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Increasing the accessibility of sandpits

This July, the Global Food Security (GFS) programme, hosted by BBSRC, is holding an interdisciplinary sandpit - an intensive discussion forum where free thinking is encouraged. Dr Melanie Collins, International Coordinator and Strategy Manager for GFS, shares how we are working to make sandpits more accessible.

This sandpit is the third call in our funding programme: Resilience of the UK food system in a global context, and funded by BBSRC, NERC, ESRC, and Scottish Government. The programme has already funded 10 interdisciplinary projects, covering various aspects of the food system. With this third call, we are expecting participants in the sandpit to think about a ‘business unusual’ scenario, where a transformed food system (based on healthy and sustainable diets) is imagined, and the impacts such a food system would have on sustainable and resilient food production and supply. We’d expect people to think about what we should be eating and producing, where this food could come from, the impacts on livelihoods, and finally, the level of demand change that would be needed to get to this place.

Dr Melanie Collins

Dr Melanie Collins. Copyright: GFS

This is clearly a big question and is going to require disruptive, interdisciplinary approaches, where people step outside of their usual ways of thinking. Sandpits are perfect for this kind of call, as they create an open, collaborative environment where people feel able to share radical ideas.

To determine this research challenge, we did a gap analysis of our portfolio, but we also looked at the people who had been funded through the programme. We noticed an imbalance in career stage of the Principal Investigators (PIs) and co-PIs - 61% were at ‘professor’ or ‘chair’ level, with analysis of the unsuccessful applicants showing a similar profile. We felt it was important to address this imbalance by targeting researchers working at the very earliest stage at which they would normally be eligible to receive BBSRC funding as a PI, and that given the potential barrier to open and free discussion that could be created by perceptions relating to grade, this targeting needed to mean restricting eligibility to the sandpit to only researchers working at this level. We were keen to encourage researchers at an early stage in their careers, who are future leaders in the making, to work in an interdisciplinary way and to think about the whole food system.

We were conscious that sandpits can present barriers to inclusion for several reasons and were keen to identify whether and how these barriers impacted specific groups of people more than others, and to remove or reduce them wherever possible.

Personally, I have a keen interest in issues affecting working parents - after returning from maternity leave, I set up and ran a Met Office Parenting Network, where we gathered feedback from working parents across the office about areas they’d found challenging and areas of innovative working practices which had made it easier for them to balance work with parenting. One of the issues raised at this network was work travel and the strain that long workshops and conferences can put on a family - and further to this, perceptions from event organisers that work travel is binary: you either spend a period of time away from home, or you don’t - and there is no flexibility.

Within GFS we talked about how a traditional sandpit involves five days away from home and how challenging this could be to anyone with caregiving responsibilities (for children or otherwise) - and further, to researchers with teaching responsibilities - and asked - ‘does it have to be this way?’. We spoke to facilitators and other colleagues who had run sandpits, and established that although it is recognised that a sandpit needs to last for at least three days to create the environment for creativity, it could be possible to break the sandpit into two parts, with a short break between, as long as something is done to ensure that the commitment to the creative ideas generated in the first half is maintained in the break. So this is the approach we have taken. Further to this, for people where time away from dependents is a barrier to inclusion, we decided to choose a venue where there is family accommodation on-site, so that if people want to bring dependents and an additional caregiver, they can. We have also offered to reimburse any additional caregiving costs incurred through attending the sandpit.

Sandpit for early career researchers at lecturer level or equivalent, 4-6 July and 19-20 July 2018. Resilience of the UK food system in a global context - transforming the food system for health, sustainability and resilience across production and demand. Call for participants closes 23 May 2018, 16:00. Copyright: GFS

Recognising that the intensive nature of a sandpit itself can also be a barrier to inclusion, when choosing a facilitator, we asked explicitly about their experiences in bringing together people who think and work differently. The facilitator we have chosen has taken a number of steps to ensure that people who prefer to think and reflect before sharing, and people who work best with clear and specific instructions, are included - mainly through re-designing sandpit agendas and facilitation guidance to ensure that there is time for reflection and clear guidance on the expectations of group dynamics. We felt that the two-part sandpit with a break in between would not only help people who would find a period away from home challenging, but would also help people who prefer to have time to reflect. Ultimately this should also lead to better proposals.

I’m really passionate about this sandpit - not only because we’ve taken significant steps to make it more inclusive to people who might normally think a sandpit isn’t for them, but because I’m excited to see the ideas it generates. As set out in the call text, the plate symbolising the food we produce is vastly different to the plate symbolising the food we should be eating, and if we continue along the current trajectory, the food system will likely take up the majority of the annual global carbon budget by 2050. This sandpit recognises that the food system is broken, and small tweaks are unlikely to deliver the change that is needed - we need to be thinking about how things look in a completely reimagined food system and then asking ‘so how do we get there?’.

I really hope that the steps we’ve taken to increase accessibility will encourage some brilliant thinkers who would previously have thought a sandpit wasn’t for them, to be a part of a radically different way of thinking about our food system and its future.

To apply for this sandpit, visit our call page: Resilience of the UK food system in a global context third call: Transforming the food system for health, sustainability and resilience across production and demand.

About Global Food Security

Hosted by BBSRC, Global Food Security (GFS) brings together UK Research and Innovation, government departments and agencies, and the devolved administrations to coordinate and collaborate on food security research.

GFS facilitates new interdisciplinary research to address food system challenges, and provides a platform for working in partnership with a wide variety of stakeholders and users, both internationally and in the UK.

GFS also supports effective translation of research for use by food producers and processors, retailers, consumers and government, enabling them to respond to and manage the challenges facing the UK food system as well as related global issues, including the many challenges confronting the developing world in the face of environmental and demographic change.


Tags: people skills and training food security funding feature