hAIRghita Project: Chemical and biological characteristics and public health aspects of fog and precipitations
Who we are and what was the main object of this project?
Sapientia Hungarian University of Transylvania is a relatively young (established in 2001) independent Hungarian University in Romania. It is functioning in four different towns, including Miercurea Ciuc, which is the county seat of Harghita. Regarding the activities in Miercurea Ciuc, in addition to education and scientific research activities, in recent years the university is actively involved in different research programs directly connected to regional or local demands. Therefore, fruitful professional cooperation networks with domestic and international institutions were established and Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) was promoted. The university has been involved in challenging projects such as SPARKS (an awareness-raising project to show Europeans that they can get involved in science and that various stakeholders share the responsibility for scientific research and innovation) in order to promote RRI.
The university-community partnership was developed and strengthened in the last ten years by science communication and participatory activities as: science shops (collecting research questions from the region), science competitions (Labworm, CSI Sapientia), open lab door actions (e.g. Painting with microbes), third age academy (Silver Academy) and other science communication actions (Beyond the Lab exhibition [Sparks project], We are all witnesses – Exhibition on climate justice [Change the Power – (Em) Power to Change project], Coffee house scientific presentations, Sapiophile vlog, Podcast). Several research topics aroused from a real need of the local community, mainly related to the quality of environment.
According to these needs, the Sapientia University’s main objective was to organize participatory events for and with stakeholders to discuss different issues related to environment pollution and human health in order to generate substantial social value for the local community.
Local stakeholders and actors involved were represented by Harghita County Hospital, the County Public Health Directorate, the County Environmental Protection Agency, Harghita County Council, education institutions and NGOs.
Meeting the project stakeholder’s needs and engagement
According to our current experience in the region it is obvious that decision-makers (Harghita County Council) and professional institutions (Harghita County Hospital, County Public Health Directorate, County Environmental Agency) have gathered a significant amount of pollution and health-related data, analysed and interpreted only to some extent and only intra-institutionally. The project thus responded to the need of these institutions, but also to other groups (health-and environment related NGOs, NGOs dealing with vulnerable groups, public education institutions).
Methods used for achieving the objectives
The principal used methods have been: Participatory actions (reverse science café, thematic workshops, science café); pilot research project (sampling [fieldwork], sample analysis [labwork], statistical data analysis); and dissemination and research communication (press conferences, online media communication).
It has already been demonstrated that Participatory Action Research (PAR) offers helpful tools in order to address and identify community issues and strengths and thus involve the community members into action. During participatory actions stakeholders were identified based on the theme of the thematic workshop that was going to be organized. The workshop proposals were well received by the stakeholders and four online meetings were arranged through the Google Meet platform, due to the COVID19 pandemic.
Throughout participatory actions and events (1 Reverse science café, 3 Thematic workshops and 1 Science café) organized in the framework of hAIRgita, the project team ensured the activities being developed were gender equality and human rights-responsive. The activities focused on being conducted in an inclusive, participatory, reflective, respectful and transparent manner. Gender balance was observed through invited participants (generally speaking, 50% of the participants of the Reverse science café, Thematic workshop and Science café events were women), informed consent was used in relation to photos being taken during the meetings, and responsible personal and scientific data management was ensured during all project activities.
During the reverse Science café the invited participants got a picture about what is the goal of this project, what kind of questions should be answered and analyzed with which methods and according to our plan what will be the expected impact. Finally, there was an excellent brainstorming regarding the multidisciplinary aspects of the present project, why was essential to better understand the relationship between air pollution and its effect on public health. The meeting also encouraged the participation of the young generation, therefore PhD students were actively involved during the thematic workshop.
As a result of this session, the representative of Harghita County Council proposed the project scientific outputs to be integrated in the Country’s Air Pollution Strategy. Ideas arose to improve communication and dissemination activities (by the partner institution’s social platforms or even by social networks of elected officials – Facebook and Instagram pages).
The second thematic workshop on air microbiome and pollution was organized also as online event. During this workshop the most significant research achievements in precipitation and air microbiology were presented and possible research perspectives in this field were outlined and discussed with the participants. According to the outcomes, in order to decipher and carry out microbial characterization, it is expected the use of the metagenomic approach.
During the meeting the participants were encouraged to participate in a quiz “competition”, using Mentimeter, where the questions were manly related to the theme of the workshop, including the microbiology of air and precipitation and on the other hand to the possible public health aspects.
During the third thematic workshop on complex interactions and public health aspects of air pollution, the effects of major air pollutants —including particulate matters as well, and weather on respiratory and cardiovascular diseases in the Ciuc basin— were presented and discussed in detail with the participants.
Since the workshop had a medical aspect, the second part of the meeting was held by a specialist from the Public Health Directorate of Harghita County. As a result of this session, the participants agreed that we are far from being able to fully understand the processes taking place between air pollution and human health, thus the real quantifiable impacts are yet to be discovered.
At the end of the thematic workshop we were interested to find out what do the participants think about the project, what are the lessons of the project so far. According to the results the participants believe that the project and the project objectives are diversified with multidisciplinary characteristics, are interesting and based on cooperation between different social actors.
As stated in the event invitations, participants were encouraged to synthesize and contribute with ideas to the project activities, in the form of a Q&A session, with the following topics: what are the main research questions/topics of interest/open science approaches from their institutions related to air quality-health correlations?; how could their institutions contribute (with data, results of past projects or innovative communication methodologies) to the scientific or science dissemination and communication activities related to this topic? and what approaches/methodologies do their organizations propose to improve the societal visibility of scientific data and results?
A press release on the launch of the project and the first events organized as well as a final press release with the project outcomes were sent to local and regional press bodies. The project was also briefly presented in the EPP-CoR Publication of the European Week of Regions and Cities.
Regarding the project’s impact on public policy, dissemination events and further consultations resulted in a direct collaboration of the InSPIRES project team and Harghita County Council to participate in the elaboration of Harghita County Council Air Pollution Strategy, Members of the project team were invited to participate in a workgroup created to design and elaborate this strategic document.
Through the project’s events, the involvement of different stakeholders expressed their opinion and contributed with ideas and offered to integrate their data the research and innovation activities proposed by the project. Among these stakeholders we can mention public institutions such as Harghita County Council, the Harghita County Environmental Portection Agency, Public Health Directorate of Harghita County NGOs such as Pogány-havas Associtation, and academics from Sapientia University and the Institute for Research and Development for Hunting and Mountain Resources.
One of the main outcomes of the project resulted in policy recommendations, where we present the types of measures recommended to facilitate the maintenance of air quality in Harghita County.