt better ways to hold the meetings so that they are productive, lively and engaging. We communicate through a whole variety of social media, we even talk on the phone sometimes and where possible in-country, people have resumed working and meeting face-to-face safely and respectfully. In this regard the UK partners have sometimes looked, initially anxiously, and then enviously and with respect at our partner organisations in SE Asia who have been able to return to such meetings safely and effectively. We are learning from them all the time.

Much of our planned fieldwork was postponed, many staff have been able to use this time to focus on analysis and writing up of results and thus, many research papers are now either submitted for publication in peer-review journals, near completion or in advanced stages of developement. This has been and still is a challenging  part of capacity building with many people either not trained or accustomed to writing research articles for peer-reviewed publication in journals, or similarly unused to working alongside colleagues with so much understanding of their local context but little experience of writing their knowledge up for wider dissemination to a research audience.

Working with stakeholders pre-COVID. Images courtesy of Timur Jack-KadiogluWith great positivity, our partners in SE Asia have worked with the UK partners to co-develop innovative ways of doing fieldwork under the safety measures required for the pandemic, and these have been gradually implemented in our field sites across the region as they have come out of the different restrictions in movement. I was delighted to learn that the final set of surveys of the public, to understand the interdependancies of their health and their use and health of the marine environment, has been completed in our Indonesian field site. This was started in March 2020, but of course had to be delayed. The survey has now been undertaken in all 4 case study sites. Already, the data from Sabah (Malaysia) has been identified as being uniquely pre-COVID-19, and therefore of great value to understanding of public health needs in the area with discussions with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and World Bank underway.

Blue Communities has held a risk register right from the start of the programme, and of course managing risk levels re COVID-19, especially for field-work and keeping ethics up-to-date, has been a big challenge this year. This is exacerbated by the different local policies across the 5 countries in the Partnership and the continuously changing circumstances with different rates of progress and state of lockdown/movement control across Blue Communities. However, our strong collaborative governance through our Executive Group, with representatives from each partner organisation, as well as engagement with and advice from our Advisory Group, has really helped us to manage the risks and to keep Blue Communities progressing through its objectives. We really appreciate and are grateful for the time and effort that our external Advisory Group members contribute to Blue Communities.

As Chair of our Monitoring and Evaluation Committee, as well as Principal Investigator and leader of Blue Communities, I am of course always working with Project Manager Dr Vikki Cheung to ensure and monitor that Blue Communities is on track towards the outputs, outcomes and impacts that we have committed to achieving. I am pleased to say that even with the pandemic, our programme is achieving so much in terms of capacity building and delivering research. Even this year we were able to successfully hold our annual conference, albeit online, enabling us to share our experiences, undertake training, and develop our research papers through a combination of lectures and workshops. We were pleased that this format enabled some external stakeholders to join parts of the meeting. Of course we all missed the informal networking with additional partner team members that we normally associate with our face-to-face meetings; those opportunities to initiate or cement research ideas that happen at  informal discussions during coffee/lunch breaks. Yet our pre-COVID-19 face-to-face meetings, workshops and fieldwork collaborations have really helped us to develop a strong partnership and community, making the transition to virtual meetings much easier than it could have been.

Areas where we have moved strongly forward are the interdisciplinarity of our research. The multiple interconnections between the separate projects are now becoming apparent to our partners and stakeholders, as is the value of the interdisciplinary research collaborations within and across projects and countries. Again this is a great sign that Blue Communities is successfully building towards the outcomes and impacts that we aspire to achieve.

A significant institutional achievement is that for three of the partners in SE Asia who did not previously have ethics panels, two now have panels in their own universities and the third has obtained access to their national ethics panel and is progressing towards implementing their own panel. Our SE Asia partners have developed capability to deliver responsible reporting so that we can ensure progress in Blue Communities. Some of our partners have also been working with Vikki to develop and improve their institutional financial management of international research funding. We are addressing the requirement for good research data management and improving understanding of this area as well as of health and safety requirements in all aspects of research.

At an individual level, all our researchers and partners have achieved so much this year, but I highlight one particular achievement of which we are all very proud: early career researcher Dr Radisti Praptiwi of UNAS, was one of six recipients of the UNESCO Man and Biosphere Young Scientist Award 2020, based on her work in Blue Communities. Congratulations and well deserved Radisti!

Finally, we have implemented a monthly seminar series to enable us to keep track of each other’s research, but also with guest speakers presenting on areas that are of interest to the wider Blue Communities partnerships and stakeholders. Many of our seminars are open to external participation so please do keep an eye out for items that may interest you and come and join us by emailing vikki.cheung@plymouth.ac.uk

Image courtesy of Timur Jack-Kadioglu from his fieldwork in the Philippines pre-COVIDEvery year is a year like no other, yet for most people this one really has been exceptionally challenging. Vikki and I have been so inspired by all our Blue Communities programme partners, by their adaptability and resilience. You will see from this newsletter that many have not only been able to bounce back but also bounce forward, so as we end the year, we wish everyone a peaceful, safe and happy holiday and look forward to a better year in 2021.

To return to Blue Communities News December 2020, please click here.
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