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EADI ISS Conference 2021 | Risk dumping in field research: some researchers are safer than others

Researchers who conduct their fieldwork in unfamiliar or hazardous settings are routinely exposed to risks that can bring them harm if these are not anticipated and circumvented. Often, junior PhDs or foreign researchers conduct fieldwork on behalf of more senior researchers; and in doing so, they also take over the risks that fieldwork poses. The practice of ‘risk and ethics dumping’ that was discussed at a roundtable session on safety and security for researchers at the recent EADI ISS #Solidarity2021 Conference should end, and research institutions and senior researchers should start feeling greater responsibility toward those they work with or employ, write Linda Johnson and Rodrigo Mena.

Balaji Srinivasan (Unsplash)

A quick glance at who is out collecting data in ‘the field’, including in remote and sometimes hazardous environments, is enough to make our point clear: the main executors of in-situ research (also known as fieldwork research) are local researchers and research assistants, sometimes together with junior or PhD researchers from research institutions in the Global North. These groups are being systematically and disproportionately exposed to safety and security issues linked to field research.

Senior and more experienced researchers from these institutions are not likely to be doing hands-on field work. Instead, they often lead projects, supervising those doing the fieldwork and providing advice on to how do fieldwork while keeping a safe distance from ‘the field’ itself. In cases where senior researchers do engage in field research, they usually do it with adequate resources and strong social and professional networks at hand. This protects them from the hazards of doing fieldwork.

Moreover, universities feel compelled to protect themselves from liability, but not their researchers from harm. University managers often approach security with the objective of protecting the university from liability. This means that entire countries and sometimes even continents can become inaccessible to international researchers, mainly by being declared off-limits due to a broad-brush approach in response to hazards identified, but not well understood, by ministry officials and/or university administrators. In reality, such hazards can often be geographically limited to relatively small areas, and relatively safe travel to much of the areas considered off-limits would be feasible, if only more detailed analysis of the actual situation were used in the risk assessment process, and a sound risk plan were developed.

A lack of concern

In her introduction to the topic at the roundtable on “Safety and security for university staff, students and research participants” that formed part of the recent EADI ISS #Solidarity2021 Conference, Thea Hilhorst from the ISS warned about  “risk dumping” on a large scale and discussed some of its dimensions. Risk dumping, which means that risks are diverted to others or simply ‘dumped’ on them, often takes place unintentionally, she argued. She also mentioned that junior staff, PhD candidates, or local researchers are less likely to be insured against risk or trained in risk mitigation, which makes it more difficult for them to identify, mitigate or confront the hazards they come across in the field. Such an insurance policy and appropriate training would also include potential risks for research participants and collaborators. Hilhorst thought that the following four things were crucial for improving the security and safety of researchers:

  1. Safety guidelines. These are essential for ensuring that researchers have a basic knowledge of risks in the field and how they can limit exposure to these.
  2. Safety training. Guidelines without training do not serve much purpose. Researchers with experience of hazardous contexts can help others understand some of the risks better.
  3. Strong safety and security support structures. Universities and research centers need to develop adequate protocols and structures to prevent and manage safety and security risks.
  4. Good insurance cover (including protection against so-called acts of God, i.e. natural hazards and conflict). Both international and local researchers, and those who work with them locally, should be protected in this manner.

What other panellists had to say:

Local researchers are often overlooked

Vagisha Gunasekara from the American Institute for Sri Lankan Studies argued that research policies rarely pay attention to the role of local researchers and enumerators, and the main researchers (principal investigators) fail to recognise that there are ethical issues to be resolved in this respect.

PhD researchers are worth their weight in gold…

Rod Mena from the ISS reminded us that PhD researchers play a vital role in collecting and analysing data for research projects led by more senior academics. He stressed this by asking the participants to imagine a research landscape without PhD researchers: huge swathes of research would never happen without them. However, he said, “although they are clearly vital for research, the approach to their safety is often cavalier at best”.

…but they are forced to put themselves at risk

Mena also pointed to the fact that most PhD researchers have limited resources to conduct fieldwork, thus making it necessary for them to opt for the cheapest options in terms of transportation, accommodation, and even food. This necessity to skimp on costs often increases risks, including to their safety and health.

The implementation of guidelines is important

Eric Beerkens from the Dutch funding division WOTRO Science for Global Development pointed out that his organisation requires adherence to the Global Code of Conduct for Research in Resource-Poor Settings, which is a step in the right direction, but feels that funding organisations like WOTRO could do more to ensure the implementation of regulations and to raise awareness about the possible risks involved in fieldwork and the need for protective measures.

Researcher exploitation reveals a colonial mindset

Finally, EADI president Henning Melber said that there is clear evidence of colonial mindsets in academia that lead to asymmetric power relations and unashamed exploitation of both PhD researchers and local researchers.

Collectively taking responsibility

All panellists agreed that it is time to end the (often unintentional) risk and ethics dumping in the field of development studies and to self-critically assess our policies and practices. Only by taking responsibility as an academic community can we ensure that important research in the future will be conducted according to high ethical standards and under safe conditions for all involved. The recent letter to the European Commission from many rectors’ conferences and university umbrella organisations in Europe on ‘Enhancing Research Excellence at African Universities through European/ African Cooperation’ signals an intention to collaborate more intensively on research with partners in the Global South. The need to improve our practices has never been greater.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Linda Johnson was the executive secretary of ISS, but has now retired. She is particularly interested in the societal relevance of research. In addition, she has done recent work on the safety and security of researchers and co-developed a course on literature as a lens on development.
Rodrigo Mena is assistant Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Governance.  Mena is Board Member of the International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA) and as convener of the Peace and Ecology in the Anthropocene commission at the International.

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Scholars at Risk: precarity in the Academe and Possible Solutions by Rod Mena and Kees Biekart

About the authors:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Rodrigo (Rod) Mena is a socio-environmental AiO-PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University Rotterdam. His current research project focuses on disaster response and humanitarian aid in complex and high-intensity conflict-affected scenarios.

kees-biekart_Kees Biekart is Associate Professor in Political Sociology at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. His area of expertise is in NGOs, social movements, civil society, and foreign aid, in particular in relation to Latin America.


The environment in which scholars are expected to produce societally relevant knowledge seems to become increasingly insecure. An estimated six hundred cases reported over the past two years of academics being subjected to arrests, threats, physical or verbal abuse, violent assault, prosecution or job losses have led us to raise the question: How safe is the academic milieu for scholars? This article, based on the Scholars at Risk seminar organised by the ISS in September 2017, discusses the precarious situation of academics and presents alternatives to current risky environments, particularly strategies both at the individual and institutional level for protecting scholars at risk.


Can the academic environment really be typified as a safe and secure space for scholars? While in some contexts academics may work freely and without fear, worldwide the reality can be quite different. Statistics show that academics are increasingly facing uncertain and insecure conditions, with almost six hundred cases reported over the last two years of negative actions taken against academics, including arrests, threats, physical or verbal abuse, violent assault, and prosecution. Such actions result primarily from negative perceptions of the research topics and ideas that scholars teach and research, the position that academics hold in society, the locations in which they conduct research, and their interactions with other members of society. The Academic Freedom Monitor has verified that in recent years, more than 800 attacks on staff and students in higher education have taken place globally; this number does not include cases remaining unreported primarily due to fear or the embarrassment associated with stigmatisation.

Scholars at Risk

In order to better understand the risky conditions scholars increasingly face, in September 2017 the ISS and the UAF co-organised a seminar titled ‘Scholars at Risk’, named after a project of the Foundation for Refugee Students UAF and the Scholars at Risk network (SAR). During the seminar the programme coordinator of the Scholars at Risk project and an academic who in her professional capacity had faced threats engaged in a discussion of their experiences and possible solutions to this problem facing the academe. Three topics discussed during the seminar are of particular interest:

First, the discussion emphasised that the phenomenon of risky academic environments does not just affect developing countries or institutions, but occurs globally. Northern scholars are also subject to pressures, threats and limitations on freedom of expression in their research and corresponding publications. When transgressing certain societal boundaries, restrictions and sanctions ensue. For example, in Eastern Europe and in Russia, cases of the imprisonment and prosecution of scholars can be cited; however, in the rest of Europe academics most commonly face the threat of job loss. However, in many northern countries justice systems generally operate more effectively, allowing scholars to denounce threats or seek support in threatening situations.

Second, scholars in diverse fields are affected. Precarious environments do not only affect social scientists and scholars in the humanities – mathematicians, biologists, doctors, and engineers are also constantly targeted. Last year, a NASA physicist conducting research at the University of Houston was detained in Turkey and accused of being a spy for the United States government and a member of the Turkish Gülen movement. This academic is still detained and awaiting a possible prison sentence of up to 15 years [1].

Third, the effects of risky academic environments stretch beyond the confines of the academic space, threatening familial security, forcing scholars and their families to seek refuge, and obstructing scientific advances and knowledge generation. Freedom of expression is also limited, as public discussions and discourses, social reflection, and freedom of thought are reduced, impeding efforts to strengthen democracy. It is hence evident that it is a serious and potentially dangerous phenomenon affecting society-at-large and the foundations whereupon societies are built – science, technology, and critical and reflective thought.

Scholars_At_Risk
Source: Getty Images via Times Free Press

Moreover, persecution is not only restricted to scholars, but also affects physical spaces in which they work. Universities, laboratories or observation centres are also attacked, destroyed, or limited in their operations. The non-academic staff working in these spaces, including translators, facilitators and administrative staff (and their relatives) are increasingly confronted with violent situations or are threatened due to their work. The problem hence can be said to directly affect the entire higher education community.

When confronted with this reality many scholars face, many people may ask whether the academic space, then, is shrinking, especially when viewed alongside the other harsh realities of the modern academic world, including the pressure to publish in high-impact journals and the dictation of research topics by research grants. While we do not know whether the academic space is actually shrinking, we do know that it is rapidly transforming. Academics are confronted not only with the risks mentioned above – their freedom of access to information is also under fire. Conducting research in countries suffering from violent conflicts often implies physical risks for academics, alongside the possible destruction of historical information or reduced capacity to produce new knowledge.

 

A Possible Way Out

After sketching this scenario, the obvious question that arises is how this situation can be addressed. Certainly, no easy solutions can be presented, but a number of steps can be taken in an attempt to create a safer working environment for scholars. The 2017 Free to Think report of Scholars at Risk states that scholars first have to cast a spotlight on the situation, advocating for change and urging states, civil society and leaders to ‘recognize publicly the problem of attacks on higher education, their negative consequences, and the responsibility of states to protect higher education communities within their territories against such attacks’ (Scholars at Risk 2017).

Within our academic communities, safe spaces will have to be created where affected people can publicly and freely discuss their situations. Moreover, we need to engage and urge our academic institutions to become part of organisations and networks protecting and assisting scholars at risk. After all, should it be so difficult to host scholars who seek protection? The academic community is responsible for providing protection to scholars and will have to create mechanisms to support affected people and their families. While ethics committees of research institutions focus on the safety of research subjects, the safety of researchers still does not enjoy sufficient attention.

Scholars also must reflect on the impact of their activities on others. While the full responsibility must not be placed on academics, we, as scholars, can also be proactive by taking measures such as avoiding hazardous situations, protecting our data, engaging with our informants, and by improving our interaction by means of the internet (through emails, web-based research and the use of cloud storage). The abovementioned are only some of several measures that we can take to actively protect ourselves from those people and situations putting us at risk. Especially scholars working or residing in repressive settings known for putting scholars at risk should know which options are available to them to avoid persecution. The global community will concurrently have to advocate for change. Manuals such as the ‘Security guidelines for field research in complex, remote and hazardous places’, although focusing primarily on one component of academic research, can provide valuable information on how to prevent and reduce risks scholars can face.

In conclusion, we as scholars need to engage in an on-going discussion on how to become more aware of scholars at risk and of the actions we can take to help our colleagues. Very likely, much more can be done to protect and support fellow scholars who cannot or are hesitant to speak out, or who have gone into hiding. A safe academic environment moves beyond support for affected scholars, since we all benefit from the academic freedom our predecessors have fought for. After all, how can we cherish academic freedom if some of us are unable to speak out freely?


[1] http://monitoring.academicfreedom.info/reports/2016-08-05-nasa-university-houston