The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged some of the central assumptions of research on transformations to sustainability, even while increasing the need for actionable knowledge about social transformations. The pandemic has also changed the parameters for transdisciplinary and internationally collaborative research. Twelve international, transdisciplinary projects in the Transformations to Sustainability programme share insights on how COVID-19 has impacted on their work. 2020 was continuously surprising and often overwhelming. When the twelve T2S projects convened virtually at the beginning of June 2020, apprehension was palpable and virtual meeting skills shaky. Six months later, in mid-December, the project members were overwhelmingly positive about how well they had adapted to such an unprecedented and still uncertain situation. The vast majority of 50 project representatives at the meeting were at least reasonably satisfied with or even proud of what they had achieved in 2020, under difficult circumstances. At the meeting the project members were asked to reflect on both the main challenges and the positive impacts of the Covid-19 epidemic on their work, how they had adapted to the situation and what they saw as the emerging needs and opportunities for research on transformations to sustainability.
Researchers are humans too
T2S project members highlighted some of the universal work-related challenges during the pandemic – the pressures of working from home while looking after young children, or conversely the sheer inability to work from home due to lack of infrastructure, both of which significantly affected productivity (and personal wellbeing). On the positive side, colleagues and funders showed empathy, understanding and patience, while the teams pulled together and demonstrated flexibility, resilience and commitment to the projects.
Co-production can only go so far in a virtual world
Fieldwork and data collection posed the major practical challenge for most projects. Unable to travel and meet in person with research participants, the projects adapted by moving interview and other data collection methods online, which to a certain extent was rather successful. Certain stakeholder communities remained very receptive to digital contact and communication with them was perhaps even easier than before. For example, one project reported having better access to women via online means. However, many T2S projects are working with the world’s marginalized communities, which are not accessible by digital means and with whom personal contact is essential; their contribution to and engagement in the projects has suffered. In this sense the T2S programme provides more evidence of how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the social inequalities that the projects aimed to alleviate. Even projects working with well-connected partners in the Global North have found it challenging to build new relationships and trust with research participants by virtual means. Co-production, so vital in research for transformations, is clearly limited in a virtual world.
The pandemic has given a boost to methodological creativity, innovation and inclusiveness
For many project members, the constraints imposed by the pandemic were the spur to become creative in adapting or radically changing methodologies for data collection and stakeholder engagement, to learn new skills in the use of digital tools and to pause to reflect on how to do things differently in the new context. People’s readiness to meet virtually increased, and virtual meetings became more efficient. There was a sense that virtual meetings democratized the research and learning process, as many meetings and conferences went online and there were fewer barriers to participation. Some felt that communication, interaction and cross-fertilization within the projects improved because of the frequency of virtual meetings. Some also used the time not collecting data in the field to reflect more deeply on what could be learned from existing data. In contrast, others noted the pressure to participate in ever more virtual meetings, which, apart from creating fatigue, eats into time that could be used for analysis, writing and publishing. One person suggested that there be fewer meetings, but more sharing.
Fundamental challenges for social transformations research
The pandemic has made transdisciplinary work with disempowered communities more difficult. It has also exposed and called into question some of the assumptions of research on transformations to sustainability. What does transformation mean in the context of the massive disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic? The pandemic has lit up with a flash the complexity of the drivers of unsustainability and the uncertainties of the present and the future. Is the pandemic heralding a positive global transformation or is it a temporary disturbance that will generate vigorous and competitive efforts to rebound? Is it an unprecedented opportunity to mobilize a newly sensitized global community around transformations to sustainability or does it demonstrate that powerful, undesired transformations are well underway and not at all within our control? As one project member wrote, ‘The desire to return to ‘normal’ is a powerful discourse (as much as the idea that we will not return to ‘normal’). This is a challenge for transformation-oriented research.’ Reflecting these uncertainties and ambivalences, many projects sensed a shift in the priorities of their research participants and stakeholders, and doubts about their continuing ability or willingness to engage in a differently focused project. Some projects have shifted their focus to take advantage of new learning opportunities brought by COVID, while others caution against losing sight of important research questions unrelated to COVID. The new situation is bringing some of the researchers to reflect on the role of the scientist in such a context, and the impact they can hope to achieve.
What do the projects need now?
On a practical level, what the projects need to be able to achieve their main objectives is time, and preferably supplementary funding, particularly for the post-doctoral researchers employed on the projects; while the projects have been granted no-cost extensions, it may not be possible for the funders to extend the contracts of the post-docs, leaving both the project and the early career researchers vulnerable at a difficult time. Some feared that the delays in data collection and analysis done by post-docs may now result in unfinished projects, if the post-docs need to leave for economic reasons. Apart from that, the projects called unanimously for more cross-project sharing and discussion on:
- Collecting data and working with stakeholders, especially vulnerable communities, in the context of COVID-19
- Understandings or models of transformation and sustainability and how to measure them, particularly in the context of COVID-19
- Understandings of other concepts such as ‘development’, ‘Global South’, etc.
The main suggestions as to how to accomplish the desired exchange were through:
- Shared document for methods, practices, what worked, etc.
- Repository of literature on digital research and engagement methods and tools
- A joint publication on experiences with digital interviews/research methods
- Providing research data to open data repositories
Anticipating the challenges
The challenges the project members see ahead are multiple. They include the changing priorities of the communities they want to work with and the looming impossibility of working with remote or vulnerable communities in the future. How can such communities be empowered to engage in research in such circumstances? What ethical questions arise, in view of the imbalance of resources available to researchers in the Global North and research participants in the Global South? The needs and challenges were also seen as opportunities: to better understand the relationship between COVID-19, transformation and sustainability and to envision what ‘post-COVID’ might look like; to harness and advance digital technologies for engaged, co-produced research for transformations; to address the vulnerabilities mirrored and reinforced by COVID. Adding to other calls for transdisciplinary research funding to be longer term and more flexible than for more conventional research, the project members recommended, somewhat unsurprisingly, that funders make funding available for follow-up research. Above all, what is needed from project members and programme coordinators as the projects head into their final 18 months is patience, empathy and good communication.
- See the feedback from T2S researchers in answer to the question: What have been the most surprising, challenging or positive impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on your research or work?
- See the feedback submitted in answer to the question: What new needs, challenges or opportunities are opening up for research on transformations to sustainability in 2021?
The following preprint is an interesting, systematic study of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on collaborative (transdisciplinary) research: Arnott, James and Russell, Patrice and Bath, Sean and Bednarek, Angela and Combest-Friedman, Chelsea and Fisher, Leah and George, Douglas and Hudson, Charlotte and Maillard, Lisa and Moser, Susanne and Read, Jennifer and Seiztzinger, Sybil and Soberal, Nicholas and Teicher, Hannah and Zycherman, Ariela, Collaborative Research in a Virtual World: Implications of COVID-19 for the Co-Production of Environmental Knowledge and Solutions (December 24, 2020). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3755008 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3755008
Heading photo: Frederic Huybrechs (TruePATH project).