The pandemic is not strong enough to ruin a well-planned program: The experience of successfully completing the Early Career Visiting Scientist Program during lockdown

By K.P.G.L. Sandaruwan

As a young scientist it is an exciting opportunity to collaborate on innovative research work with world class scientists. In the first quarter of this year I received this opportunity, as I was selected to participate in the IORA Blue Carbon Hub Early Career Visiting Scientist Program, for 6 weeks at the Indian Ocean Marine Research Centre in Perth, Australia.

My research project was to prepare a methodology handbook with case studies for an economic assessment of the blue carbon ecosystem services and other marine ecosystems. While I and other visiting scientists engaged with our research work, the global pandemic of COVID-19 hit Australia and the world. Some countries were issued warnings before they closed their borders enabling other visiting scientists to return to their countries, but I was unable to return to Sri Lanka. It was a hard time for the entire world but Mat Vanderklift, Lauren Hardiman, Fabio Boschetti, Mark Wilson and other CSIRO staff members helped me to cope with this challenging environment. They organised daily telephone conversations and online meetings, to discuss my project and provided all the facilities to keep the research work progressing during the lock down period. It was a great relief for me because the organisers of the program also extended my sponsorship, provided me with new accommodation for two more weeks and facilitated the arrival back in Sri Lanka. Not only that, our hub director and project operation manager continued our weekly zoom meeting with all the visiting scientists which helped me to work on the research during my 42 days quarantine period in Sri Lanka. I pay my heartiest gratitude to all the members of the project for their hard work to continue the project without any disturbance during COVID period. I especially thank Fabio, Mat and Lauren for giving me strong encouragement and support during this harsh time period, which helped me to work and keep good mental wellbeing in self isolation.

Program Overview

This is my first working experience outside Sri Lanka. This visiting program provided me with a valuable opportunity to explore a new subject area and experience the Australian culture, environment and society. My mentor Fabio Boschetti guided me step by step to understand the different dimensions of the ecosystem valuation concepts and methodologies. Those methodologies have supported to broaden my views of the valuation concept to include social and environment values other than just the economic values of ecosystem services. Mat and Fabio introduced me to the world class scientists who work on ecosystem services valuation and shared their experiences with me.

I was introduced to a multi-agent programmable modeling environment called NetLogo and I gained the experience to apply a simple model. During this period, I had the opportunity to follow an online course on “R” programming. Modeling the effects of blue carbon finance on a social-ecological system was the most innovative technique I studied during the early career visiting scientist program. CSIRO also invited us to attend special events such as the international women’s day celebrations, and international food cultural events. They were very interesting experiences and allowed us to integrate with the scientists in the marine research centre and share their experiences.

Early Career Researchers with the Operations Manager at the International Women’s Day celebrations in Perth.

Presentations at the International Women’s Day in Perth.

As a young scientist the program has been a very good experience to shape my future career plans. The program has also been a good opportunity to experience how research works outside my subject domains of economics and social science.

My fellow participants Jacqueline L. Raw and Milica Stankovic came from South Africa and Thailand and they are experts in GIS and ecology of blue carbon ecosystems. I gathered lots of knowledge by discussing and being involved in their research activities during this program. The relationships and networks I have built with experts of multiple disciplines have enlightened me to think about new innovative research areas by integrating economics with ecology and environmental studies. I also enjoyed sharing our countries social values and cultural experiences with each other.

Research overview

There is an increasing interest in measuring, modeling and valuing ecosystem services (ES) and the benefits that ecosystems provide to people. This increase has resulted in the development of an array of ES assessment tools in recent years. Selecting an appropriate tool for measuring and modeling ES can be challenging. Therefore, this research will develop a methodology hand book which can provide guidance to practitioners on existing tools that can be applied to measure or model ES provided by important blue carbon ecosystems. This guidance builds on existing reviews of ES assessment tools, but has an explicit focus on assessing ES for sites of importance for biodiversity and nature conservation. All the users of the methodology handbook may not have ability to collect intensive data; hence the methodology hand book provides a collection of tools under three options (A, B and C) to select the users according to their data collection potential. “A” is viable when extensive spatial data or expertise, data modeling capacity, funds and time to collect such data are available. This approach promises to provide the most accurate ecosystem services assessment. “B” is the next choice in terms of accuracy. In the absence of accurate local data, option B relies on globally collected data from ecosystems which are representative of the local ecosystems. We show how to compute unit values of a number of representative ecosystem services and under what conditions these can be applied to local settings. When feasible, this simple approach can help users calculate approximate values of local ecosystem services. “C” is the least accurate option. It involves using qualitative information where quantitative information is not available and describes how ecosystem services can be classified accordingly. Since this methodology is inevitable inherently subjective, we recommend that it incorporates all available information from experts, local community and other stakeholders.

As a final remark, this has been the best opportunity I have ever had to share knowledge working with experts in different fields and making friends who have helped me in need during the difficult circumstances.

K.P.G.L. Sandaruwan

K.P.G.L. Sandaruwan

Scientist, National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency of Sri Lanka

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