I started my program about 18 months ago, and I can describe it as a journey that has so far been both interesting and rewarding. Mentored by a team of academics that are well recognised in their fields both in Tanzania and Glasgow is a rare opportunity. My PhD focuses on anthrax in an endemic setting in northern Tanzania.
I headed to the field for the second time in June 2016, to start data collection and the reception from the communities I was to work with was incredible. Who says that the public is not interested in research?
The generosity of local people towards my research and person was truly amazing; they always wanted to help and make you feel comfortable, going out of their way to present you with tea rich with milk that they would not normally have themselves, or offering to slaughter an animal for you when they would only occasionally do so for themselves, or even offering you land in the government conservation area they live in? Wait a minute, that’s a fantastic idea; the idea of owning a ‘holiday’ home in the middle of a wildlife park. Unfortunately, my idea is unrealistic as any step further than the idea might land me in serious trouble. So I politely decline the offering of land or the slaughter of an animal- each, too big a gift to receive.
A sense that researchers are people who have the capacity to solve problems was clearly in the air, people to be esteemed. By the way I am an amateur researcher only starting to understand a particular issue affecting these communities, but I got treated as someone who had come to solve an important problem, the feeling that this brought was not all that pleasant to me because I thought that at the end of the day, I might have made hopes and expectations rise and fall sharply. Would I be regarded as an imposter? What has been their experience with researchers?
But just like correlation does not mean causation, research does not mean solution. Many times, the immediate goal is just to improve knowledge, to understand a phenomenon, to give an answer and in my case, it was meant to do these but also contribute to improving the situation by identifying strategies that the communities could implement themselves in the short term, while continuing research into more scientific strategies. It was pretty difficult however, to explain this to the communities. Their expectations were very high and many community leaders asked what tangible outcome they should expect. While some seemed less hopeful about an immediate tangible benefit, the majority had high hopes. “Many researchers have come and gone and the problem is still here, what will be the benefit of your research?” A village head asked me and so I explained “I can’t promise that we can solve this problem yet. We are only starting to understand the problem and only then can we start researching possible solutions. Research takes a long time. Governments and funders want to know that there is a problem and that this problem is an important one, so that they can intervene and that’s why I am here, to find out more about this problem, but we can see if things can first be improved in the short term and possibly in the long term by doing certain things differently in your community”.
I feel that this is a very generous view of researchers, that communities believe that we have the ability to solve complex issues. As public engagement becomes more and more necessary and commonplace in the research community, it will be important to let the people understand what expectations they should have, and what role they could play to improving the issue being studied. Researchers do many things and part of it is to improve the world at the end of the day, but usually the day ends after a few to many years and sometimes with unmet expectations even for researchers themselves.