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How a UK citizen-science project went to Mexico

With the UK’s cuts to international development research still making headlines, many researchers will be glad to hear that the international interdisciplinary research grants of the British Academy’s Knowledge Frontiers programme are set to return in the second half of the year. 

The scheme funds UK-based social science and humanities scholars looking to lead research projects that cross national and disciplinary borders. In particular, the programme encourages collaborations with the natural, engineering and medical sciences. Grants for the most recent competition, which closed in October, were worth up to £200,000 funded at 100 per cent of full economic cost, and projects could run for up to two years. 

Kaysara Khatun, a senior fellow in climate and rural institutions at the Natural Resources Institute (NRI), University of Greenwich, was among the winners of that competition, using the scheme to extend the reach of an environmental research project. 

How did you find out about it?

The Natural History Museum approached us at the NRI about leading this grant as an extension of their Big Seaweed Search (BSS) project. It uses citizen science to monitor the effects of environmental change on Britain’s sea life by exploring the seashore and recording the living seaweed that is found there. 

The principal investigator for the knowledge frontiers scheme had to be a social scientist or humanities researcher, but the team at the museum are mostly natural scientists. As an interdisciplinary scientist focused on the political ecology of natural resources, I was able to add the social science element.

How does the project fulfil the international stipulation?

This particular project is an extension of the BSS to Mexico, with the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) as collaborators. The case-study region—the Mexican state of Yucatán—has a large seaweed-invasion problem that also affects livelihoods and regional development, such as tourism and fishing.

Is that where the social science element comes in?

Yes, the Natural History Museum’s project is very much focused on natural science, using citizen science for collecting and identifying seaweed. We extend this further by looking at the citizen science in a developing-country context. We’re examining the socioeconomic implications of seaweed invasion, as well as involving young people in the education about their natural environment.

How did you find the application process?

It was less dense than for other grants I have applied for, and quite open-ended in that you get the chance to submit lots of different ideas. The call had a relatively short deadline and we managed to complete the application in about six weeks.

How did you handle organising an international interdisciplinary team in that timescale?

Writing the bid with people from different disciplines was challenging, considering the need to present our ideas with flow and coherence. We had a lot of meetings leading up to the deadline, during which writing and other tasks were allocated to individuals according to their experience and skillset. 

What elements of your proposal did you highlight to persuade the British Academy to fund?

The main things were: why it was worth expanding the BSS citizen-science approach to Mexico; the social science elements of the project; and examining its impact in a different context. 

We also wanted to show the real-life implications and applicability of the project. 

The focus on how seaweed invasion has impacted on tourism and local livelihoods, and how to get young people and communities involved in the project, is important.

What might potential applicants learn from your success?

First, it should be easy for non-experts in the field to gauge the importance of the issue. People might not be familiar with the seaweed invasion in Mexico, but they all know about seaweed on beaches. By extension, it’s not hard to see that this can lead to problems for tourism or the fishing community. 

Second, projects should have some impact on real and current issues. We hope, for instance, to provide advice on policy and development issues in marine ecosystem conservation, and on the management of ecosystems more broadly.

What else do you hope to achieve in terms of impact?

One of our aims is to advise regional stakeholders about how to manage this problem and to get them more involved with each other. UNAM is especially keen to get local youth involved in the education and science aspect of the project. Ultimately, we hope to use this grant as seed funding to build a larger project.

Has Covid-19 affected the work?

Aspects of the project that will be affected by Covid include face-to-face training for the regional staff who carry out seaweed identification, as well as fieldwork, meetings and workshops. We will simply have to adapt to new ways of working 

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com