Saturday, 1 September 2018

Research for (Policy) Impact

Demonstrating policy impact of research is becoming increasingly important. In countries like the UK, the Research Excellence Framework ensures that incentives are tied to demonstrating impact. While we aren't there yet in India, spaces such as IIHS and CPR India are increasingly contributing to conversations at the research-policy interface.

Podcast on research impact

In this context, I enjoyed listening to ANU's recent Policy Forum Podcast episode on policy impact, which touches upon research impact, questioning one's motives for doing research, and how to engage in meaningful research despite the neoliberalisation of higher education. Prof Mark Reed, Professor of Social Innovation at Newcastle University and a research impact wiz, talks of his experiences of trying to ‘make a difference’. Few things from the podcast that really spoke to me:
  • Need more thought at proposal writing stages to consider the dangers of cobbling together ill-suited research/policy/practice partners to bid for trans- and inter-disciplinary research initiatives
  • Need more training on doing interdisciplinary research that often calls for working with people with different worldviews, methodological leanings, and crucially, different motivations
  • Doing a rapid stakeholder mapping to discover and forge new, non-research partnerships is useful ongoing exercise for researchers
  • Question your motives and ability to nurture relationships over time: "If you want to make a difference, you have to be in this for the long game. This (research impact) is fundamentally about relationships and it has to be two-way...there has to be humility in these relationships."

Two papers on developing the skills, space for research impact 

Also read two interesting articles on research impact and being an engaged, impactful researcher (thanks Georgina Cundill for the recommendation!):
Cvitanovic and Hobday (2018) Building optimism at the environmental science-policy-practice interface through the study of bright spots in Nature Communications
Evans and Cvitanovic (2018) An introduction to achieving policy impact for early career researchers in Palgrave Communications (here's a blog post based on the paper)
Cvitanovic and Hobday (2018) call for changing the terminology of 'gaps' across the science–policy–practice interfaces to a focus on 'bright spots'. This is something that has struck me in climate change adaptation research as well where there is a focus on identifying, enumerating and finding solutions to 'adaptation barriers'. Changing the narrative on this means finding leverage points and entry spaces where one learns from success AND failure instead of success stories OR examples of failure. 

The second paper refreshingly argues that being honest and humble researchers is key for impact. In my experience, humility and honesty are critical to strong, effective and inclusive research teams. I've discussed the role of empathy in scenario planning exercises and find that creating a conducive environment as a first step of impactful research is still an under-acknowledged aspect of interdisciplinary work.

The two papers also discuss the need for understanding policy in practice before being able to influence it. This is critical, especially in countries such as India, where a lot of policy influencing is hidden and policy conversations and spaces are often closed off. During my PhD, being a young female researcher who had to engage with all-male irrigation department officials, was a challenging and sometimes dangerous part of data collection. I regularly faced inappropriate invitations to visit their homes, and although unofficial conversations would have helped building a rapport so crucial for policy impact, my gender and age sharply shaped my ability and experience to nurture beyond-research relationships. 

I think the messiness and informal nature of policy making is something researchers don't appreciate fully. I look forward to reading (or perhaps writing?!) more about it, especially experiences of trying to achieve research impact in the Global South (where, I have a hunch things are messier and more closed off but that might just be a hunch). 


My own experience of research impact

In a bid to start thinking of making my own research more 'impact-friendly', earlier this year I helped collate eight farmer stories documenting bottom-up, policy-facing solutions in climate change adaptation in the agriculture sector in South India.

We collected these stories of change where farmers facing significant hardship such as growing water scarcity, small landholding, and market fluctuations have overcome them through a mix of personal innovation and ingenuity, and institutional support.

We consciously decided not to publish a paper from it and instead launched a booklet in English and Kannada (the local language) and invited the farmers to speak about their experiences at the launch. Having government and civil society representatives at the launch (with whom we had built relationships over the past few years of our wider research project) made the event more meaningful. We've already had had interest from popular media (Time of IndiaIndiaSpend, Business Standard covered our work) and NGOs beyond the region have ordered the open access booklet to learn from these farmer stories. Small steps, but important nonetheless. 

Saturday, 25 August 2018

Link Pack #12: Three papers on barriers to adaptation

I recently came across three papers on adaptation barriers which are a back and forth between some authors in the Canadian Journal of Forest Research. Although focussed on adaptation barriers in the forestry sector, the points they make are quite interesting for climate change researchers in general.

  • Williamson and Nelson 2017: Talk of 3 types of barriers - harmoninsation barriers, enabling barriers, and implementation barriers in the context of the forestry sector. The paper's acknowledgement of the intersecting, subjective, and dynamic nature of barriers is particularly welcome and something I've been trying to articulate in the context of adaptation in Indian agriculture

Harmonization barriers pertain to differences between adaptation and mitigation in pre-existing frames and beliefs. Enabling barriers are psychological and institutional in nature. Implementation barriers include capacity deficits (e.g., funding limits, science and knowledge deficits regarding benefits, trade-offs, and synergies between adaptation and mitigation) and governance issues. Barriers are interrelated, dynamic, and subjective. 
(Williamson and Nelson 2017:1568)

  • Wellstead et al. 2018: Sharply critique Williamson and Nelson (2017) and call for examining the underlying causal mechanisms when studying barriers to open up a discussion on internal processes and dynamics that cause/perpetuate barriers instead of treating barriers in a system as a linear input-output model (i.e. if you remove barriers, desirable outcomes will be achieved). They particularly critique Williamson and Nelson's ' functionalist approach', the act of explaining early events by another event later in time. This style of reasoning, Wellstead et al.  argue masks the process of decision-making and does little to inform adaptation implementation. They say it assumes that 'socio-political systems will automatically adjust to changes provided that barriers are removed' (p.2). 
  • Williamson and Nelson 2018 reply back, saying the 'barriers approach' (listing out barriers to a desirable outcome) is important and a common practice in adaptation research (I agree) but acknowledge that using social science methodologies that focus on process and context are a useful addition.

Of course, the back and forth in the papers isn't as friendly as I make them out to be but the arguments raised are interesting and important. They highlight a fundamental difference in how different disciplinary stances and starting points can frame the issue of adaptation barriers. 

Read previous link packs here.

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Link Pack #11: Deep Work, Mindfulness and a Paper on Caste

Paper: The inimitable David Mosse recently wrote a paper in World Development called Caste and development: Contemporary perspectives on a structure of discrimination and advantage. It is an important paper that looks at caste in its various dimensions—economic divisions based on occupation, political through systems of dominance and rule, and ideological which is closely linked to ideas of purity and impurity. I particularly enjoyed Mosse's review of the implications of caste on economic inequality, where he cites literature from rural India's longitudinal village studies as well as assessment of public services delivery by development economists.

However, I missed a discussion on sub-caste differences that goes beyond Dailts vs. the rest (to be fair they are alluded to but not detailed). As recent work shows, understanding intra-caste inequalities is critical but does not receive as much attention as commonly stated hierarchies of ST/SC/OBC/General do.

Mosse also makes a very useful point about how there are shifts in what caste means and confers. Thus, as villagers integrate into the regional economy, caste is reconfigured as a "a resource or strategic network for access into this economy and workforce" (p.427, emphasis in original). However, when caste connotations move from "honor to opportunity" (ibid.), it is relegated to further invisibility. This is why the oft-repeated argument that the move from rural to urban areas allows loosening of caste-based discrimination might be erroneous since caste-based identity does not disappear, it merely morphs or in come cases, becomes invisible. The paper is an important read for anyone working on development issues in India.

Podcast: Ezra Klein's podcast is my latest favourite thing to listen to (I listen to podcasts while cooking and find the mix of stimulating my auditory and olfactory senses quite a nice change from being tied to a laptop!). Two great episodes I particularly liked:
  1. His conversation with Cal Newport (computer scientist at Georgetown University who also advocates for 'deep work'). They talk of distractedness and productivity (the two most overused words of the decade!), but more importantly, of 'mental callisthenics' or workouts for the brain. Towards the end, Newport suggests a few immediate tasks one can do for improving your mental health/attention span/proclivity for deep work: start putting on your calendar some appointments with yourself to do deep work; take social media applications off your phone; and schedule the time you do novel, distracting, stimulating things.
  2. His conversation with Robert Wright, on Why Buddhism is True is a thought-provoking conversation about the practical benefits of meditation, where mindfulness meets evolutionary biology, and how to navigate an era of fast news and information overload. A must-listen for over-stretched academics with a mountain of to-read papers and to-write-down ideas.
Read previous link packs here

New paper: Risks and responses in India’s drylands

The latest World Bank Report on climate change in South Asia proclaims South Asia is highly vulnerable to climate change. And it’s getting worse”. There is an ever-increasing body of research showing that India is facing and will continue to face rising temperatures, more erratic rainfall, and more severe drought-like conditions. The implications of these changes will be and are already being felt in India’s drylands; recent research is showing that semi-arid regions have expanded by 10% expansion in recent decades. Given that India’s most vulnerable populations inhabit its semi-arid lands; such environmental changes have grave implications on local livelihoods.

A view from the bottom up shows that communities in drylands across India are no strangers to climatic risks and have honed ways to cope with and plan for them through innovating and trial and error. There is a rich repository of local action such as water harvesting in Rajasthan, saving seeds of drought-tolerant varieties, and tank irrigation across South India. However, these practices are facing unprecedented hurdles – dry spells are becoming longer and more erratic, pasturelands are shrinking, winter temperatures are warmer affecting crop productivity, and soil fertility is rapidly deteriorating. Numerous climate change studies assess response strategies people undertake to deal with these risks. However, there is less focus on how these risks and responses change over time. We studied 825 households in two districts of Karnataka, South India, to understand how risks and responses in farming households are changing and the role of external actors – governments, NGOs – in helping people cope with and adapt to this changing risk landscape. 

Drylands across India are seeing rapid land degradation. In this dried lake bed in Kolar, alien invasive species such as Lantana camara (pink, flowering plant in the foreground) and Eucalytpus (dark green trees in the background) signal an ecosystem that is changing, often at the cost of fodder availability and soil quality. Livestock owners across Kolar, often called 'the land of milk and silk', are reporting having to sell livestock or purchase fodder at almost prohibitive costs. Picture: Chandni Singh, Malur Block, Kolar.


What risks are rural households facing?

We asked 825 households in Kolar and Gulbarga
to rank risks they face in farming. Top risks were
mainly climatic as the graph shows. Other risks
were deteriorating soil quality, lack of quality
seeds at the right time, and pest attacks.
Source: Singh et al. 2018 

Kolar and Gulbarga are experiencing more erratic rainfall patterns, groundwater depletion, and natural resource degradation. There is substantial variability in rainfall amount in the past decades with a significant declining trend in rainfall amount in Kolar district.

Overall, untimely rainfall and water scarcity were significant risks to agriculture, corroborating meteorological trends of more erratic rainfall. Market-related issues such as inadequate transportation, long distance from markets, and price fluctuations were
prominently raised by men; women reported issues related to sowing such as poor soil quality and lack of seeds.

Other livelihoods such as running petty shops were constrained by lack of credit, existing debt, and gendered normative barriers (women spoke of being harassed and having to take male relatives when purchasing supplies for their shops).

Youngsters spoke of issues not commonly discussed in climate change research. For example, a 22-year-old boy reported seeing ‘no alternative’ to wage labour; another 19-year-old son of a smallholder said he was disinterested in farming because of its low returns. While these can constitute cognitive barriers in undertaking certain strategies, they also point to an aspirational change underway in rural areas which is stemming from growing despair with agrarian livelihoods, increasing education among rural youth, and more exposure to urban life. While these risks are often intangible, they can manifest as important factors shaping peoples' responses.


Drip irrigation is a common water saving strategy across Kolar district in South Karnataka. Bolstered by a 100% state subsidy, drip irrigation has been rapidly employed across Karnataka and has helped manage a scarce resource. However, mulberry, a common crop which feeds the silviculture sector in Kolar is facing new risks. Cheap Chinese silk has flooded the international market, crowding out Kolar silk. Understanding this dynamic landscape of risks farmers face is critical to support local livelihoods. Picture: Chandni Singh, Bangarpet Block, Kolar.

People have a portfolio of risk management strategies


People cope or adapt either themselves (autonomously) or through external support (planned adaptation interventions). We found a range of strategies from short-term coping strategies (e.g. reducing food intake during lean months or taking up non-farm activities to earn extra money) to longer-term adaptive strategies such as investing in water-saving infrastructure such as drip irrigation. Critically, 36% of the households reported undertaking no response. These were often the most vulnerable; too poor to invest in strategies for water management, lacking the social networks to access adaptation opportunities, or not having the know how about what strategy to employ.

Migration to urban areas is another common strategy to manage risks. However, while drought-prone districts such as Gulbarga have had a history of migration, we found that the nature and quantum of migration is changing. Increasingly, women are also moving and the jobs they enter are increasingly non-agrarian in nature. In Bangalore, we visited several migrant families living in informal settlements such as the one above, where men and women take up a range of informal livelihoods to make ends meet. 
Picture: Chandni Singh, informal settlement in North Bangalore.

So what? Insights for sustainable adaptation


To understand the implications of these responses strategies, we used a sustainability lens and assessed select response strategies based on whether they had ecological impacts (did they inadvertently use more water or reduce species diversity?), economic impacts (did they improve household income?), and social implications (did they build or undermine social networks, did they exacerbate inter-household inequities?).

We examined the implications of household responses using a sustainability lens and found very few strategies actually met economic, ecological and social goals. This exercise highlighted how each adaptation or coping strategy comes with trade-offs and when investing in local adaptation, acknowledging and planning for these trade-offs is critical. Source:  Singh et al. 2018 

Overall, people in semi-arid regions are managing risk in innovative ways. They are drawing on their own resources and government schemes to deal with risk. However, the context within which they are operating is changing rapidly, often rendering adaptive strategies ineffective or, in some examples, potentially maladaptive. Through the use of a sustainability lens for assessing adaptation outcomes, we highlight how acknowledging the ever-changing nature of risks and responses and a focus on trade-offs is critical towards sustainable adaptation.

For more insights, do read the paper here.

Monday, 23 July 2018

Link Pack #10: A desi dinosaur and a paper on development pedagogy

In a bid to blog more regularly, I am reinstating my 'link packs' series where I discuss interesting things I've read/heard/seen in the week. Hope you enjoy them and as much as I did!

Book: I have finally got around to reading Pranay Lal's impressive book Indica: A deep natural history of the Indian subcontinent. Just halfway through the book but it is already something I wished I had to read in school - would've made my geology, geography, biology classes so much more interesting. In case you aren't convinced, he introduced me to India's very own dinosaur the Kashmirosaurus! Now why weren't we taught that growing up? [PS: Here's a great review of the book by Valmik Thapar.]

Paper: Prof Petra Tschakert's new paper "Affective dimensions of teaching and doing development" is a treat for anyone doing/teaching development. Drawing on reflections from two masters courses at the University of Western Australia, the authors (a professor, a teaching assistant, and the students themselves) reflect on how emotional engagements with development theory, and practice are critical to make sense of the dilemmas most (if not all) those involved in the development sector face. They enter this messy and often very uncomfortable space through four lenses: "false binaries (male/female, rational/emotional; north/south, rich/poor, developed/developing and modern/traditional); engagement with the ‘Other’ (the quintessential development ‘subject’) and positionality (our own positionality as development scholars and future practitioners); embodied learning (creating spaces for bodily experiences) and postdevelopment (engaging all our senses)" (p.2). As a relatively privileged person doing research in often very vulnerable communities, the tussles the students recount were very familiar to me. In capturing and making sense of some of these tussles, I think this is an important paper for all of us who try to 'do' and teach development.

Podcast: Finally got to Caliphate, a 10-episode podcast by Rukmini Callimachi, who takes the listeners on her quest to understand the ISIS, its compulsions and outcomes. I heard savoured it over ten days and I can't recommend it enough. Please listen to it now!

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

What are the costs of studying over-researched places?

Over at Twitter, Cat Button recently advertised a Call for Papers on "Over-researched Places". Fascinating right? Wondering about research spaces that are revisited and researched repeatedly, she calls for reflexive interrogation of the issue of "researcher saturation and its consequences".

Over-researched places in urban India

The idea immediately appealed to me. In development research across urban India, metropolitan regions — the big five of Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai and Calcutta have been, in my opinion, over-researched. You have now oft-repeated narratives of Bangalore's Silicon Valley story vs. it's growing inequality; Mumbai's flood management and inherent 'resilience'; Delhi bastis and regular evictions. But we hear less of Tier II and Tier III cities which are also spaces of dynamism and aspirational change; spaces where 'step-migrants' often come to before moving to big cities; and sites where environmental problems have still not become the behemoths they have in our metropolitan cities.
In itself, repeated research in a place is not a negative methodological practice; in fact, development researchers often bemoan the lack of longitudinal studies and the diminishing practice of long-term village studies. However, conducting research in the same places, even if by different researchers, with different questions, and operating in different sectors, potentially drives what you look for and what you find. Some examples?
  • Over-researched as a process of obscuring: In climate change adaptation research in India's cities, the over-researched are pretty conspicuous. The usual suspects are Surat, Gorakhpur, and Indore, regularly written about and quoted as 'success stories' mostly because of a long-term ACCRN project that funded research-based adaptation implementation in the cities. My concern is that such over-researched places tend to obscure other places which perhaps need more attention and, in some cases, can provide additional insights to the issue of implementing sustainable adaptation. Moreover, even if different PD students visit these sights, previous conceptual frames and methodological tools tend to colour their enquiries (similar to what Cat calls 'Ghosts of Researchers Past'). 
  • Lacunae within the over-researched: As my colleague Amogh pointed out on Twitter, over-researched 'places' often lead to 'over-researched sectors'. For example, Bangalore's water and transportation issues have received a tremendous amount of research attention, with much lower commentary on energy, food, or employment. Even within sectors such as water, he rightly points out that there are still big data gaps (such as on groundwater). In Delhi, (the lack of) equitable water provisioning and housing tend to overshadow issues around informal livelihoods, shrinking commons, etc. While there is a reason that the over-researched sectors are important (they have, over time, been identified as critical issues in the city), they might push researchers to continue to study what has been studied. The data is available, there is a discourse to embed one's arguments into or against. Such peripheralisation of sectors and certain groups within the spaces that are over-researched means than not only change and dynamism but also creativity and novelty may get sidelined.  
  • Forgotten places or the un-researched: Finally, there are some places that remain completely un-researched. Here, I feel fit the smaller cities in India. Especially in climate change and environmental research, these spaces are seldom researched and if so, only as part of large-scale studies. The danger of the un-researched is that we end up telling half-stories and overlook critical spaces of challenges and opportunity.  
But what of under-researched places?

I went the other way in my PhD and researched a completely under-researched site in South Rajasthan. My choice was driven by the fact that water scarcity has been over-studied in Rajasthan's arid northern districts with lesser emphasis on the relatively wetter but nevertheless water-scarce southern districts. Even within South Rajasthan, some districts such as Udaipur, are over-researched and over-implemented in — NGO friends joked that each village in Udaipur has three NGOs operational — one each for education, environmental, and health issues.

One of the few unexpected things I found in under-researched
places. Afeem (opium) plantations in Pratapgarh.
I enjoyed exploring new things in Pratapgarh, the under-researched place, which was the site of my PhD research. However, I did face issues specific to sites not studied before. Gaps in longitudinal data were a major challenge. There are no papers and very little grey literature on Pratapgarh's history of socio-political marginalisation, its peculiar geography of basalt under-rock, its development trajectory, it's agricultural transformation and pertinent for me, its response to drought and water scarcity. So triangulating as I went along, I followed my supervisor's advice closely, "be like a bird, collect everything you can to make your nest".

Despite liaising with a fantastic NGO that eased my entry into the research locations, the lack of previous research in the area meant gaining entry was much tougher. I did not have the social capital that researchers of over-researched places can draw upon, I built my networks and garnered local interest in my work as I went along. I did not have longer-term datasets that they can compare their findings to. I did not have a cohort of scholars already talking about and publishing research from the location.

And so, both over- and under-researched areas have their pitfalls and bonuses. What is crucial is to keep in mind that where one does one's research critically shapes what we study, how we study it and perhaps, what we find. Any thoughts on this? Why not submit a paper to Cat Button's RGS session?

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Adaptation pathways: two recent papers and implications for maladaptation

In the climate change adaptation literature, pathways thinking seems to be cropping up everywhere. A quick search I did for papers published 2014 onwards threw up 25 distinct case studies engaging with adaptation pathways-speak, with examples ranging from 'priming' multiple stakeholders to find transformational solutions to climatic risks in Indonesia (Butler et al., 2016), to ethnographic research examining pathways of past adaptation in Eastern Europe (Campeanu et al., 2014).

This was not the case in the summer of 2013, when I took a break from writing up my PhD thesis to attend the STEPS Summer School on Pathways to Sustainability in Brighton. Bringing together a stimulating mix of PhD students in varying stages of their research, the summer school first introduced me to pathways thinking. Or the STEPS Pathways Approach.

The Rivers of Life exercise at the STEPS Summer School where we charted our personal pathways (complete with obstacles, leaps forward, histories, and aspirations).

That exposure shaped a key part of my thesis and I went on to write about conceptualising household responses to climate variability and change as intersecting and internally messy pathways. More recently, I have been arguing for examining how past trajectories of development open up or close down the adaptation options space available to people, hinging the pathways approach to a justice lens of winner and losers and tradeoffs.

Households facing multiple risks can undertake different response pathways. Source Singh et al. (2016).

But what are adaptation pathways and do they offer anything radical? Two key papers I read recently, offer some insights. 

In his sweeping literature review of four adaptation pathways approaches, Eisenhauer (2016) argues for more robust engagement with the political aspects of adaptation. He argues that meeting the ‘adaptive challenge’ of climate change (described by Karen O'Brien, 2012 as 'addressing the beliefs and world views that contribute to how individuals and groups approach the problem of change') requires rethinking politics within the context of adaptation. He finds that none of the four approaches critically engage with 'antagonistic political relations' — all of them seem to assume that problems can be solved through rational consensus processes, which is often not the case in complex problems riddles with issues of uncertainty. Second, he emphasises that none of the approaches forefront challenges posed by intersectionality and relational political ecologies.

The second, empirical paper I read was Fazey et al. (2015) who examine "past adaptation to provide new insights about how future-oriented adaptation path-ways might be approached." They helpfully differentiate between adaptation pathways approaches which map out possible future adaptation option trajectories vs. pathways lenses, defined as "an approach to frame understanding of past change and response dynamics." Importantly, a pathways lens interrogates:
"how and why change and responses may have occurred, the different ways different groups have perceived, responded to or navigated change, contextual issues (e.g. politics, social norms, values) that affect change dynamics and the role of power in shaping change and human agency." p 28
This work is close to a paper I presented last year on using historical trajectories of development to chart adaptation opportunity in fast growing and increasingly unequal countries such as India. Fazey et al. examine adaptive action in four cases: the Solomon Islands, Canada, Romania, and Australia, to suggest past actions have implications for how and at what pace communities transition, what adaptation options are undertaken in the present and available in the future, and the dynamic rubric of social differentiation and power within communities. They go onto suggest that "understanding past change provides inspiration for new and transformative futures".

Contrary to this hopeful tone, colleagues and I have recently argued that "understanding the past provides warnings to not make the same mistakes and jeopardise new and transformative futures". While more ominous in its tone, our way of interrogating historical pathways to diagnose current adaptation inaction and future adaptation options might be the wake up called needed in today's India.

There is a reason why Indian farming is the way it is. Looking back and tracing its development pathways helps us understand the narrow 'adaptation space' we have today. For more read our paper "Tracing back to move ahead: Development pathways that define adaptation futures". [Picture taken in Gulbarga, Karnataka]

I leave you with a final, fascinating, if somewhat sombre, quote:
"One of the negative effects of enhanced adaptive capacity or flexibility may therefore be that it reinforces change, which in turn requires more adaptive responses or flexibility, partly explaining acceleration of global change. More transformative forms of adaptation therefore require some ways of stepping off the accelerating treadmill." (Fazey et al. (2015, p 15)
Our paper "Tracing back to move ahead: Development pathways that define adaptation futures" is soon to be published in Climate and Development. Email me at csingh[AT]iihs[DOT]ac[DOT]in for a PDF. Comments/feedback most welcome!