Learning to see the wood for the trees: NERC Community for Engaging Environments training

by Dr Monique Huysamen

For five days in September, I exchanged my office in the Psychology Department at the University of Bath, for a slightly more majestic office space – the Wytham Woods in Oxfordshire. I was one of 13 NERC-funded early career researchers selected for the NERC Community for Engaging Environments (NC4EE) training. This intensive five-day training course focused on community-centred approaches to environmental research. The course brought together early career researchers from many different disciplines, who are engaged in a diverse array of environmental research, and are working across a number of geographical contexts including Europe, Africa, and India. What we had in common was a curiosity for how we could better engage with the communities, groups, and individuals who have a stake in the environmental research that we do. As a researcher working on the ReNEW project, which is using Urban Water Profiling to develop an early warning system for public health in South Africa, I jumped at the opportunity advance my community and stakeholder engagement skills.

The NC4EE training was delivered by Earthwatch together with group of leading experts in the fields of environmental science and community and stakeholder engagement from various academic institutions. The training comprised a series of theoretically-informed, hands-on workshops and experiential learning activities. When I say that Wytham Woods was our office for the week, I really mean it. Each day we worked outside under the trees or in the beautiful tents that you see in the picture below.

The overall aim of the training was to build our capacity, as group of early career environmental scientists, to engage in community-minded research. The week equipped us with skills to engage and collaborate with the communities who live in or near, or depend on, the environments we study. Outlining the broader motivation behind this initiative, NERC suggest that, “through close collaboration with communities our long-term goal is to ensure that research delivers mutually beneficial and tangible outcomes for communities, science and the environment” (NC4EE programme outline, 2019).

While the programme was too packed to even begin to describe it all, what we as the participants walked away with was a better understanding of the importance of engaging with communities and other stakeholders (such as decision makers) at every stage of our research. This means going beyond just educating communities around our scientific findings in accessible ways (of course this is important too). It means engaging with those who have a stake in what we study at every step of our research process, from grant writing and project conceptualisation and design, through to data collection and the dissemination of our results. We learned that even the most rigorously designed and well intentioned research projects can fail or actually cause harm if their design is not based on a deep and nuanced understanding of the context within which they operate.

To help us build the capacity for community–minded research, the training offered a variety of activities and theory-driven sessions. This included a full day’s training on citizen science techniques and approaches. Citizen science is based upon the understanding that communities are often already experts about their own environments and/or can help produce valuable scientific knowledge about the environments around them. We had the opportunity to try our hand at some of Earthwatch’s current citizen science projects, including Naturehood and Freshwater Watch (you can get involved too).

There were excellent sessions on stakeholder mapping, providing a set off tools for understanding how power operates within our research at various levels. We were encouraged to develop our reflexivity skills as we reflected upon our own relationships to our environments and our motivations for engaging in kind of work we do. We learned more about developing decolonial approaches to doing and thinking about our research, something I hope to see environmental scientists considering more and more. We were also introduced to the principles of open science and the value of making our data and other resources freely and easily accessible to all. Helpful platforms such as fig share make this easier to achieve.

We arrived as a group of environmental scientists, curious about engaging communities in our research. What we walked away with was a new toolkit that would not only help us to engage in community-driven research, but that would facilitate more collaborative, reflexive, critical, ethical, egalitarian ways of doing environmental research. If you are doing a PhD or are an early career environmental researcher, I highly recommend that you apply to be a part of next year’s NC4EE cohort.

Photography by John Hunt, used with permission from Earthwatch.

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