Knowing your audience

Linking science to action to build climate adapted and food secure Pacific Island communities

By 17/05/2016

Climate change is a major threat to food security in Pacific Island countries, with declines in food production and increasing variability in food supplies already evident across the region.  Such impacts have already led to observed consequences for human health, safety and economic prosperity.  Enhancing the adaptive capacity of Pacific Island communities is one way to reduce vulnerability and is underpinned by the extent to which people can access, understand and use new knowledge to inform their decision-making processes.  However, effective engagement of Pacific Island communities in climate adaption remains variable and is an ongoing and significant challenge.  This is, in part, driven by the fact that scientists have limited resources to assist them in developing and implementing appropriate communication and end-user engagement strategies for Pacific Island communities, as well as other developing nations. To address this gap, in collaboration with an international team of scientists and in-country partners, I recently interviewed 16 people, each with, on average, 20 years of experience related to community engagement in Pacific Island communities, to identify the primary barriers inhibiting community engagement in climate science and to develop recommendations for overcoming these barriers.  Here, I summarise our key findings to act as a guide for anyone trying to engage more effectively with Pacific Island communities.

Principles for improving engagement and knowledge exchange with Pacific Island Communities

  1. Engage early to build trust: We found that cultural differences between Pacific Island people and scientists from western cultures was the most common barrier relating to the uptake of new knowledge by Pacific Island communities.  To overcome this barrier, all participants who took part in our study discussed the importance of engaging with local communities prior to the commencement of any research activity, to build trust.  Participants noted that the development of trust among scientists and Pacific Island communities takes considerable time, and requires sustained long term face-to-face interactions. It was also noted that the development of trust requires researchers to be honest and considerate of local cultures and worldviews.  As stated by one participant in our study: ‘If you genuinely have the interest of that country in your heart and in the work that you do, people will feel it’.
  1. Identify and engage with community ‘gate-keepers’: In relation to building trust, participants of our study also stated how every community has its gatekeepers. That is, highly connected and influential individuals who engender high levels of trust among their local communities. Gatekeepers typically include community elders and people in respected positions such as church leaders.  Thus, by identifying these individuals, and gaining their trust at the onset of a research program, it is more likely that the broader community will be accepting of new scientific knowledge and integrate it into their decision-making processes.
  1. Implement participatory research approaches: Our findings suggest that the development of trust among scientists and Pacific Island communities may be facilitated through participatory research approaches, such as the co-production of knowledge. Such approaches involve community members in all aspects of the design and development of research projects, including data collection, analysis, interpretation and reporting, thus facilitating learning among participants as the science progresses.  Moreover, such approaches provide an avenue for traditional knowledge to be incorporated into research and its implications, which further increases the extent to which the scientific recommendations will be trusted and used by the community.
  1. Use an intermediary: To complement participatory research approaches, participants in our study also spoke about the benefits of employing an intermediary such as an extension officer to communicate findings to local communities. To be most effective, intermediaries should be well respected members of the local community who are capable of translating the science into relevant information for the audience.  In this regard, it may be necessary for research teams to invest resources into training members of the local community to act as intermediaries.
  1. Develop appropriate communication material: When developing communication material, participants identified the need to convey scientific messages in a manner that the community can understand. As stated by one participant: ‘It’s often hard for the community to understand and put into practice what the science is telling them’.  Suggestions for achieving this included the use of pictograms in information sheets which can help to overcome barriers associated with language and literacy. One-on-one discussions were also identified as a way to allow people to ask questions and clarify information – something that might otherwise be seen as culturally inappropriate.  Finally, participants spoke about the importance of social media and mobile technologies for sharing information among Pacific Island communities, and particularly the younger generations.
  1. Leave a legacy: Finally, to ensure the efficient and effective uptake of new knowledge by Pacific Island communities, it is critical that engagement with local communities is sustained even after the completion of research projects. This will allow the iterative processes of knowledge creation, application and reflection to occur, enabling learning to take place over time and in response to continually changing environmental and social conditions.  Accordingly, even after the completion of research programs, research agencies and teams must ensure that a suitable mechanism remains in place to facilitate knowledge exchange with local communities.  This could be achieved, for example, via the continued training and development of extension officers as outlined above.


The above principles are provided as a first step towards helping scientists engage more effectively with Pacific Island communities to facilitate the uptake and integration of new knowledge into decision-making processes.  However, it is important to acknowledge that the application of these principles also present several challenges for researchers and research agencies.  For example, the development of trust between Pacific Island communities and scientists can take considerable time, and should occur separately to the actual research activity. Such engagement and trust building activities, however, are seldom explicitly funded and thus our study also identifies the need for institutional innovation by research agencies and funding bodies to promote a culture whereby sustained engagement is actively supported and rewarded.  This may also be achieved through increased and sustained core funding for regional organisations already operating in these areas that support the dissemination and uptake of knowledge among Pacific Island communities.  Doing so, however, will improve the uptake of science among Pacific Island Communitites, allowing them to build adaptive capacity to climate change and enhance local food security throughout the region.

The full manuscript detailing this work is published as open access in the journal Climate Risk Management, and can be freely accessed here: