Transdisciplinary Research: Science with Society

Reflections and recommendations from two transdisciplinary workshops

Stellenbosch, South Africa. March 2016

stellenbosch thumbnail JPGThe complex challenges facing the world today underline the need for effective transdisciplinary (TD) research specifically orientated to address ‘real-world’ problems that are too complex and multidimensional to be answered by singular research disciplines. START and partners organized two workshops to strengthen capacity in the development, use, and evaluation of TD approaches. The introductory training consisting of two back-to-back workshops was organized as an International Social Sciences Council (ISSC) activity, convened by START and the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition at Stellenbosch University in partnership with the Transdisciplinary Lab at ETH Zurich, Switzerland. Both trainings were made possible due to generous support of the National Research Foundation (NRF) of South Africa and the hosting of the Sustainability Institute in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

The introductory training workshops were designed for a broad audience and included researchers, research managers and funders, civil servants, government departments, and NGOs interested in learning about theories, methods, and examples of TD research. The objective was to transmit the principles of TD research and the various steps to follow; introduce the most frequent methods used; present case studies; include TD site visits, and introduce M&E tools. The curriculum for the introductory training program was developed and tested by researchers and practitioners with strong experience in doing, teaching, and writing about TD research.

The first 3-day national training took place 14-16 March 2016 and brought together 16 South African participants from the Stellenbosch University, NRF officials, representatives from governments, and local NGOs. The national training served as the first opportunity to engage with participants and test the developed curriculum. The training was followed by a day of reflection and evaluation by lead partners and facilitators to assess what worked and what didn’t. As a result, the course was modified wherever possible for the second training workshop that served as an official pilot, based on the experience of the first training and participant feedback. The 3-day regional pilot training program took place 21-23 March 2016 and brought together 16 participants from a variety of countries including: Angola, Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. Participants from the national and regional training were selected by the NRF.

More detail on the workshop program and recommendations are included in the full report, which can be downloaded as a PDF here. Please contact Sarah Schweizer at for further information.

TD Stellenbosch 1

Introducing Cheikh Mbow, START’s incoming Executive Director!

cheikh_croppedThe Chairman of the Board of Directors of START International, Inc., Dr. Khotso Mokhele, is pleased to announce, on behalf of the Board, the appointment of Dr. Cheikh Mbow (photo left) as new Executive Director of START International Inc. Dr. Mbow comes to START from a long and illustrious career with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) where he currently serves as the Senior Scientist on climate change and development.  He also is an Adjunct Professor at Michigan State University and on the Science Committee for Future Earth.  In addition to these positions, Dr. Mbow comes with an embedded knowledge of START as both a grantee and as part of a team awarded funding in 2011 to research earth observation methods in Senegal and Ghana.  Dr. Mbow will be replacing outgoing Executive Director, Dr. Hassan Virji.  Dr. Virji has been with START since its inception at Bellagio in 1990. He will join the Board of Directors of START International Inc. as Emeritus Director upon his retirement on 31 July 2016.

Program Highlight: FRACTAL

Future climate change is expected to create an even more challenging environment for development in the sub-Saharan Africa. Future Climate for Africa (FCFA) is a 5-year programme funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). It aims to support world-leading research to enhance scientific understanding and prediction of extreme weather and climate in sub-Saharan Africa, and, working with African stakeholders, bring this science into use in informing adaptation to climate change.

FRACTAL (Future Resilience for African Cities and Lands) was the first of the regional FCFA research consortia to host their kick-off in August 2015. Over the next four years, FRACTAL’s work will be focused around three aims:

  1. To advance scientific knowledge on climate processes driving the southern African climate system’s natural variability and response to global change in historic and climate models;
  2. To improve the distillation of defensible climate information, that are informed by and tailored to urban decision making and risk management contexts; and
  3. To test the use of innovative “co-exploration” methodologies as a means to engage urban partners to integrate climate messages within real-world decisions.

Central to FRACTAL’s collaborative approach is the piloting of Learning Labs in Windhoek, Lusaka and Maputo, to open up a discussion forum through which city officials can explore the implications of climate variability and change for their urban contexts. Alongside the Learning Labs, a full-time embedded researcher will be deployed to each of the local city governments and work alongside researchers from local university partners to offer advisory services to city governments whilst simultaneously developing their understanding of the development contexts of the cities and the interaction between climatic and non-climatic stressors in these contexts.

Read more about FRACTAL on its START program page:

Happy Holidays!

Season’s Greetings from the START Secretariat.  It has been our pleasure to work with you to strengthen developing countries’ climate change resources in the past year.  Have a wonderful holiday season and we’ll see you in 2016!

2015 START holiday card 12-22-15 C

The Face of Fellowship

November is a month to reflect on what makes us thankful, and this month we are excited to share with you some stories of START fellows past and present. We are so thankful for our relationships with these fellows and the unique ways they are helping the world understand and adapt to climate change.

START Fellowships impact real individuals. Through your support, we offer life-changing opportunities and put high quality science into action on a local and global scale. Please help us continue to offer these high-impact fellowships by making a donation to START today.



The Face of Fellowship: Aparna

Aparna is a PhD student in her final year of studies on ‘flood risk vulnerability in peri-urban areas’ at CEPT University, Ahmedabad in India. She first learned about START’s Pan-Asia Risk Reduction (PARR) Fellowship program from her PhD advisor.

During her PARR fellowship in 2014, Aparna worked on a project exploring flood risk vulnerability in Surat city of Gujarat. Her PARR experience helped round out her research by incorporating disaster risk elements in urbanization processes. Aparna describes her PARR fellowship as “a very valuable experience because of the kinds of people it brought together from academics, policy and practice.”

The most beneficial part of the fellowship was her interaction with other PARR fellows and new institutions. She realized the benefits of interdisciplinary collaboration and how important it is to integrate disaster risk reduction into development. She notes, “The culmination meeting was so important to keep fellows connected. I now know people in Asian countries such as Japan, Indonesia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Taiwan as well as from within India at different institutions who are working on disaster risk reduction.”

Fund-a-Fellow FB postAfter she returned home from the fellowship, Aparna was grateful to receive a follow-on grant to continue her research with a new focus on flood risk vulnerability. Looking toward the future, Aparna knows she has a whole new network of colleagues and connections with institutions across Asia thanks to PARR.

Aparna is not only a START fellow, but also a START donor. When asked why she donated to START, Aparna explained that she wants to support organizations like START that build networks between different communities, disciplines and countries. She says, “There is a lot of value in PARR and START. START brings science to the people.”

Please help us continue to offer high-impact fellowships by making a donation to START today.


The Face of Fellowship: James Oladipo Adejuwon

Prof. James Oladipo Adejuwon has a distinguished career in the field of climate change that’s taken him all over the world and back home again to the Obafemi Awolowo University in Ife, Nigeria. He began as a professor there in the 1970’s studying rural energy and agriculture and advanced to Deputy Vice Chancellor by the 1980’s. His career path has intersected with START several times over the years, beginning in 1998 when he received a Visiting Scientist Fellowship from START to travel to the US and work with scientists at Penn State University to improve African cereal crop yields by developing a system to link seasonal climate forecasts to agricultural management practices. That work led him to collaborate just a few years later on START’s Climate Prediction and Agriculture (CLIMAG) interdisciplinary projects in Africa. About this time, Prof. Adejuwon was invited to participate in the 2001 report on climate change from the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and he has been very involved with IPCC and other global initiatives ever since.

Fund-a-Fellow FB postProf. Adejuwon has participated in numerous programs with START, lending his climate change expertise to the very successful 2004 Assessments of Impacts and Adaptation to Climate Change (AIACC) Program, 2010 Nigeria Science-Policy Dialogue, and our 2011 Urban Agriculture Assessment in the city of Ibadan. Over the years he has also received prestigious research grants and worked with organizations around the world such as: FAO, Rockefeller Foundation, NOAA, IDRC, and SEI.

Prof. Adejuwon has a foot in the past and an eye on the future, and we are proud to call him a START Fellow.


The Face of Fellowship: Mzime Ndebele-Murisa

Mzime Ndebele-Murisa first heard and learned of START when she attended the 2007 Advanced Institute on water resources in Africa that START co-sponsored at the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education. Participants were invited to submit follow-on research proposals to the International Foundation of Science (IFS). Mzime’s proposal was funded, which helped her complete her field research for her PhD in aquatic ecology.

In 2009, Mzime received an African Climate Change Fellowship Program (ACCFP) fellowship that allowed her to travel from her home institution, the University of Zimbabwe to the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa that specialized in climate data analysis in support of her PhD dissertation research. Working with START, Mzime was introduced to a more collaborative and interdisciplinary approach to science through interactions with other fellows and networking at relevant workshops and conferences. She was researching dynamics of climate and Kapenta fish production in Lake Kariba (Zimbabwe) but she began to consider how her work affected the fishermen’s livelihoods and the broader economic and environmental impacts of climate change on the entire lake system. (You can read more about Mzime’s research in the ACCFP magazine.) START encouraged her to think beyond basic scientific methodologies to a broader research approach that included integration of climate modeling. “With ACCFP I had to think outside the box to other sectors since climate change is such a cross-cutting issue.”

In 2011, Mzime re-engaged with another START program, the CO-ordinated Regional Downscaling Experiment (CORDEX Africa), led by the Climate System Analysis Group at the University of Cape Town. The CORDEX group has a lot of experience in climate modeling but was seeking input from those outside of climate modeling to provide more relevant and useable data to end-users. Thus, Mzime was brought in to help understand how projected climatic changes impact ecosystems. Her climate change expertise was further recognized when she was invited to contribute to the IPCC Working Group 2 as a contributing author on the Africa chapter of the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report.

In less than a decade, Fund-a-Fellow FB postMzime has advanced through the ranks of PhD student to regional climate change expert at Chinhoyi University of Technology, and graciously credits the key role that START’s opportunities played in her success. Mzime has chosen to give a monthly donation to START for the past year. In her words, “My experience with START beyond the programs has enriched me as a researcher. I’ve seen great capacity built within myself and I would love to see many more young researchers have that opportunity… I give to START at a level I’m comfortable with. Instead of a one time significant gift, I prefer to partner consistently with START at a level I can afford.”


The Face of Fellowship: Suryakant A. Sawant

Suryakant is a PhD research scholar at the Centre of Studies in Resources Engineering within the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (India), working on a PhD thesis entitled “Sensor Web Enablement for Water and Pest Management in Horticulture (Citrus).”

Suryakant is one of our newest START Fellows having just completed remote sensing training in July-August 2015 through START’s Global Observation of Forest Cover and Land Dynamics (GOFC-GOLD) program. GOFC-GOLD Fellows completed a one-week data download training course at a US Geological Survey facility and then a two-week data analysis course at Boston University where they refined their techniques in data collection, classification and accuracy assessment. He notes the relevance of the event, “when we initiate any project related to land water resources monitoring and management the remote sensing data availability is always a major issue.”

By participating in the GOFC-GOLD Fellowship, Suryakant was able to: (1) advance his skills in satellite data processing for vegetation monitoring, (2) use more advanced data analysis techniques in his research of Citrus crop management and (3) establish a regional community in India to share data and provide continuing education opportunities. Of his Fellowship experience, Suryakant says, Fund-a-Fellow FB post“I am ready to facilitate a similar training in my regional GOFC South Asia network. This training has helped me to improve land use land cover classification and change detection module in an Image Interpretation Laboratory class at Centre of Studies in Resources Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.
Thank you organizers (START, USGS-EROS, Boston University and others) and sponsor agencies for starting this initiative and supporting this training program. In my opinion the investment made by you both in terms of finance and time is really well utilized. Overall this training has facilitated to expand my research ideas over larger spatio-temporal scale.”



Engaging Stakeholders and Initiating Fieldwork in West Africa: ASSAR Update

Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions (ASSAR) is one of START’s newest programs. In the last several months, ASSAR regional teams in West, East, and Southern Africa as well as in India have been busy disseminating the findings of the Regional Diagnostic Studies (RDS). This diagnostic research is aimed at understanding what people in semi-arid regions currently know about climate change, and what they’re doing to adapt to these changes.

In West Africa, district level RDS dialogue events have been held with stakeholders from Lawra and Nandom districts in Ghana and from Koutiala in Mali. National level events have also taken place in Accra and Bamako. These events provided opportunities for stakeholders to learn about RDS findings and to give feedback to inform the second phase of the ASSAR project, the Regional Research Phase. More information is available here.

ASSAR stakeholder RDS dialog in MaliStakeholder RDS dialogue participants in Koutiala, Mali in July, 2015.

START has been working closely with graduate student researchers and others from the West Africa team to prepare for the fieldwork of the Regional Research Phase. This work has already gotten underway with a preparatory field visit to research sites in northwestern Ghana and will continue to roll out from October through January. This work will be focusing on ASSAR’s three research streams of social differentiation, governance, and ecosystem services along with two crosscutting themes of gender and knowledge resources. In order to generate creative and novel thinking about adaptation futures in the region and to inform our ongoing research, a Transformative Scenario Planning exercise will also be undertaken as part of the West Africa team’s Regional Research Phase. For more information on ASSAR, theTransformative Scenario Planning and the work of the regional teams please visit START’s ASSAR web page or the global ASSAR website.

ASSAR TSP training in Accra

West Africa student researchers participating in a Transformative Scenario Planning (TSP) training exercise in Accra, Ghana in September 2015. Photo Credit: Lucia Scodanibbio  

Pack Your Bags and Join the Journey

Our 2015 Fund a Fellow campaign is an epic journey, starring you!  START Fellow, Jessica Dator-­Bercilla (photo below), compared her fellowship experience to the movie “Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring” and we think she’s onto something.

Jessica is a Science-Policy Research Specialist at the Manila Observatory in the Philippines. As a Pan-Asian Risk Reduction (PARR) fellow, she traveled to the National Science and Technology Center for Disaster Reduction in Taiwan to study integrated risk analysis. Of the experience, Jessica said:

“What sets this [START Fellowship] apart is having the privilege of time to study, witness the practice, engage in discussions in the spirit of solidarity and genuine intent to complement each others’ work from a range of perspectives. This is Fellowship. While we learned, we were treated as having the potential to share knowledge and experience and also enrich … the other fellows. This reminds me of the movie The Fellowship of the Ring — where each force was recognized as having equal power and valuable contribution to make significant change that matters to humanity.”

We hope you’ll join us on this journey by funding the next generation of START fellows. Please consider making a donation to START today.

Booming with Confidence – the GOFC 2015 Data Initiative

GOFC satelite 2 cropped

Nine fellows from Vietnam, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Bulgaria, South Africa, Togo, India, Nepal, and Madagascar attended this year’s GOFC-GOLD Data Initiative Advanced Training from July 20 to August 8, 2015 in the United States.  Each participant has their own unique story of what the training meant to them.  One of the participants, Godfrey Pachavo, reports that “today I boom with confidence due to the knowledge they imparted on me.”  You can read more about Godfrey’s journey below.

The first week of the training took place at the USGS EROS Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota where the participants received advanced training on data management and archiving practices.  They learned how to access, download, and compile pertinent regionalGOFC training class_cropped and country-level data sets on land cover, land use, and fire observations.  Fellows then headed to Boston University to get advanced training on use of relevant software for data processing and application.

Each participant received fully functional and open-source software for processing Earth observations data, which would allow them and (their colleagues back home) to employ recent advancements in remote sensing analyses without spending large amounts of money on proprietary software. Back in their home regions, these GOFC-GOLD fellows will distribute their acquired data, software and skills and provide training to their colleagues.


“Before and After” with Godfrey Pachavo

Godfrey Pachavo gained both his BSc and MPhil degrees from the University of Zimbabwe. His research interests include earth observation science and spatial ecology, where he produced research output on net primary productivity modelling and its distribution patterns in relation to land use/tenure and biomass assessment for thermal power generation. He is a Research Associate in the Geo-information and Remote Sensing Institute (GRSI) of the Scientific and Industrial Research and Development Centre (SIRDC).

Before the training, Godfrey said “I want to understand the USGS EO data server (EarthExplorer) in order to effectively utilise its EO products when back home. I expect to gain capacity especially on Image processing methods for biomass and biodiversity monitoring applications.”

Afterwards, he reportedThe experience I had in Sioux Falls and Boston is one of the best I ever had in my life time. The two sessions were well organised and packaged with quality detail useful to forestry and land use/cover research studies in our countries.

The first session at the USGS EROS Center in Sioux Falls enlightened me so much on the freely available data from the USGS and how to fully access the different datasets using different web sites. This session also gave us an insight on how to manage large data sets and archiving practices even when back at our institutions. The tour of the Centre made us appreciate how other scientists have worked hard to make the world a better place for the scientists of this generation. The hands-on experience of downloading different datasets from different websites with the help of USGS Team was also of great help. All the USGS Team was very welcoming and supportive during our stay in Sioux Falls. Special mention goes to Anya, Charlie, and Dr. Loveland. I really enjoyed every minute of my stay in Sioux Falls and the Barbecue and the excursion too.

The second session at the Department of Earth and Environment, Boston University provided us with great deal of essential skills on the analysis and application of earth observation data for research and management of forest and land cover dynamics. This session was divided into theory and practical sessions for each day. The theory gave us a detailed insight of major remote sensing aspects. Also the presentation of scientific papers published in high impact journals provided us the opportunity to understand some of those applications and concepts, which we deemed complicated and difficult to replicate. The practical sessions in new open source software gave us the hands on experience of applying certain algorithms for our studies. I learnt quite a lot of remote sensing aspects during this session including multi-date change detection and accuracy assessment. For me, I had always thought the Kappa statistic was enough yet it’s very weak for accuracy assessment. I would like to thank the Boston Team for the amazing package they gave us and for organising a Barbecue for us. Special mention goes to Prof. Curtis Woodcock, Prof. Pontus Olofsson, Christopher and Eric. Today I boom with confidence due to the knowledge they imparted on me. Special mention also goes to Senay for making sure all our needs and logistics including the hard drives were met and the USGS and START for the funding.

Sitting at the Table Together

Good meals are better when shared.  Identifying and solving the challenges of urban agriculture requires bringing diverse groups of people to sit down at the table together and “meal plan” for the future.


UPA - IndiaSTART recently partnered with UNEP, the WMO, and organizations from throughout Africa and South Asia to undertake a nine-city assessment of urban and peri-urban agriculture (UPA) across Africa and South Asia. The assessment teams examined key environmental and governance dimensions of UPA in order to advance understanding of how increasing urban pressures on land and water resources, and intensifying climate risks, are undermining the resilience of UPA in the face of rapid urban development. The UPA assessments help to advance understanding of how urban planning can better accommodate food production in and around cities.

Click here to download the assessment reports and a summary article.

The assessment teams prioritized engagement with key decision making groups that have a stake in UPA, including the research community, urban planners, city government officials, NGOs and farmers.

UPA - senegalThe engagement process began through city inception meetings that garnered input from diverse stakeholder groups regarding city-specific decision making priorities and knowledge needs, and continued throughout the assessment with periodic stakeholder forums. Engaging stakeholders repeatedly throughout the assessments will allow these reports to have a positive impact on decision making.

Below is the story of Dr. Ibidun Adelekan from the Ibadan, Nigeria Team.  Her personal experience highlights how stakeholder engagement was foundational to the project.




Outreach in Ibadan: Promoting Stakeholder Engagement in Urban Agriculture Assessments


ibidun_adelekanDr. Ibidun Adelekan (photo left) helped lead the Ibadan, Nigeria Team’s assessment effort.  Her team had a strong link into policy that began at the kick-off meeting with a lively exchange of ideas amongst different stakeholder groups including city government officials, the Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Environment and Water resources, the Oyo state urban and regional planning board, Oyo state Agricultural Development Programme, local government authorities, research institutions, and farmers representing vegetable, rice, maize, cassava, poultry and small livestock.

The link into city policy was further advanced by including a city government official, Mr. Adedayo Ayorinde from the Ibadan Urban Regional Planning Board, as an author in the assessment. Having a government connection on the team allowed the team to relay recommendations from the assessment to city officials. Mr. Ayorinde’s involvement in the assessment has made him a much more knowledgeable resource person to interface with city officials around agriculture, land-use change, flooding and climate. He is now the project coordinator of the World Bank-funded Ibadan Urban Flood Management Project.

The efforts of the Ibadan Team also helped a young researcher, Ms. Betty Adegebo, who served as a student research assistant for the UPA assessment. Ms. Adegebo was able to parlay her experience in the assessment into a fellowship with the American Association of Geographers under the MyCOE/SERVIR 2013 Initiative in West Africa where she studied the ‘Effect of rainfall variation and extreme rainfall events on cassava production and processing activities in Ibadan, South West Nigeria’. Her work with women processors of cassava identified alternative sources of water for cassava processing so that they don’t have to be situated so close to rivers where they face high risks of floods damaging their business assets and livelihoods. Ms. Adegebo has given city officials better understanding of how to work with women involved in Ibadan’s vibrant urban agriculture sector.