Overview of surveyed projects, motivations, and methods of engagement
In total, 24 surveys were completed from twelve EU H2020 marine science projects. This constitutes a return rate of 40% for the survey invitations that were sent directly to project coordinators by the EC. The number of replies per project range from one to seven, reflecting differences in the number of project members responsible for engaging stakeholders. In addition, scientists from three projects funded by national institutions, one BONUS program, and one representative of DG MARE participated in the survey. The marine projects partaking in this survey predominantly follow a natural scientific, positivist epistemology and apply quantitative-statistical methods. Their research foci range from marine biology and ecology to model development and improvement as well as technological developments. The specific topics included ocean observatory systems, technologies for cleaning marine litter, improvement of stock assessment methods, sustainable fisheries management, new aquaculture technologies, and tipping points of socio-ecological systems. Only two of these projects had consortia that include social scientists. Our survey thus largely covers research fields that did not traditionally incorporate stakeholder engagement methods or the viewpoints of non-academic actors. Most of the surveyed projects started in 2018/2019 and will end in 2021/2022. Although their focus differed, stakeholder engagement was a key tool in all projects. Eighty percent of respondents stated that, in their project, SE was “quite important” or “crucial” for reaching their goals. The main stakeholder groups were fishers, aquaculture farmers, representatives of both industries, policy-makers, environmental management and governmental bodies. Interestingly, 83% of all participants listed research institutions and fellow scientists as a key stakeholder group (Fig. 1). To avoid confusion, we will refer from here on to scientists from within the surveyed projects as “project scientists” or “project members” and will otherwise include scientists from outside the project consortia in the category of “stakeholders”. Additionally, advisory bodies, vaccine and pharmaceutical companies, consumers, fish health specialists, oil and gas companies, renewable energy companies, port authorities, and recreational user groups were listed. The image drawn by these replies is that of a highly diverse stakeholder landscape related to marine science projects, both in terms of societal groups as well as geograhpical focus (see Fig. 2).
To understand what motivated the survey participants to interact with stakeholders, we asked for their main reasons for engaging, giving multiple-choice options based on the categorisation of Stauffacher et al. (2008) (see the “Stakeholder engagement in the marine science” section). The three central motivations to exchange with stakeholders were (1) to identify the research needs of practice actors (63% of respondents), (2) disseminate project results (58%), and (3) establish access to data and information regarding a research problem (54%). These reasons for engagement were followed by co-framing the research process with stakeholders (45%) and implementing new technologies or measures into applied usage (41%). Less than 10% of participants interacted with stakeholders merely to verify their research results or to assist stakeholders in implementing their own research projects. Over half of the respondents are in touch with their stakeholders periodically (i.e. every couple of months), whereas a quarter have weekly or monthly contact and one participant exchanges with stakeholders on a daily basis.
Sixteen out of 17 projects planned to conduct physical meetings such as face-to-face workshops, information events, and face-to-face interviews during their lifespan. Online events had been considered by less than half of the surveyed projects. According to their pre-Covid plans, the year 2020 would have been a “hot phase” of SE for most of the projects. The main engagement activities should have been face-to-face workshops and interviews: both formats that require meeting stakeholders physically and spending time with them.
Covid-19 impacts on project workflow and outcomes
Although the Covid-19 pandemic has had little impact on the overall goals of the surveyed projects, it has had a clear impact on engagement with stakeholders. In five out of 17 projects, engagement objectives and goals decreased and, in one project, the pandemic increased the overall importance of engagement A quarter of respondents stated that the engagement activities in their project were unaffected by Covid-19. In all other cases, negative impacts were reported on the exchange with practitioners. Except for a few cases where meetings took place under social distancing measures, it is clear that the majority of physical events were either cancelled, delayed or an alternative format was chosen. Online events, on the other hand, were largely carried out as planned (Table 1).
With respect to the overall goals of stakeholder engagement, half of the surveyed project scientists believed that the pandemic has had no influence. In one-third of the cases, however, respondents indicated negative impacts to SE. Problems caused by social distancing measures are restrictions of access to events and meetings and the fact that some stakeholder groups are less likely to use online tools than others (see the “Effects on the lives of stakeholders” section). One project placed considerable emphasis on joint writing meetings which had to be cancelled, thus affecting publications planned among project members. Another participant found it easier to reach stakeholders digitally during the lockdown than to assemble them for physical meetings under normal circumstances.
Project workflow and deliverables
Six months into the Covid-19 pandemic, over 80% of the survey participants saw the workflow and outcomes of their research project negatively affected. Most commonly (62%), delays in the flow of data to other work packages were anticipated due to the current limitations in engagement possibilities. Twenty percent of respondents even stated that these limitations led to some work packages in their project not being completed at all, or to certain data lacking in work packages. In almost half of the cases, the submission of deliverables (e.g. reports) was or will be delayed whereas a quarter of the participants saw the need for an extension of the project duration. Of the projects which needed to prolong their lifetime, one-third had already negotiated an extension with the EC and two-thirds were aware of how to file for extension but had not yet started the process. Encouragingly, in none of the cases was the overall project objective jeopardised.
Effects on the lives of stakeholders
We did not directly survey stakeholders, but the survey asked project scientists to give their impressions of how stakeholders are impacted by the pandemic. All respondents described negative impacts of Covid-19 on the circumstances of stakeholders. Their replies to a free text question drew a challenging picture for the marine resources sector at both the local level and international arenas. Demand for fish and seafood markedly decreased during the onset of the pandemic, and the working conditions in aquaculture farms and on fishing vessels were restricted due to the distancing measures. One respondent reported that “fish breeding companies have troubles with access to facilities [and] reduced capacity due to social distancing” (quoted from survey responses). The seafood industry faced heavy losses of revenue due to the closure of hotels, restaurants, catering facilities, canteens in schools and businesses. Participants also highlighted logistical restrictions in transport and border controls for both commodities and workers. Social distancing measures in harbours and onboard of vessels, moreover, created difficulties in the change of marine personnel and crews. In cases where stakeholders from the industry were owners of a business, all these factors—alongside existing pressures such as overfishing and climate change—combined to worsen their economic status and, in the worst instances, financial hardships threatened livelihoods.
Additionally, survey respondents indicated that all stakeholder groups faced common challenges associated with extra family responsibilities due to the need for home schooling and/or extra childcare. On the job market, hiring procedures were on hold and many institutions, be it scientific or governmental, were closed until further notice. One respondent aptly summed up the situation referring to the case of Spain:
[This] pandemic is a crisis of crises. It has accelerated the vulnerability of more vulnerable sectors of society, and it has made visible the precarious situation of different sectors. In fisheries it has elucidated the weakness of this sector. In Spain [it shows] that we don't have to be so dependent of tourism! […] The pandemic has made visible the problems that already existed before, but now have been accelerated. (Quoted from survey response)
A changed relationship with stakeholders?
The overall relationship between project scientists and stakeholders was largely perceived to be unchanged; only 20% of respondents stated that their connection with practice partners had worsened. Looking at the details of this relationship, however, a more complicated picture arises. For 45% of respondents, the social distancing measures made it harder to reach stakeholders, and 41% perceived that stakeholders’ priorities have shifted away from the research project. Moreover, one-third of participants stated that stakeholders appear to have less time for meetings, be they virtual or physical, than before the start of lockdowns and distancing (Fig. 3).
Although it “has become more difficult to plan upcoming meetings, plans, or any other activity”, the distancing measures were perceived to “bring momentum with virtual meetings” and make it “possible to host more meetings that would not originally take place” offline (quoted from survey response). Twenty percent of participants indicated that the shift to online methods of interaction made it easier to reach stakeholders and, in only 2% of the cases, the contact with stakeholders even became more frequent than before the pandemic (Fig. 3).
Although it was perceived to be easier to meet with stakeholders online, one-third of respondents were unable to use online methods to contact at least one of their stakeholder groups. Respondents reported that artisanal fishers and aquaculture farmers were often not accustomed to working online and/or had limited internet access. Besides these technical issues, it was observed that “fishers’ priorities have moved away from scientific research to address more important concerns such as reduced markets and additional costs related to increased security and hygiene measures” (quoted from survey response). Furthermore, due to heightened workloads or difficulties in (re)arranging their person lives, certain groups of business people and policy-makers were less responsive to email.
Social from a distance—Engaging stakeholders during the pandemic
Since regular physical meetings were not possible during this survey period, and may not be possible in the foreseeable future, many research projects are currently developing alternative solutions to engage with their stakeholders. How are the project members responsible for engagement coping with the social distancing measures, and which alternatives do they apply?
Alternative engagement formats
A variety of activities were planned, and due to Covid-19, alternative formats were chosen (Table 2). The most common replacement was the implementation of webinars instead of physical information events or face-to-face workshops. In two cases, such events were replaced by online workshops. Other substitutions were the use of emails to circulate information among stakeholders and the creation of posters and infographics shared with fishing associations and broader audiences online. Two project scientists stated that they replaced a stakeholder conference with a webinar or an online workshop. Online interviews were chosen in several cases to substitute information events, face-to-face workshops, and face-to-face interviews. In another case, such interviews were replaced with an online survey or conversations via WhatsApp.
Generally, the array of methods for online engagement was fairly broad, but certain formats were clearly preferred. The most common methods were the “classic” ones such as telephone calls and emails complemented by video calls. Online polls, chat programs, and breakout groups or online documents were seldomly used by the project members to communicate with their stakeholders during the pandemic (Fig. 4). One respondent stressed the importance of WhatsApp for keeping in touch with stakeholders, especially with groups that were difficult to reach via email or video calls.
Accounting for Covid-19 in engagement outcomes
Respondents reported that Covid-19 changed the lives of their stakeholders in different ways (see the “Effects on the lives of stakeholders” section). As argued by Fell et al. (2020), research results derived from current engagement activities will be highly influenced by the pandemic. We, therefore, asked survey participants if they implemented any specific measures to help ensure that their results were also valid after the pandemic. Of the measures proposed by Fell et al. (2020) (see the “Academic life in a new, digital mode” section), one-third of the respondents stated that they collected additional contextual information about Covid-19 implications on the marine sector, e.g. data on the impact on fishing effort and catch quantified in fisheries statistics. Similarly, a third of survey participants included questions on self-reported behavioural changes by their stakeholders such as changes in fishing routines or the generation of alternative income. Another third of the respondents addressed the stakeholders’ experiences of the crisis on the individual or professional level when talking with them and considered this when interpreting their results. A lower proportion of participants collected additional demographic data and potential changes in, for example, the employment situation of stakeholders (16%) or directly addressed the impact of social distancing measures on the cooperation between project members and stakeholders (8%). Furthermore, 45% of the participants stated that no measures were taken to help ensure that data and results obtained from SE during the pandemic will be comparable to those obtained pre- and post-pandemic.
Evaluation of alternative engagement formats
Many engagement activities were cancelled or postponed due to social distancing measures (Table 1). The most common substitute formats were webinars and online workshops as well as the use of emails, telephone, and video calls. Although many alternative methods had not yet been applied in late July 2020 (Fig. 5), among methods that had been used, webinars, online workshops, and online conferences were rated more positively than negatively. Online focus groups, on the other hand, received both positive and negative evaluations. Online surveys and interviews had the most positive responses, and the latter was viewed as a suitable tool for replacing physical meetings with stakeholders (Fig. 5).
Online tools as a general substitute for face-to-face contacts were perceived to be “very suitable for people with relevant background and skills (for example oil rig operators, port authority executives, etc.)”, but the use of technology should be kept as easy as possible to not demand too much time or effort from the stakeholders (quoted from survey data). Only one survey respondent stressed that focus groups with many participants require good preparation and coordination. Digital meetings were viewed as less productive than face-to-face meetings and provide a lower level of information. Another point raised was that, even though stakeholders might have access to online tools and technologies, they might not be accustomed to frequently attending lengthy video meetings.
There was a broad willingness to continue working with digital meeting formats also after social distancing measures are lifted. Webinars and e-conferences were viewed as useful tools especially in international projects. Five respondents stated that they have been using tools such as WhatsApp, Skype, and webinars in their projects before and will continue to do so after the pandemic. In two cases, digital technologies will be used for a while after the end of lockdowns to keep project members and stakeholders safe. There were, however, also two strong “No’s” on the continued use of online engagement measures, highlighting the importance of face-to-face meetings as key communication tools with stakeholders.