Lots of research, not much communication
On May 29, 2014, soon after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the second volume of its massive Fifth Assessment Report, an interesting article was written in The Daily Star.
In that piece, Saleemul Huq and Clare Stott showed that despite being one of the most vulnerable countries of the world, most of the research papers on climate change in Bangladesh mentioned in that IPCC report were written by scientists based in non-Bangladeshi institutions. This analysis could make one ask if Bangladesh was lagging behind others in climate change research. But the truth is, a good amount of research on climate change in Bangladesh was done by Bangladeshi institutions, but most were not communicated through widely-recognised channels called peer-reviewed journals.
Once a research paper is done by a research team, it is important that other scientists check it before the research gets published in an academic journal. Our fellow researchers or peers basically check if the research methods we used, the findings we presented, and the conclusion we drew maintained the scientific practices and standards or not—and if not, how to make them better. Such validation, known as peer-review process, is a vital step to make our research accepted widely. It also takes an academic discipline, like climate change, forward through collective effort—not only by us, the researchers, but also by our peers.
The widely-quoted IPCC reports are essentially written based on published, peer-reviewed journal papers on climate change. Bangladesh's unpublished climate change researches, therefore, could not find their place in those highly-reputed publications six years back.
There was indeed a need for capacity development of our scientists to communicate Bangladesh's climate change research so that the scientific world listened to them. To meet this gap, "Gobeshona Young Researcher Workshop" was initiated in 2015 by the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at the Independent University, Bangladesh, with support from the USAID. Over the following three years, more than 60 researchers were trained. Mentoring helped the young Bangladeshi scientists to publish around 20 research papers on climate change in Bangladesh in peer-reviewed journals. This initiative has been a fantastic milestone in disseminating climate change research of Bangladesh by Bangladeshis.
On January 22, 2020, at the 6th Gobeshona Conference on climate change research in Dhaka, for the first time ever, awards were given to four best climate change research papers. These papers were selected from 15 submissions; all were original research papers on climate change in Bangladesh, published in peer-reviewed journals in 2018 and 2019, by Bangladeshi authors. These articles mostly covered the vulnerability of the country, climate change impacts on the people, their livelihoods, agricultural systems, water security and health, and our responses. The Gobeshona best research paper award is a fantastic step forward to recognise Bangladesh's research on climate change.
In addition to academic institutions, NGOs like ActionAid, Oxfam, and Practical Action have also been undertaking as well as supporting research on climate change and resilience. And in recent years, some are also looking forward to getting their research published in peer-reviewed journals. The reason is quite straightforward: global recognition and increasing demand for peer-reviewed literature, as opposed to non-peer-reviewed documents, like project reports and policy briefs, that we call "grey literature".
But let us admit, research papers published in peer-reviewed journals are not for everybody. It is not only because we often cannot read them without paying a good sum of money to the journal publishers. It is also because the language that research papers use is not the language of the ordinary people. Such linguistic isolation widens the gap between the researchers and the general population, fails to put research into context for the policymakers, and thus slows down, even stops, possible use of the research to get positive impacts out of it.
We, therefore, need to translate climate change research into common people's language. Scientists may argue that such translation is a responsibility of the science communicators or journalists, not theirs. But I would counter—researchers can be the most appropriate communicators of their own research, both to their peers and to the wider society. They just need to realise this much-needed role and learn to translate science for practitioners, policymakers, thus for the masses in general, to ensure better use and impact of their research.
Besides the climate change researchers, the local communities, NGOs, and practitioners on the ground also hold a huge amount of valuable, useful climate change-related knowledge and experience. These cannot be always captured following rigorous scientific protocols and cannot find their way in peer-reviewed journals. This is the reality of the developing countries, and we must recognise that.
We now need to develop, test and promote a system that would complement research publications in peer-review journals. Here we will collect information from the ground using methods with acceptable rigour and standards, document it sufficiently, and then pass it through a quality-check. At the end of this process, such non-academically-captured grassroots knowledge and experiences could be shared and used as "evidence" for discussion, planning, and decision making. Gobeshona, a multi-stakeholder climate change platform of 50 national and international agencies facilitated by the ICCCAD, could lead by piloting and standardising such a process.
Bangladesh continues to show its amazing capacity, strength and leadership in facing climate change. It can also showcase how peer-reviewed journal articles, their non-technical commentaries for the masses, and knowledge gathered through non-academic processes could complement each other and provide evidence for climate change impacts and climate actions. In this way, Bangladesh could lead the way to re-define evidence in climate change discussions and actions.
Dr Haseeb Md Irfanullah is a biologist-turned-development practitioner with a keen interest in research and its communication. He is an independent consultant working on environment, climate change, and research system.
Haseeb tweets as @hmirfanullah