Engaging early career researchers in ecohydraulics: A participatory approach

PART 2 – Context and approach

As ecohydraulicians we try to understand extremely complex, dynamic biophysical systems using a huge variety of methods. Our findings, and the application of our results to environmental management, are often fraught with uncertainty that biologists and engineers may perceive in vastly different ways. Despite this, ecohydraulics has made, and continues to make, important contributions to knowledge and society at large. How can we ensure that it continues to do so in the future? How can we harness the maximum potential of the next generation of ecohydraulics specialists in a way that is inclusive of nationality, gender and disciplinary background? How can we guarantee the welfare of ECRs as they attempt to overcome the scientific and professional challenges consistent with an emerging discipline? One of the major reasons for establishing ECoENet was to address such questions.

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The participatory action research process

For the early careers workshop in Melbourne we chose to initiate a cyclic framework known as “participatory action research” (PAR). The framework is intended to enhance mutual learning and empowerment through continuous cycles of participation, action and reflection. It is most commonly used in the social and medical sciences but its popularity is growing in hydrology and ecology (e.g. Karpouzoglou et al., 2016).

PAR encourages equality in contributions to discourses characterised by great uncertainty and skewed power relations, such as those that exist between scientists (‘researchers’) and stakeholders (‘people’), between funders and scientists, etc. The classic paper by Cornwall and Jewkes (1995) casts PAR at the end of a spectrum of participation, from the contractual to the collegiate.

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It’s easy to see the basis for applying participatory research in the context of ECRs – simply substitute ‘ECRs’ for ‘people’ and ‘bosses’ for ‘funder’!

The ECR workshop was a very light application of PAR, yet nonetheless effective. We began with an outstanding keynote in which John Nestler established a firm basis for the workshop by emphasising the principles of innovation and planning ahead in your career (“don’t wait until the bullets begin to fly!”). John ended with a strong recommendation that we should “think at a fundamental level once in a while”, a message repeated in his recent TJOE paper.

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After some Q&As with John, we split the 25 participants, consisting of postdocs and postgrads from 10 different countries, into five groups. Each group was assigned a member of the ECoENet organising committee or a conscripted researcher from among the more experienced participants (thanks to Ana Silva and Paul Franklin!) whose role it was to stimulate discussion. The groups were introduced to each of the main questions we wanted to consider in the workshop and given up to 30 minutes to discuss and reflect on the question. We asked the groups to note each of their main points on a Postit (100s of Postits were sacrificed for this workshop!) and report them back to the other participants.

Later, we undertook a process of merging and splitting the main points, attempting to make connections between each of the three questions considered. Throughout this process we tried to maintain fluidity in the proceedings. No themes were preconceived or “written in stone” until the last moments of the workshop when all participants were satisfied that we had formed something coherent.

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We ended up with five broad themes that cut across the three main workshop questions, connecting the major challenges in ecohydraulics with the barriers and opportunities facing ECRs, and the role of ECoENet in facilitating progress. These themes have been instrumental in the direction of ECoENet since.

  1. Technology and professional development
  2. Welfare
  3. Communication
  4. Dissemination
  5. Funding

The next parts of this blog will report the responses of participants to each of the main questions posed during the workshop, gradually building towards a coherent strategy for enhancing the role of ECRs in ecohydraulics.

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