Note: This post discusses in further detail the work that our R&D Department will be doing in 2024, which is part of a broader strategic change to seek to identify improved welfare interventions for helping fishes in India. For more higher-level information about this change and why we’re making it, see our post from November.
In 2023, we made the decision to establish a new department: the Research & Development Department. This post outlines how this department was formed, as well as its plans for 2024. Specifically, it discusses the key results we have set for ourselves in 2024, including running several studies and the development of a welfare assessment protocol for Indian major carp.
We plan to publish a specific list of studies we plan to run in 2024 to identify improved interventions in January.
Formation of FWI’s R&D Department
It has always been our goal to learn from the best of the evidence-based global health space, and to apply that to interventions that help nonhuman animals. In particular, we aim to make FWI’s interventions evidence-based, and to utilize evidence to design cost-effective programs that demonstrably improve the lives of fishes at scale.
Aligned with this ambition, in September 2023 we made the decision to establish a new R&D Department. The R&D Department was born out of the previous Welfare Standard (WS) Department, which had focused on developing welfare standards for farmers in our farmer program, the Alliance for Responsible Aquaculture (ARA), to implement. In essence, the ARA and the WS departments were two sides of the same coin—the WS Department developed standards and corrective actions for farmers to follow, while the ARA engaged with farmers, collected data, and communicated recommended corrective actions to farmers when required. In creating the new R&D Department we are effectively decoupling our research entity from the ARA, broadening our research mandate to explore alternative programs, not just welfare improvements for our current farmer program (the ARA). We also discuss this, and the reasons for it, in our recent strategy post.
The stated overall objective of our new R&D Department is to develop new theories of change and to conduct studies to inform FWI programs to improve the lives of fishes. In designing studies to inform new or improved programs, the R&D Department considers the potential for scale from the outset, along with perceived level of impact. Careful consideration is given to cost-effectiveness and likelihood of buy-in from the key stakeholders: farmers. Any intervention that FWI rolls out in the future must be inexpensive, easy-to-apply, and be perceived by farmers as beneficial if they are to implement it.
The newly-established R&D Department is led by Dr. Paul Monaghan, who joined FWI in July. Paul comes to FWI with extensive experience managing large-scale, multi-stakeholder, multi-year, multimillion-dollar public health programs. Paul's experience includes setting and driving strategic direction, spearheading delivery of program outputs to achieve long-term impact, and serving as technical advisor to NGO and government partners to ensure programs and their constituent components are of high quality and achieving the greatest impact with cost-effectiveness, scalability, and sustainability in mind. Evidence-based decision-making has been central to the programs Paul has led, and he has extensive experience with designing and overseeing large-scale research studies and impact evaluations, and programmatic monitoring and evaluation.
R&D Department Plans for 2024
As per FWI's objectives and key results for 2024, the key objective for the R&D Department in 2024 is to “Conduct studies and exploratory programs to inform future programs to scale”. Aligned with this objective, the following key results (KR’s) have been set for 2024:
KR 2.1: 1 study completed to inform new strategies to improve fish welfare.
KR 2.2: 1 study completed to inform viable strategies for cost-effective scale-up of ARA.
KR 2.3: 1 exploratory program initiated and undergoing monitoring to inform decisions around scale-up.
KR 2.4: 1 welfare assessment protocol developed and ready to use as a key monitoring and evaluation tool.
Work conducted as part of KR 2.1 and KR 2.3 helps to inform new programs, with the potential for scale considered from the outset. For KR 2.1, studies will help inform decisions about potential programs (or components of programs) we could consider rolling out in the future. KR 2.3 is almost a “flipped” version of this – we will initiate an exploratory program on a small scale, which we will study to inform if it’s worthwhile expanding in the future.
Work conducted as part of KR 2.2 helps to inform strategies for scaling our existing program (i.e. the ARA). Any ARA-related study that the R&D Department conducts as part of KR 2.2 will be directly related to changing the model such that the ARA is considered more scalable. This differs from work that the ARA will do as part of their own KR 3.3 (“strategies tested to improve existing ARA program”), which will focus on improving the current model, but not from the scalability perspective (refer to our recent blog from November to see how the ARA intends to place greater focus on innovation in 2024).
We have shortlisted a number of studies and exploratory programs to work on in 2024 as part of KRs 2.1, 2.2 and 2.3. We are currently conducting exploratory work to understand which of these ideas we should prioritize. We will publish more about our specific plans early in 2024, and commit to sharing regular progress updates throughout the year.
All studies and exploratory programs conducted under KRs 2.1, 2.2 and 2.3 are intended to either directly improve the lives of fishes (exploratory programs) or provide information about interventions we could roll out in the future to improve the lives of fishes (studies). Work conducted as part of KR 2.4 would not directly improve the lives of fishes; rather, it would allow us to better understand if our programming is actually improving the lives of fishes.
Currently, FWI uses water quality parameters as a proxy for fish welfare, with the assumption being that if water quality is poor, fishes suffer. Having a welfare assessment protocol would allow us to (i) understand welfare needs more objectively, and (ii) more objectively assess our impact.
The idea is to create a welfare assessment protocol that is practical, feasible and inexpensive, and to utilize this at all farms. For new farms that FWI may approach in the future, this welfare assessment would be conducted before we commit to supporting the farmer, helping us to more objectively understand to what extent welfare is a concern at the given farm.
This could be important for improving FWI’s impact and cost-effectiveness—we can’t have an impact at farms at which welfare issues are not addressable by us, so resources should be prioritized towards farms where issues a) are severe, and b) are solvable. For farms already supported by the ARA (or any other future program) this welfare assessment could be conducted periodically to assess progress.
Given the key purpose for this welfare assessment protocol – to assess all farms periodically so we can assess impact over time – it’s critical that the protocol is considered feasible to conduct at scale, practical to be conducted by non-technical personnel, inexpensive on a farm-by-farm basis, and sufficiently informative to help FWI with decision-making.
We’re hopeful that these plans, coupled with the increased level of rigor we believe we are now able to execute them with, will make 2024 our most promising year yet for developing cost effective interventions to improve farmed fish welfare.