Building research skills in PNG – a new approach in Australia

The University of Tasmania (UTAS), the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and the PNG National Fisheries Authority (NFA) have together developed a novel and practical response to a shortage of research skills in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

In an experimental approach, UTAS sent a small team of academics to Port Moresby to deliver a tailored version of its Graduate Certificate in Research Skills to PNG fisheries researchers. The initiative targeted the fisheries sector after it became clear that a lack of skills was limiting fisheries research in the country.
“The aim was to use this three-year project to really strengthen the research capacity of the national fisheries program”

Chris Barlow, former fisheries research programme manager, ACIAR

Previously, the only option for this level of quality training was for students to travel to Australia, but for many, leaving families and jobs for an extended period is not feasible. With this approach, 39 researchers have managed to complete the course over the last three years, the most recent cohort receiving their certificates in February.

This was an experiment in capacity-building at the institutional level, according to Chris Barlow, former fisheries research programme manager at ACIAR.

“The aim was to use this three-year project to really strengthen the research capacity of the national fisheries program,” Barlow tells SciDev.Net.

ACIAR, a specialised aid agency, works by linking research groups in Australia with counterparts in developing countries to jointly address agriculture issues that limit development. The limited research skills came to light in the context of a suite of aquaculture projects.

Aquaculture is relatively new in PNG but has great potential for food security and income generation. According to the World Bank, aquaculture production in PNG increased to 6,150 metric tonnes in 2015 from just 7 metric tonnes in 1988. At least 10,000 small-scale fish farms are producing tilapia, carp and trout for home consumption and sale. But production levels are still very low compared with fish farms in South-East Asian countries like the Philippines, which is producing close to 3 million metric tonnes.

Georgina Bernard is a provincial fisheries officer and graduated in February. She is using her new skills to carry out trials to find local alternatives to expensive imported feed, one of the main problems for aquaculture in PNG. “I’m working in a province where there is a lot of oil palm, so we have an abundance of kernel, and we’re trialling three different kernel-based feeds,” she explains.

Basing the course in PNG, and with its industry focus, the UTAS staff were able to hone the training for direct relevance to the students’ work. “[The students] were able to really relate what was being taught in the classroom with their jobs, and if they had any issue [with their work], they could bring it into the classroom,” says Jacob Wani, executive manager for aquaculture and inland fisheries at the NFA.

Some graduates now have access to higher studies as a result of their new qualification. Philomena Sinkau, trainer in aquaculture at the National Fisheries College, hopes to register for a PhD and carry out research on developing a training policy for the aquaculture sector. “It’s [provided] a bridge for me,” she says. In the third year, the course broadened its intake to researchers in other agriculture disciplines, drawing on the ACIAR project network. The course proved highly transferable to other research fields, because of the generic nature of research skills and the work-based approach.

The graduation in February marked the end of the three-year experimental project, but the partners are hoping to build on its success and develop a second phase. Wani, part of the original team behind the project, believes that there is potential to expand this approach to other higher qualifications such as postgrad diplomas and masters degrees.

This idea could also be extended to other countries in the Pacific region and other sectors. “This way we can get many more people trained for the cost of one person trained in Australia,” Wani says.

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