Back in 2014, MS Srinivasan – a NIWA principal scientist and co-leader of Our Land and Water’s Sources and Flows programme – had a problem.
As hydrology leader of a NIWA research project, his role was to provide farmers with site-specific data to improve their irrigation scheduling. But not enough people were using the information he was producing.
“When the project started it was easy, as a scientist, to identify the biophysical problem and the solution,” says MS. “I could find the data, give farmers the data, and explain how to use a soil moisture sensor – but it wasn’t solving the problem of water use efficiency.”
As the five-year study progressed, the multi-disciplinary research team became increasingly aware that social variables were influencing farmers’ decision-making – things like culture, relationships, values, power dynamics, economic, social and political pressures, available technologies, attitudes, capabilities and interpretations.
“The project was producing data that was intended to help farmers make better irrigation decisions, but they weren’t making better decisions.”
Through a process of co-innovation led by social scientists, they identified economics as a core driver for participating farmers and re-framed the way they presented the research.
“We are all limited by what we know and what we think is important,” explains MS. “We asked, what was the farmer’s most pressing problem? Can we frame the value of the tool in that context for the farmer to use?”
At the time, new regulation was pushing changes in irrigation practice, but the milk price was going down, so dairy farmers had less appetite for change that required investment. Once they understood this wider context, the research team knew to highlight opportunities to save money by changing irrigation practice.
12 Questions to Measure Context
The water use efficiency project was a success – which created another challenge. In 2016 a five-year follow-up project was initiated in the neighbouring district, but the social context was different. The farmers were working as a water users’ group, without the over-arching irrigation scheme structure of the first study, which represented farmers’ interests and activities among the wider community, including the regulators.
MS sought out the advice of Graeme Nicholas, then a social complexity scientist at ESR and researcher in Our Land and Water’s Collaboration Lab.
Together with a wider transdisciplinary, cross-programme team, they developed a set of 12 questions for biophysical scientists to ask stakeholders and end-user collaborators. The questions were designed to help biophysical scientists understand how social, economic and cultural influences affect the application or uptake of their research.
The first set of four questions are asked in the co-design and co-development process to frame the problem. Stakeholders and scientists should answer them again regularly throughout the life of the project, along with the second set of questions.
“You need to revisit them regularly to see how things are changing, from project design to implementation,” says MS. “It creates a measurable variable to assess non-physical changes over time, like learning and viewpoints.”
Importantly for biophysical researchers, the questionnaire is simple enough for stakeholders to do it themselves. “You don’t need a social scientist to sit with you to fill out the questionnaire,” says MS. “Every six months you can sit scientists and stakeholders down together and discuss what’s changed and how they see things now.”
The 12 questions are grouped under three headings from the work of Donald Schön: problem framing (how a problem is understood in a particular social context), improvisation (what changes in how the problems is framed, and how that influences science choices) and implementation (context specific issues of timing, sequencing and practices).
Both problem framing and improvisation use the first four questions. The remaining questions apply to implementation.
|Explanatory Variables||Influencing Factors|
|Problem Framing – ask in co-design and co-development
Improvisation – ask six-monthly
|Motivation||What matters, to whom, and why?|
|Power||Who controls what (in relation to the perceived problem); and what, by contrast, are considered ‘given'?|
|Whose expertise is considered relevant, is trusted, is needed?|
|Legitimacy||Who are the arbiters of how the problem is framed, and how ‘success' will be judged?|
|Implementation – ask six-monthly||Materiality||What hard or social infrastructure is particular to this setting?|
|What access to tools, methods and finance might be particular to this setting?|
|Competence||What range and depth of knowledge and skills is particular to practitioners in this setting?|
|What aptitudes and history of practice is particular to practitioners in this setting?|
|Meaning||What has value in this setting?|
|What needs to be true for ideas or practices to “make sense” in this setting?|
|History||What factors in this moment in history might influence how the science is carried out or applied in the setting?|
|What factors might be influencing the urgency or sequencing of how the science is carried out or applied in the setting?|
How Understanding Context Helps Scaling
For research that aims to demonstrate impact – such as the adoption of a tool or changing practices – social variables that influence behaviour and decisions can be make or break.
“It’s a challenge to make impact from science, to scale from a pilot to regional study, from catchment to country,” says MS. “If you want to take research from one location to hundreds of other locations, you need to understand more about the different contexts than just the biophysical.”
“This process can help biophysical scientists understand how to use social science tools to increase their research impact.”
MS’s research has now moved into a third phase, after winning MBIE Endeavor funding for a five-year project to co-develop new irrigation tools with farmers.
“It started as a project on 5 or 6 farms, and now we’re looking at what it means for the whole country. Now we understand the social factors, can we scale up to enable uptake? How can we affect the system surrounding the farmer, to affect what is happening on farm?”
“I think the reason this project got MBIE funding is because we used social science as a lens to think about impact differently.”
For more information:
- This research was a transdisciplinary, cross-programme collaboration between two Our Land and Water programmes, Sources and Flows and Collaboration Lab, and two MBIE programmes, Primary Innovation and Justified Irrigation.
- Transferring the impacts of pilot-scale studies to other scales: Understanding the role of non-biophysical factors using field-based irrigation studies (Agricultural Water Management, April 2020)
- Addressing complex challenges using a co-innovation approach: Lessons from five case studies in the New Zealand primary sector (Outlook on Agriculture, June 2017)
- Research idea to science for impact: Tracing the signiﬁcant moments in an innovation based irrigation study (Agricultural Water Management, February 2019)