FIELD Outlook: Amelia-Juliette Demery & Monique Pipkin
Applying inclusive practices to safeguard researchers
IntroductionFieldwork is a formative experience; whether one is planning their first trip or is a seasoned researcher, fieldwork manifests into different experiences and interactions. However, fieldwork does not exist outside of the prejudices perpetuating human society. Studies across time and disciplines have identified that prejudice in all forms remains a barrier to participation and a reason for the attrition of marginalized groups (e.g., Campbell et al. 2000, Gordon 2014, Opie and Phillips 2015, Medeiros and Griffith 2019, Huang et al. 2020, McKinnon and O’Connell 2020, Jensen et al. 2021). Yet in the name of “objectivity”, academic culture often fails to acknowledge the diverse and intersectional identities of the researchers. This perspective is itself subjective and privileged. By failing to acknowledge the diversity of identities, we fail to acknowledge the differences in experience and provide the support for marginalized identities within a space that was not historically designed with inclusivity as a value. Furthermore, acknowledging and celebrating diversity promotes more robust and innovative science through collaboration of different perspectives and insights (Campbell et al. 2013, Nielsen et al. 2017, AlShebli et al. 2018, Nature 2018).
The state of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) in the sciences injects urgency into retaining self-awareness of and providing support against discriminatory spaces and actions, behavior only exacerbated in the heightened isolation of fieldwork. For those of us of under-represented race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, socio-economic status; or who have visible/invisible disabilities, fieldwork mandates an ever-present glance over the shoulder to feel safe.
In Fall 2020, we authored a paper on the heightened risk to minority identities within fieldwork, identifying the prevalence of risk both domestic and international and its many manifestations for different identities under-represented in science, technology, engineering, and medicine (STEM) disciplines. The paper received critical acclaim, and included rich resources to help implement inclusive practices to safeguard researchers at multiple levels of the academic infrastructure. In this article we dig into the rationale and applications of key practices to highlight the significance and possible outcomes of their implementation. We aim to provide additional insights with which multiple supervisors and institutions can use to protect their employees.
Recommendations for SupervisorsThe supervisor holds multiple levels of power and influence within the research group. They are the researcher’s supporter, counsel and advocate. For individuals of under-represented identity(ies), the supervisor may be the first person of authority that the researcher trusts within the institution. Furthermore, supervisors hold a leadership role within their research group and in higher administrative levels. Their words and actions hold influence that the researcher may not have, whether through the credibility attained by their station, their additional rapport with other more established individuals in the institution, and in being the leader within the research group. Therefore, strategies implemented by the supervisor sends a signal of communal values/priorities with impact and reach.
- Have an accessible Hold Harmless Statement Our paper contains a Hold Harmless statement, which requests individuals and institutions to “hold harmless” any well-meaning action intended to engage at-risk individuals in conversations surrounding field safety. The reasoning behind our “hold-harmless” statement is one of the most popular questions asked of us when we present our paper. Some supervisors have been and are currently taught to not reference researcher identity in order to avoid any actions that may be considered discriminatory by the researcher involved. For many supervisors there exist legal ramifications if they demonstrate any form of prejudice or discrimination towards a researcher. Supervisors cognizant of risks in the field may be unsure of how to approach this conversation with a researcher who may be at increased risk in the field. While the supervisor’s intentions may be to protect the student or make them more aware of fieldwork hazards, they may not have the language or tools to adequately initiate these conversations about research-centered field safety. A “hold-harmless” statement or strategy is a proactive way to ensure that a supervisor can deliver the appropriate message to their researcher (e.g., “it is important to conduct fieldwork safely”, “I want you to be safe in the field”). Importantly, the hold-harmless statement consists of two parts: the resource that is being offered to the researcher and how the resource is being offered. For example, a supervisor can make our field safety paper a mandatory paper to be read by every researcher that comes into the lab. This policy does not target specific identities, and leverages the power of the supervisor to ensure that research group members will study and digest ways to maximize their own safety in the field. Furthermore, researchers of all identities should note that the supervisor’s priorities and values include their safety and wellbeing, which may have positive downstream impacts for research group morale and productivity.
- Regularly discuss field safety and diversity As the leader in a research group, the supervisor holds power in setting communal priorities and values. One of the most consistent ways in which research group culture manifests are the research group meetings. By discussing field safety during research group meetings, the supervisor establishes that field safety is part of normative culture and aligned with the values of the supervisor, and therefore the values of the research group. The topics of these meetings can then be used as a launching point for further discussion during individual meetings.
- Create a Field Safety Plan Prior to fieldwork, supervisors should create a field safety plan associated with their specific research and field sites. This document should include:
During this meeting, information about the field-site, safety plans and associated topics (e.g., housing, transportation) should be discussed as a lab group before, during and after a field season. The process sets expectations for researchers about project design, field site details, and safe and appropriate conduct. For example, supervisors can require or recommend that fieldwork is completed in pairs or small groups to increase safety and research. When people share the load of research and vigilance against risk, it may increase overall productivity while also increasing safety. Conversations during or after field season allow for the identification of risks and hazards, and the development of ways to mitigate those risks that develop. These discussions allow for the supervisor to consistently be aware of any issues or risks that occur during past seasons and continuously improve current processes for future researchers. That naturally feeds back to the researcher as supportive actions that build trust and safety within the research group.
After the summer of 2020, many research lab groups conducted meetings about DEIJ issues, which incentivized different research communities to explore biases and strategies for encouraging more inclusive workplace culture. A supervisor can introduce routine meetings to discuss DEIJ themes using many publicly-available resources in a diversity of mediums. These discussions facilitate professional development throughout the research group, mandated through the authority of the supervisor. We must emphasize that DEIJ awareness is not a discrete moment in one’s professional development; one cannot read one paper, listen to a podcast, or attend a workshop and decide that they know all there is to know about DEIJ. We stress that the supervisor mandates equal and constructive participation in DEIJ awareness and field safety so that everyone benefits from the experience and no one feels pressured to always engage in DEIJ discourse while others do not engage. Lastly, but most importantly, the supervisor is the first person that the research group looks to for leadership in times of conflict. It is common knowledge, and more so in contemporary society, that DEIJ conversation can be just as harmful as it is beneficial if not facilitated effectively. Microaggressions, apathy, and tone-deaf communication can push a community ten steps back from where they started. Therefore, the supervisor should expect that they are the best facilitator for DEIJ conversations and must act on that role for resolving conflict if/when it occurs. We suggest that supervisors take proactive strategies to ensure constructive discourse, including active bystander training to keep the safe space open to everyone regardless of their identity or professional standing in the research group.
- the field site location and access information;
- contacts of field crew leaders and site managers/owners;
- communication plan;
- list of risks and associated mitigation techniques;
- expectations of conduct; and,
- information for emergency services and reporting
A supervisor will likely have more field experience than the researchers and thus have specific insights to best prepare the researchers for a successful field experience. This importance scales when the researcher has no or little field experience.
Recommendations for Departments and InstitutionsThe institutions provide the overall scaffolding for guidelines and regulations to which every individual is held accountable. Of the researcher-supervisor-institution hierarchy, the institution holds the most financial, social, and legal capital over influencing DEIJ policy and normative culture within their purview. They are responsible for all who conduct affiliated fieldwork, providing professional development resources, and providing capacity for research. Institutions are the first point of preparation and last line of support for researchers and supervisors, before individuals seek assistance from a third party. Ultimately, any actions and experiences of the researchers and supervisors in field situations reflect directly back on the institution’s policies for their employees’ safety.
- Make general field safety, harassment, and first aid courses available and mandatory This provides an equitable starting point for everyone within the organization and outlines processes that may help individuals when risk presents itself in the field or elsewhere. The accessibility of these courses to everyone within the organization allows for individuals from all career stages to receive the training. This also can prepare and supply supervisors with the information and guidance if researchers have field-specific questions. The mandatory requirement underscores the importance of these courses and calls in those who may not be at first interested in participating. The information in these courses likely will outline common examples of harassment and harm which indicates to any individual within the organization that those behaviors will not be tolerated.
- Establish a code of conduct and confidential reporting mechanism for your researchers These procedures not only communicate a normative culture in line with DEIJ values, but also empowers researchers and supervisors to bring up past, present, or future concerns of risk via a mechanism that will reduce or eliminate retaliation. These mechanisms should expand past a researcher reporting incidents to their supervisors: include pathways where researchers can provide information through anonymous reporting or through direct contact with an institution official to ensure confidential accountability for everyone. The implanted protocols should regularly be re-evaluated and refined to maximize inclusion and awareness of possible hazards to workplace health. Through these protocols, individuals who are at heightened risk can self-select the reporting mechanism that is most appropriate to them without fear of immediate or future career repercussions.
- Hold individuals accountable for their actions “A requirement without a consequence is just a desire.” Ideally, everyone would actively ensure that fieldwork can be safe for all. However, risk, misconduct and harm are still prevalent in fieldwork. Since there are individuals who will not act unless required, incentives and consequences are necessary to enforce the inclusive and equitable fieldwork that everyone is entitled to. Consequences should be present at all levels, ranging from (but not limited to) individuals who fail to complete institutional training to those who violate codes of conduct and perpetuate harm. Individuals who sign the contract that requires DEIJ-designed fieldwork practices and then shirk them should be held accountable for their harms and discouraged from continuing that harm in the future. Furthermore, accountability bolsters the social capital of the institution by showcasing the institution’s commitment to protecting its researchers of all identities and promoting a safe working environment.
In the instances when there is no accountability, as is the case in many institutions, institutions and their leadership communicate indifference to the safety of the employees under their purview. In many professional communities, individuals who resist taking proactive DEIJ measures and/or perpetuate harm are already known entities. Warnings and guidance about perpetuators are informally shared through the “whisper network.” Taken together, the unsafe culture of an institution is known and communicated across many professional whisper networks, discouraging talented researchers seeking a safe environment for their work. And the harm continues within the institution, as researchers concerned for their workplace health will seek out higher-level mechanisms for holding employees and supervisors responsible for condoning inappropriate and/or harmful behavior. The institution may suffer legal consequences if found responsible for lack of preparation, oversight or action to protect their researchers.
ConclusionSupervisors and institutions can have a profound impact on creating and reinforcing safe fieldwork for their researchers. Through continuous improvement of current policies, protocols and guidelines, it is very likely there will be an increase in recruitment and retention of under-represented identities. Higher-level policies promoting DEIJ values may increase safety and comfort for researchers in the field, allowing them to spend more time on their research. However, negligence or avoidance of inclusive proactive practices will lead to further attrition of professionals and their associated talent/skills from their discipline. Consistent threat posed to researchers begets loss, as they will leave an institution if they feel that their safety is not prioritized by their employer. Downstream effects include negative impacts to institutional reputation as structural negligence is shared more broadly, perpetuating those negative impacts to recruitment at all levels of the institution. As we begin to have a renewed interest in researcher-centric field safety, existing field safety protocols will mandate periodical review and revision. Just like the nature of science, inclusive practices, particularly pertaining to fieldwork, will need to be continuously evaluated, improved and reassessed for the betterment of all.
You can access the authors’ article about fieldwork safety here
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