Beyond REACCH: Framework for Long-term Interdisciplinary Research


Wheat Initiative Expert Working Group in Wheat Agronomy

Issue: As agriculture adjusts to changing climates while mitigating emissions of greenhouse gases, there is a pressing need to consider all the elements of production systems comprehensively. Research and interventions that only consider one or a few elements of production risk failing to account for the effects of interacting biological, social and economic components of these systems. International efforts to improve yields of pivotal crops like wheat, rice, potatoes and others sometimes fall into a non-integrated approach or emphasize genetic improvement over other factors necessary for realizing yield potentials. There is a need to raise awareness of these issues and initiate efforts to address them.

Action taken: The REACCH project sponsored a workshop, “Transitioning Cereal Systems to Adapt to Climate Change,” in November 2015, collocated with the Entomological Society of America and the Tri-Societies Meetings in Minneapolis/St. Paul. 

Results: Attendees of the workshop recognized the importance of integrated approaches to improving and stabilizing wheat production. Sanford Eigenbrode (REACCH Project Director) and Bill Pan (REACCH), along with conference participant John Kirkegaard (CSIRO, Australia), worked with Brian Beres (Agricultural and Food Canada), to prepare a proposal for an Expert Working Group (EWG) in Wheat Agronomy, to join the other Expert Working Groups sponsored by the International Wheat Initiative. The Agronomy EWG was approved and had its inaugural meeting at Tri-Societies 2016. Its membership has grown to 40 scientists worldwide and it was represented at the Wheat Initiative Jamboree, Dec. 6-7, 2016, in Frankfurt Germany.

The Wheat Agronomy EWG is still growing. Its first effort will be to assemble a research inventory from each region of the world where wheat is grown. This process will identify gaps and opportunities for international collaboration. The effort represents an ongoing impact of REACCH on wheat production and climate change worldwide.


Participants in the June 2016 SESYNC Primer Workshop

Improving Leadership for Large Transdisciplinary Projects

Issue: Changing and variable climates will affect agricultural production and other coupled human and natural systems for the foreseeable future. Effective responses will require large scale, long term, broadly integrated, transdisciplinary projects, like REACCH. Leading such projects can be challenging and requires a specialized set of skills and approaches. Future leaders can benefit from the experience and insights of current large-project directors.

Action taken: Sanford Eigenbrode (REACCH director) worked with Lois Wright Morton (Iowa State University) and Timothy Martin (University of Florida), each of whom were directors of large NIFA-sponsored Coordinated Agricultural Projects addressing climate change (or CAPs), to convene a workshop and develop a guide for future directors of large, transdisciplinary projects addressing social-ecological systems. The workshop was sponsored by the National Center for Social and Ecological Synthesis (SESYNC) and was held at their headquarters in Annapolis MD in June 2016. The twelve participants included directors of large projects like REACCH from around the United States and in Central America. Representatives from academic institutions, USDA-NIFA, and scholarship of collaboration were also included.

Results: The team developed an online resource, currently in preparation, entitled Leading Large Transdisciplinary Projects addressing Social-Ecological Systems: A Primer for Project Directors. The 60-page guide includes sections on the qualities and skills of a high functioning director, how to mold a successful team, creating a culture of collaboration, supporting the next generations of collaborative researchers, and working with stakeholders and with university administration. The primer will be hosted on the NIFA website.


Methods for Understanding Large Collaborative Research Projects

Issue: Climate change adaption and mitigation are complex issues that demand insight from a diverse group of scientists and stakeholders. While coordinated efforts across many academic disciplines and stakeholder interest areas may be the only way to address pressing societal challenges, managing these efforts requires valid and reliable measures of collaboration.

Action taken: As part of a multi-method assessment and evaluation plan, four annual surveys measuring perceptions of trust, collaboration quality, and research productivity were taken of REACCH-PNA researchers, graduate students, and other professionals supported by the project. Items with high variability across the project as well as questions that were the highest and lowest scoring items were highlighted and shared with project participants each year at the annual project-wide meetings. In addition, the use of summed scales and inferential statistics on these survey results provided a way to make comparisons of trust, collaboration quality, and productivity across disciplines, objectives, and locations. These scores were used in combined with a social network analysis of participant collaboration to further identify areas of success and concern.

Results: The annual surveys gave participants and project leaders a way to quickly identify some areas of concern and more effectively use project-wide meeting time to create solutions. Social network graphs helped identify key collaborators within the project and provided a visualization of how objectives, disciplines, and locations were interacting. This information helped identify potential people, locations, disciplines, or objective areas that may need additional support.

Results Published In:

  • Mâsse, L.C. et al. (2008). Measuring Collaboration and Transdisciplinary Integration in Team Science. Am J Prev Med;35(2S): S151–S160.

A social network graph illustrating betweenness centrality (a measure of how an individual connects groups within an organization) and self-reported productivity across three major research sites and other geographically distributed people. Two sites have relatively high numbers of well-connected individuals and above-average productivity levels while Site C and all other sites reported more moderate betweenness centrality and productivity scores

Inclusive Feedback: Making Face-to-Face Meetings More Productive

Issue: While some parts of large interdisciplinary projects can work independently, many research, education, and extension opportunities demand coordination across geographically distributed groups. Good ideas and important information can come from anyone in the project, but electronically-supported virtual meetings place limits on the number of people who can meaningfully participate and face-to-face meeting are resource intensive.

Action Taken: Interviews and four annual qualitative surveys of REACCH-PNA researchers, graduate students, and other professionals were used to understand what project management and coordination activities were needed to support the project. The on-line survey used open ended questions regarding which project management and coordination activities participants deemed successful and which needed change. In addition, one question asked for other comments and suggestions that respondents wanted to share with the entire project. Response rates varied between 77% and 88% over the four annual surveys. To help respondents share controversial or otherwise difficult issues, respondent anonymity was protected. The results were then synthesized into a report and send back to the respondents one week before the annual meeting. At the annual meeting, these results helped define the key questions for a set of large group dialogues and solution-finding exercises.

Results: Including everyone supported by the project and protecting respondent confidentiality helped uncover some challenging project-wide issues could then be discussed openly, better understood, and resolved.

Results Published In:

  • Meyer, D. C. A mixed-method approach to understanding team science: Working towards useful feedback. Paper presented at the Science of Team Science Conference, August 2014, Austin TX.
  • Meyer, D. C. Designing for multiple targets: A mixed-method approach to interdisciplinary research assessment. Paper presented at the American Evaluators Association Conference, October, 2016, Atlanta, GA.

Ongoing partnerships in the Pacific Northwest

Issue: The challenges posed by climate change to agricultural production are ongoing and will continue long after the termination of the REACCH project. An objective of this project has been to build capacity for collaborative work to address these ongoing challenges in our region.

Action taken: REACCH has worked to develop future research and to initiate and strengthen collaborative relationships with other research projects, producers, and stakeholders. Our 2015 all-project meeting included a special session for partners, with leadership from other regional projects such as BioEarth (WSU) and CEREO (WSU), the newly established Long Term Agricultural Research (LTAR) site (USDA, Pullman), the Northwest Climate Hub, and the Waters of the West Program (UI). Sanford Eigenbrode (REACCH Project Director) has worked as a partner and advisor to the LTAR project, led by REACCH PI David Huggins, and has contributed to initiatives within the LTAR to build the effectiveness of the network. Proposals for additional research funding for multi-state and multi-institution projects have been developed by REACCH PIs and their collaborators throughout the REACCH project. The upcoming handbook, “Advances in Sustainable Dryland Farming,” is sponsored by REACCH in collaboration with WSU CSANR and represents a commitment to regional collaboration that addresses our production systems holistically. Producer field days, cosponsored by REACCH, are expected to continue annually, and represent a new level of coordination in extension to wheat producers.

Results: Through all of these activities, REACCH has contributed to the development of comprehensive, multi-state, multi-agency and multi-university efforts to address agricultural challenges in a long-term, sustainable manner that reaches a broader demographic of stakeholders. Long-term efforts are summarized in the graphic shown here, which depicts the partners in an envisioned Pacific Northwest Cereal Project.