What is ‘safe’ in research fieldwork?

If you read in the paper that a researcher was in prison in another country, would you know whether they were one of your PhD students? Elizabeth Adams explains more.

Elizabeth Adams is the Researcher Development Manager at the University of Glasgow.

Do our researchers sometimes do fieldwork off-radar in case, by seeking permission (and travel insurance!), they are told they can’t go somewhere?

Who weighs up the cost of safety (such as taking private transport rather than public) against the financial costs of a research project?

These are all questions that bothered me a few years ago, when I was asked to provide hostile environment training to a research student travelling to central America. As the manager of the University’s researcher development programme, I could see why they were asking me for this training, but I didn’t feel it was something our team really knew about. Asking around, it seemed to be the case that fieldwork training was generally provided locally, which makes sense to a certain extent.

Subjects that involve a lot of fieldwork – including at undergraduate level – offer training, mentoring and peer support, as well as often having a fieldwork coordinator. But it wasn’t obvious to me which researchers outside of those subject areas might need training, or whether they or their supervisors might realise that. There was definite potential for people ‘falling through the cracks’ – particularly where they had only recently developed a project or collaboration as a result of increased funding for international development research.

These questions are common to many universities. There are often pockets of good practice in supporting fieldwork, but there isn’t always a joined up institutional and systematic approach to ensuring safety. The recent policies and guidance from UKRI (2020’s, “Preventing Harm”) and UKCDR highlight safeguarding concerns for participants, communities, universities and researchers themselves. In light of these new policies, the changing demographics and expectations of our researchers and also the increased awareness of harassment and sexual misconduct in academia and fieldwork, I think it’s time to ask some difficult questions of our fieldwork processes, support and environment.

Is our fieldwork safe for all, or just certain kinds of researchers?

It’s worth taking a look at who is doing fieldwork in our institutions, and whether our ideas of what is safe are built on a particular type of incoming researcher. At the point of recruitment, are we favouring students with extensive voluntary work experience – perhaps excluding individuals from backgrounds where that wasn’t a possibility? If so, are there other ways to assess whether or not someone will be “able to cope” with fieldwork, or are there ways to support them with developing those coping skills, through shorter visits, through training, or by working with trusted partners and mentors in the field?

Supervisors working in countries where gay marriage is illegal might well worry about the implications of this for their potential students, but how many of them feel equipped to talk about it? Both supervisors and students require support from their institutions to explore ways to enable the research to go ahead – to consider trial visits, field assistants, or indeed to reassure students that they will be supported to get home urgently if they are unsafe – acknowledging that many students won’t have access to emergency funding on a personal credit card for this. All institutions will have learnt a lot during the pandemic about bringing people home safely and adapting projects to the circumstances, whether that’s in relation to external influences or the individual needs of the researcher (which could also include a change in circumstances, such as injury, illness or sudden caring responsibilities).

The 2019 UKCDR evidence review on safeguarding in international development research highlights concerns around bullying, harassment, power dynamics and gender-based violence in fieldwork. These concerns are shared by students, as can be seen by the recent event hosted by students in the Unpacking Fieldwork initiative. Many institutions will already have work ongoing in relation to gender based violence on campus – and efforts to join up this work with thinking fieldwork safeguarding would be very valuable. Institutions should also ensure that their approaches to training and support are actively anti-racist, so they don’t perpetuate some of the issues and power dynamics that UKCDR identified in their work.

Are we really accounting for the mental health impacts of research?

The mental health impacts of fieldwork can be huge and are often not talked about. Even now, during the pandemic, we have researchers conducting online interviews in emotionally demanding areas, with the toll on mental health being exacerbated by home-working, being away from peer support or unable to set clear work – life boundaries. Researchers conducting overseas fieldwork talked about loneliness, stress, fear, frustrations and many other factors (sometimes combined with already challenging research areas). A group of researchers at the University of Sheffield have produced guidance on emotionally demanding research and there is a need for funders to take this into account at the point of planning projects, to ensure that appropriate support is in place, and to fund mitigating steps (such as counselling or trauma-training) in the same way as they might fund equipment or PPE relating to safety.

At the University of Glasgow, we worked with our Security Services, Health & Safety team and researchers and supervisors themselves to develop targeted training and peer support relating to both the physical and mental health aspects of fieldwork safety. We have published a matrix of roles and responsibilities (for researchers, supervisors or PIs, Schools and the University) at each of the key stages of fieldwork and encourage all parties to use this as a tool to ensure the appropriate measures are in place (including when working with research partners). These sit alongside a new policy on travel safety, systems to ensure that we know who is travelling and where. The SafeZone app can be used to support remote working. We hope that as we restart fieldwork, we will do so with new approaches to thinking about the field, and the researchers operating within it.

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