The Dangers of Doing Science in the Field
The natural risk:
In a recent episode of the Warm Regards podcast The Dangers of Doing Science in the Field, paleoecologist Jacquelyn Gill told of her recent brush with death while doing documentary work in remote Siberia. “People joked about how excessive [bringing a team doctor] was, but it turned out it was really important,” she said. "After about a week in the ICU and then another week in a vascular recovery ward, I was discharged from the hospital, spent 10 days in a local hotel and then an air ambulance transported me home, thanks to my fantastic international medical evacuation insurance provided by Discovery." Just as in the lab, no amount of preparation nor caution in the field can prevent every accident or emergency, but Jacquelyn’s story shows how proper safety planning can bring a field scientist back home to the friends, family, and colleagues. In his blog post What's the worst that could happen?, forest ecologist Markus Eichhorn lays out the general safety planning guidelines that are critically essential to be ready for situations like when he had to set off an emergency beacon for helicopter evacuation in the Russian Far East when a student's packhorse fell during a river crossing.
In an AMA on the blog, reader Kate shared that they and their colleagues have suffered "stitches, broken bones and dislocations, chemical exposure (to the face!), back injuries, hypothermia, heat exhaustion/dehydration, encounters with drug traffickers, hostile landowners (well beyond ‘get off my yard’), and multiple near-drownings . . . from 4 different universities, 3 established field stations, and many dispersed field sites, some in remote/wilderness areas." The blog's Brian McGill agreed that a major cause of this problem is that there is no consistency between institutions - too many of which leave it up to PIs to enforce their own standards - and Jeremy Fox shared as an example the University of Alberta’s Field Research Pre-Planning guidelines as well as a post on Safety in the field from the Small Pond Science blog. In her own blog post Planning your field work?, ecologist Auriel Fournier shares another great checklist but also goes a step further by saying to the technicians who work under her, “I will never be upset if you come back without data because you choose to be safe, never. You are more important than my data.” She makes it clear in no uncertain terms that PIs have a crucial responsibility for breaking the cowboy culture that glorifies risk and trades in horror stories.
The human risk:
In the podcast episode in which Jacquelyn Gill told about her brush with death in Siberia, geologist Jane Willenbring told the infuriating tale of her own verbal and physical assault as a grad student by her advisor at the time, Dave Marchant, while in a secluded temporary field station in Antarctica. By the time the episode was published Marchant had been fired, but as of the time of recording Boston University had already failed to take that action for over four hundred days. Podcast co-host Sarah Myhre told her own story of being sexually approached during her first field experience “an international flight and eight hour drive and a half an hour walk into the jungle” by her undergraduate advisor, who then abandoned the entire team of undergrads in the field once he was rejected by her. In her call to action Reconceptualising risk in research: The call to do no harm goes far beyond the field, geographer Amiera Sawas tells of having to choose to pull out of a field site early due to sexual harassment. She discusses the hidden reputational risk, how risk assessment tables are not enough, and the dangerous culture that is created by researchers understating the risk that they subject themselves to.
Social scientists Robin G. Nelsen, Julienne N. Rutherford, Katie Hinde, and Kathryn B. H. Clancy conducted a survey for biological anthropologists published as Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault, which demonstrated in stark data the disproportionate impact that these violations and the institutional failings around them have on early career women. In Signaling Safety: Characterizing Fieldwork Experiences and Their Implications for Career Trajectories, they continue their discussion on these particularly gendered impacts and recommend "specific tactics, such as policies, procedures, and paradigms that fieldsite directors and principal investigators can implement to improve field experiences and better achieve equal opportunity in field research settings." IUniversities Grapple with Student-Faculty Relationships, Markus Eichorn's Guideline 7 asks, "Do you have a code of conduct and sexual harassment policy? If not then you are placing members of your team at risk, so you need one, then demand that everyone has read and understood it, preferably by forcing them to sign a form." In their paper Gendered Considerations for Safety in Conservation Fieldwork, Marisa A. , Jennifer Rebecca , Wynne , Laurie and
“So many of us put our stories in a box and close them and say, “I can't revisit this because there's nothing I can do.” But the real power in revisiting and owning our stories and not silencing ourselves is that we pave the way for people in the future and people who are in this career right now (but maybe in less senior positions than we are). That that's a real power that we can use on a day-to-day basis to change the world.” - Sarah Myhre
A two-part blog on water and sun safety practices by marine biologist Elisabeth Maxwell
Institutional risk assessments and safety guidelines
- Fieldwork Risk Assessment from the University College London’s Department of Geography
- Geology Fieldwork Risk Assessments from the Barcelona Field Studies Center
- Safety Guidelines for Field Researchers from Duke University
- Field Research Pre-Planning from the University of Alberta