The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the market, trade and supply chains limiting food accessibility and affordability. This has been felt hardest in low- and middle-income countries already facing food insecurity. With an additional 130 million people at risk of life-threatening hunger, research teams have swiftly begun studies to inform and assess responses to the global crisis.
High-quality evidence in times of shocks provides an essential foundation for effective and long-lasting response. Yet research and development organizations face multiple challenges in collecting data during crises, as seen now with extraordinary restrictions on movement and social interactions.
A new guide outlines ten strategies to safeguard research quality during COVID-19 and future food system shocks. The resource published by WorldFish through the CGIAR Research Program on Fish Agri-Food Systems (FISH) seeks to help research teams overcome pressures to effective research design.
As COVID-19, climate change and other socioeconomic and health shocks increasingly threaten food systems it essential to ensure ethical, effective and accurate research despite challenges to data collection, said lead author Cynthia McDougall, the WorldFish Gender Research Leader.
“Quality research must inform effective responses if we are to build forward better in response to shocks. These responses rely on accurate and timely data on the multifaceted effects of the pandemic or shocks and on the diverse women and men affected,” she explained.
"What we as research-for-development actors need to do is ensure all four elements of research – relevance, credibility, legitimacy and effectiveness – are maintained as we adapt research and data collection to challenges,” McDougall said.
In response to COVID-19 lockdowns, many researchers have been forced to gather data by virtual means from a distance. The guide acts as a checklist to identify and ensure elements of research quality, said co-author Sarah Sutcliffe, a researcher at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, a managing partner of FISH.
“While the methodology is different when using remote data collection techniques, researchers still need to stick to the fundamentals of good research, which means rigorous and ethical science. We need to design research carefully, without rushing in, in order to collect reliable and comprehensive data,” she said.
“No matter the means or speed with which research is collected, it must not overlook the perspectives of marginalized and vulnerable people, including women, who may be harder to engage remotely due to social and technological access restrictions,” Sutcliffe indicated.
The resource, designed for research-for-development teams, draws on and works within the One CGIAR Quality of Research for Development Framework (QoR4D), as well as flagging relevant UN, Committee on Food Security (CFS), FAO and World Health Organization (WHO) frameworks. In doing so, it sets out the following ten research strategies under the categories of relevance, legitimacy, scientific credibility and effectiveness.
- As a foundation, identify who is most at risk and assess their needs.
A foundation of research relevance in relation to COVID-19 and other shocks is a focus on identifying and orienting towards who is at risk and in what ways, their diverse needs, as well as their resilience and strengths to build on. This means research projects keeping people at the center. As such, research being gender-aware in design and intersectional, looking at age, wealth groups, livelihood groups and other key characteristics, is a key aspect of setting up for success.
- Involve key actors early in designing all aspects of the research, including planning the use of the data and findings.
Relevance is created through partnerships between research teams and stakeholders in the food systems, from participants and local to national end-users of the research. Research that engages stakeholders from the beginning of the questions and design stage can ensure the relevant information stakeholders value most is gathered. It can also reveal opportunities to coordinate efforts with other researchers, community groups or development workers.
- Proceed only if benefits outweigh costs to participants.
Given the enormous stress that COVID-19 and other shocks place on the people who would be participants in research, a foundational ethical consideration is the critical assessment of time or other burdens and risks for participants versus benefits for direct participants and for their wider community. Ethical guidance is to proceed during shocks only if the value to research participants outweighs costs. This pause-and-check includes asking if reliable data already exists and if new primary data is absolutely necessary for effective COVID-19 or other food system shock responses.
- Do no harm.
If teams do proceed with data collection, then ‘doing no harm’ will require becoming familiar with the risks and how to mitigate them, especially by drawing on local knowledge. Phone interviews and other forms of research during periods of shock can add time burdens, costs (phone calls, disruption to economic activity) and emotional stress. Design surveys with this in mind: keep them short, choose times that work for participants and be clear how the information will be used.
- Pro-actively use the research interactions to contribute to well-being and safety.
Having a connection to individuals through research comes with a responsibility and opportunity to ensure mutual benefit. During COVID-19 and other food systems shocks, the research process itself can be an opportunity to increase access to information that protects participants from health, livelihood or other negative effects from the shocks. During COVID-19 for example, there is widely spread misinformation about the virus and access to critical services for maternal health and women’s safety could be compromised, even as gender-based violence rises. As such, research teams can consider how the telephone survey or other research connection can be used as an opportunity to provide accurate COVID-19 prevention and health and safety information of benefit to participants.
- Increase accuracy through well-designed sampling and analysis—both engaging and differentiating between key socioeconomic groups of women and men.
Credibility – and in particular accuracy – of research during shocks will rely on effective sampling. During COVID-19, for example, data collection needs to be gender-balanced and include people from groups who are most at risk. This is so insights accurately represent the needs and experiences of diverse women and men, including those who need to be prioritized in responses. Similarly, to inform effective policy and practice responses – including those that cause no harm and leave no one behind – analysis and interpretation needs to be appropriately disaggregated by gender, occupation, class, age or other relevant socio-economic characteristics.
- Design research around gender barriers that might otherwise limit women’s involvement or create risks.
As noted in Strategy 6, the foundation of good sampling includes women and men from diverse groups. However, practical challenges during shocks can limit women from engaging at levels on par with men or speaking freely. Women may have less access to phones and face increased domestic care burdens. They also might not be able to speak candidly in front of others in the household, or they could risk repercussions from participating in an interview if the interviewer is male or if it cuts into time for domestic work. Consider these gender barriers and design around them in order to avoid skewed sampling. Locally-based partners may have insights into how this can be done, for example working through existing networks and/or finding ways to increase women’s phone access.
- Apply solid basics of quality science design, despite pressures to move forward quickly with COVID-19 studies.
Remember that although telephone surveys, interviews and other virtual methods seem straightforward, they are in fact challenging to do well. Rushing to gather data and to draw conclusions can mean making mistakes. Well-designed, statistically valid, sampling and analysis can ensure scientific credibility and that research is valuable to COVID-19 responses.
- Go beyond thinking “we’ll just make the data open access once we have it.” Instead, collaborate with end-users from the beginning to set up for use and distribution of the insights by local, national and global partners.
Effective and ethical research engages specific users of the study findings prior to design and fieldwork. To increase research relevance consider working with these local through global actors, as appropriate, to design the research to respond to their information needs. This is also an opportunity to ensure research is available how and when they need it.
- Take an interdisciplinary, food systems, and wellbeing-oriented approach, both "zooming in" and "zooming out."
Zoom in: COVID-19 began as a pandemic, but clearly has far-reaching, long-term impacts on multiple and interconnected aspects of human well-being. By engaging multiple disciplinary lenses, researchers can avoid the trap of an overly-restricted focus in data collection, analyses or interpretation. An interdisciplinary view can build a holistic understanding of how shocks and responses are impacting different aspects of human well-being, including social and gender dimensions, nutrition and health, economic, and environmental. Taking a food systems approach in doing so can help identify what combinations of factors contribute to wellbeing – and resilience or vulnerability of different kinds -- among different groups and through what mechanisms.
Zoom out: COVID-19 – or any other single shock - is only one stressor amongst and interacting with many. In other words, the pandemic and the effects of pandemic responses will influence how people are impacted by and can respond to other shocks and stressors such as climate change. As such, researchers can contribute to the effectiveness of science by assessing how COVID-19 interacts with other stressors. Similarly, rather than diverting resources away from pressing research into development challenges, such as poverty, gender inequality, nutrition and climate change, a COVID-19 lens can be thoughtfully layered into these.