skip to content

TIGR2ESS: Transforming India's Green Revolution by Research and Empowerment for Sustainable food Supplies

A Global Challenges Research Fund project


There is a Chinese proverb that states: “May you live in interesting times”. It has become something of a running joke between my brother and I, usually in reference to the climate crisis. But now, having seen no friends, relatives or work colleagues for over six weeks, these words no longer represent a flippant comment to my sibling: we really are living in an interesting time, and certainly not a straightforward one.

I am the Impact, Data and Outreach Manager on the TIGR2ESS programme. I work for the University of Cambridge and form one part of a four-person programme management team. Along with Programme Manager, Marla Fuchs, her counterpart in India, Aakriti Wanchoo, and our Principal Investigator Professor Howard Griffiths, we are the oil that keeps TIGR2ESS running.

Until very recently, TIGR2ESS had been full steam ahead. We were on track to meet all of the goals set out in our grant application and had yielded some unexpected positive outcomes to boot. Our six Flagship Projects, each representing a different research discipline and spread across over 20 organisations, were working in an ever increasingly interdisciplinary way, generating a wealth of data and driving exciting changes in policy.

As the COVID-19 pandemic was making its way through China in January 2020, we were in Hyderabad, India, at what was a hugely successful mid-point General Assembly. We convened over 100 programme members and partners and laid down many plans for the remaining 18 months of active research. We returned to Cambridge with renewed purpose and a lot of work to do. Fast forward just a few weeks however, and all that was turned upside down.

Putting the brakes on research

Our programme felt the effects of COVID-19 straight away. Even before lockdown was announced, work was grinding to a halt. Several of our researchers were - and still are - stranded in both India and the UK after Indian borders closed in early March. Others have been displaced from their workplaces, with some people relocating to an entirely different State to see out lockdown with their families.

Once lockdown officially began - on 23 March in the UK and 24 March in India - lab closures, the suspension of almost all field work and restrictions on movement made active research near impossible. Data collection has stopped and much of our work has been put on hold.

The challenges are many

The challenges that COVID-19 has brought are many. We have directly felt the effects within our team, with key staff off sick for several weeks. In their absence, extra workload has fallen to others, adding challenges in picking up tasks that fall outside your usual remit.

Transitioning to our new virtual world has not been a straightforward process. Whilst the commute to work is temporarily a thing of the past, its disappearance has not necessarily translated into more free time. Care responsibilities - be it child care or looking after elderly parents - have limited many people’s ability to work. A sudden surge in meetings, as everyone tries to stay in touch, has also eaten up working hours. The online world never switches off, and with time differences added in the working day can extend long beyond the 9 to 5. Such a constant barrage of online meetings is energy sapping - metaphorical bandwidth has been stretched. The will to work is there, but the time often is not.

We have also found ourselves inundated with multiple communication platforms to choose from. Everyone has their own preferred platform and keeping up with which one to use, where to find the invite (is it in your emails or your calendar?) and how to log in has made each meeting a little more stressful. For a programme that spans two continents, connectivity issues continue to constrain how we work.

Workspaces are another challenge. Many TIGR2ESS members have been, and still are, working at their dining table, underneath their child’s bunk bed, or even on the floor. In India, where there was very little time to prepare for complete lockdown, many were caught short and unable to set their homes up properly - internet access and even sourcing food fell by the wayside.

All of the above leads to one further challenge: stress. Competing home and work commitments, feelings of directionlessness where work has been cancelled, being unable to separate home and work environments, and isolation, amongst many other factors, are all contributing to mental health difficulties. No individual’s experience is the same, so providing support is not easy.

New ways of working

Despite the challenges we’re facing, lockdown has catalysed a host of new ways of working. Alongside learning how to conduct efficient meetings online, several of our FPs have successfully converted full-blown workshops into virtual ones. Because of time differences two-week workshops now take four weeks, but the will is there to continue working in any way possible.

Training opportunities are also being delivered online, with global reach. Our researchers are sharing their expertise, for free, to others around the world, teaching key skills in data analysis. Such is the demand for these opportunities, we’re scheduling repeat sessions.

The hiatus in active research has provided more time for writing papers and analysing existing data sets. Our researchers in India have also used their writing skills to capture the impact of lockdown on farmers and communities in a series of blogs.

We are now beginning to implement the biggest change in how we work: adapting existing research methods to be remote wherever possible.

What of the future?

Now that the dust has settled and we are all, in one way or another, used to our new existence, it’s time for us to think about what comes next. Pivoting our research towards investigating COVID-19 related impacts is essential. In India the consequences of lockdown have been far reaching and have huge implications for food security, both now and in the future.

Going forward, we’ll need to mitigate against the delays we have faced, particularly for lab and field work, finding ways to play catch-up. We’ll also need to plan how we can continue to carry out research in communities when elements of social distancing will likely persist for many months. As lockdown continues, we’ll need to provide support to prevent the health and wellbeing issues our staff are faced with.

Exactly what the post-lockdown world will look like is uncertain, but one thing we can be sure of is that it will be very different to what came before.

This blog was written by Sarah Bailey. She is Impact, Data and Outreach Manager for the TIGR2ESS programme, based at the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge.