Bridging the Food Safety “Implementation Gap” by Strengthening Social Science Research Capacity
Progress in food safety can stumble in the final mile: innovations to reduce the risk of foodborne illness are only effective if people are willing and able to adopt them. Social science tools can help fill this “implementation gap,” enabling researchers to understand the incentives and barriers to the adoption of new food safety practices. A recent course on research methods for gender-sensitive surveys, interviews and focus groups has equipped a cohort in Cambodia to help bridge the implementation gap in a vegetable food safety project funded by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Safety.
“When it comes down to it, improving food safety on an individual level, or a community level, requires someone to change or adapt their behavior,” said project co-principal investigator (PI) Paul Ebner, a professor of animal science at Purdue University. “Facilitating such behavior change requires a lot of people who are versed in social sciences.”
Social science research skills were the focus of the virtual, five-week course on Qualitative Research Methods. Taught by researchers at the Royal University of Agriculture (RUA) in Cambodia and Purdue University in the United States, the course had 48 participants. It was offered as part of a four-year project to strengthen the food safety of fresh vegetables in Cambodia, led by Ebner and co-PI Jessie Vipham, associate professor of animal sciences and industry at Kansas State University. While their immediate goal was to train and recruit enumerators to support the project’s food safety research, the online format enabled the participation of students from other institutions, as well as agriculture professionals like Panha Suon, who works with the Cambodian Partnership for Sustainable Agriculture.
“Realizing that qualitative research goes beyond just telling what happens, but why something happens, was important to me,” said Suon, who plans to use surveys in ecological agriculture research. “This course helped me acquire the skills and knowledge to create curated and locally-targeted content based on reliable sources and legitimate research methodology.”
The course was designed by Leah Thompson, a Ph.D. student at Purdue, along with Sreymom Sieng, the project’s gender expert. Over 10 sessions, the class introduced the fundamentals of qualitative research before delving into behavior change theory, feminist theory, research methodologies, creating interviews, understanding attitudes and perceptions using focus groups, and coding and analyzing data.
“During the course, participants expressed a lot of interest in each method, and through the assignments that were provided every week, they had the opportunity to practice what they learned,” said Sieng.
Key skills practiced through the assignments included developing and providing feedback on interview questions, assessing objectivity and taking field notes. Students could further explore ideas through lively, online discussions.
“I learned so much from the course, but my favorite activity was the observation assignment,” said Lak Sivcheng, who holds a degree in electrical engineering from the Institute of Technology of Cambodia. “Observation is very important in research; data collectors need to note a respondent’s response, behavior and situation. I especially valued learning about the gender-based approaches because women play an important role in social development and decision-making.”
Participants not only received a course completion certificate from Purdue University, but they also had the option to earn an internationally recognized certification to conduct human subjects research from the Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (CITI).
“When you are conducting research that involves people, ethics and the use of proper procedures are both critical,” said Thompson. “It comes down to protecting people participating in the research. How do you minimize the risk to participants? How do you protect the information they share? Completing CITI certification helps to ensure the students are qualified to use best practices when conducting this type of research.”
CITI certification was important because Thompson and colleagues conceived the course as an opportunity for engaged learning: participants who successfully completed the course can take part in the project’s gender analysis data collection this summer and fall. Through surveys, interviews and focus groups, the team will identify current practices and perceptions of food safety to inform the design of food safety interventions for the vegetable value chain.
“I liked that this course is not just an online course, but it has a hands-on, active research project,” said Suon, who plans to participate in the project research. “We will get out in the field to survey vegetable sellers, and it will allow us to experience some of the stages of real research, such as interviewing, interpreting and transcribing, and hopefully data analyzing.”
Other participants plan to implement qualitative methods in their own research projects. For Ratha Hem, a student and a technical specialist with the Sustainable Assets for Agriculture Markets, Business and Trade (SAAMBAT) project, the course was timely.
“I was really interested in learning feminist theory, behavior change theory using the behavior change wheel and the COM-B model for behavior change [Capability, Opportunity, Motivation: Behavior], and gender analysis,” said Ratha Hem. “I plan to apply what I learned when I will conduct quantitative surveys, qualitative semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions with SAAMBAT’s project beneficiaries.”
This is the third research methods course the project has offered in Cambodia. In 2021, two companion courses focusing on quantitative research methods trained and certified close to 200 undergraduates from the Royal University of Agriculture and the Institute of Technology Cambodia in developing surveys and conducting human subjects research. In those courses, students learned the theory and practice of developing questions for surveys, as well as how to pilot and test surveys for reliability and validity. The resulting surveys developed through the courses have been used to measure food safety knowledge and practices among vegetable vendors in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Battambang.
The courses are key steps in strengthening social science and gender-responsive research capacity in Cambodia. For Thompson, raising awareness of gender-informed research methods was one of the most satisfying aspects of teaching the course.
“It’s critical that people, like myself, who come from STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] backgrounds understand that there is a science to understanding gender research,” said Thompson. “It’s important in international development, and it was great to see our students getting an understanding of the 10,000-foot view of what gender research is. I could see them connecting the dots and seeing how integral gender is to the work we do.”