Researchers as icebreakers

Researchers as icebreakers

Per Stålnacke and stakeholders.jpg

Researchers from Bioforsk act as icebreakers in water conflicts. Objective research results serve as the basis for dialogue between stakeholders.


By Anette Tjomsland

Conflicts concerning water, food and natural resources are due to sectorial misconception, poor governance and stakeholders with their own interest in sole focus.

Senior researcher Per Stålnacke from Bioforsk conducts research on integrated water resources management in Europe and Asia. He emphasises the importance of adjusting scientific output communication to various target groups by making research understandable for representatives from the different sectors.

“Arguments between economic sectors often have their origin in that the stakeholders only find “truth” in their own paradigm. When we present data in a more objective and holistic fashion, we can act as icebreakers. In addition, neutral information based on actual research results gets people talking, which are another key component.”

The experienced researcher explains that by involving stakeholders, researchers can build trust by making people understand that the research team has a genuine interest in solving their specific problems. The researchers listen to all stakeholders, and adapt the projects to the stakeholders’ actual needs.

Stakeholder workshop in Hydearabad, India. Per Stålnacke to the left. Photo: Ragnar Våga Pedersen


From grassroot to government

“We integrate science, policy and capacity building. These are key components for future strategies,” says senior researcher Nagothu Udaya Sekhar from Bioforsk.
He has broad research experience from Asia, focusing especially on agriculture and water management in India.

“It is very popular to say that you link science and policy, but in our projects we actually put this into practise through active stakeholder advisory committees, which are formalised through government approval. We have the same structure in all the provinces we work in in India.”

The committees are unique as their members consist of stakeholders ranging from local farmers and village representatives, to regional and national policy makers. This has proved to be a viable working method in several research projects Bioforsk has carried out in Asia and Europe.

“We sit together with these groups right from the start of the project, through the development stage, and all the way to the end of the project. We ask them for inputs and critical feedback throughout the entire process,” says Sekhar.

Dr V. Geethalakshmi from Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU) to the left, interviewing and discussing with a local farmer. Nagothu Udaya Sekhar from Bioforsk in the background. Photo: Ragnar Våga Pedersen.


Crucial capacity building

Government officials also give their approval of the project proposal before the project begins. Sekhar emphasises that this is a key component to succeed in upscaling the results developed in the projects.

“If you want to upscale a new technology, you need to lift it to the policy level, and as we already have the policy makers on board, the process becomes much easier.”
Sekhar believes that capacity building is another essential key to success, and to ensure sustainability of the project results.

“If you come up with a very smart water saving technology, there is no guarantee that the government likes it, or that the farmers will be able to make use of it. Make sure to include the farmers in the development and further capacity building, and to make the knowledge contextual.”

Farmers are an important target group in Bioforsk’s projects in India.

“Our main challenge is how to customize our research and adapt it to the needs of small-scale farmers.”

These days, there is a growing international recognition that research often fails to solve the problems of target groups, due to a lack of target group involvement from the beginning of a project. Per Stålnacke notes that there appears to be an increasing demand in EU-projects to involve stakeholders throughout the entire process.

“Internationally, within water and pollution research, it is very common to have an advisory group. However, the group is rarely included in project activities before towards the end of the project. It is relatively unusual to involve target groups as early as we do,” says Per Stålnacke.

Rice planting. Photo: Ragnar Våga Pedersen.


Untapped potential for development research

The Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad) is interested in linking  Bioforsk’s experience in India and Asia with sub-Saharan Africa in areas related to food security, in particular sustainable and climate smart rice production systems. The request has its background in Bioforsk’s experience with climate change and food security in Asia, as well as the broad stakeholder approach the research institute often takes.

“We wish to explore how our experiences from South Asia are useful to the situation in Africa, especially in rice production,” says Sekhar.

Per Stålnacke believes there is untapped potential to increase the cooperation between research and development institutions.

"This is clearly something we are passionate about; we have learned that we can actually be of aid to society, and that is among other things interesting from our point of view as researchers.”

There is, however, a barrier in the organisation of research funding, and the criteria selection for support. Development research in Norway is primarily channelled through the Research Council of Norway (RCN).

“The problem with this model is that you risk ending up with a unilateral research perspective, which I believe will bring less optimal solutions to real problems. The criteria for project support need to focus on solving practical problems for a country or a region, and less on pure scientific criteria,” says Stålnacke.

He stresses that it is important to have clear definitions of which developmental issues the research aims to solve.

“I believe that development research should not only consist of research for the sake of research.”
Stålnacke says that RCN needs to change its current criterions to make this possible.

“Norway has a strong tradition of knowledge-based management. I believe it would be wise to continue to export and implement this approach outside our own borders.”


Read also: Climate change and agriculture in India is the focus of a new peer-reviewed book by Bioforsk and the International Water Management Institute.


Relevant project websites:

Lagoons - Integrated water resources and coastal zone management in European lagoons in the context of climate change

ClimaAdapt - An integrated science-stakeholder-policy approach to develop adaptation framework for water and agriculture sectors