Advisory note: Responsibilities for Preventing, Avoiding, and Mitigating Harm to Researchers Undertaking Fieldwork in Risky Settings

Researchers across many disciplines of science engage in fieldwork, sometimes in unfamiliar, remote, or risky settings, on sensitive topics, or in unstable social or political environments. This Advisory Note seeks to increase awareness that heightened risk is a feature of much field research, and that risk awareness, assessment and mitigation of risks in the field need to be strategic and integral parts of research design and implementation, at both institutional and individual levels. This supports freedom and responsibility in the conduct of research.

Advisory Note

Fieldwork needs particular attention because researchers are less likely to be working within their familiar networks and support structures, often will have reduced control over the research setting, and may be unaware of local political issues and other potential risks not directly related to their research.

Undertaking fieldwork in unfamiliar and risky locations offers potential for both physical and psychological harm. Indeed, many recent reports of harm to researchers, including harassment, threats, imprisonment, and even death, while pursuing fieldwork have raised awareness of risks that must be considered. The research community has a responsibility to develop procedures, strategies and resources to assist researchers and their institutions in identifying and assessing risk, and in implementing procedures to minimize and mitigate possible harm to researchers undertaking fieldwork.

Raising awareness of responsibilities to prevent, avoid and mitigate fieldwork risk promotes safer and more secure environments for researchers, and thus more effective collaborations. It should not impair international cooperation; international and interdisciplinary collaborations will benefit from greater direct communication of, and an explicit approach to addressing, fieldwork risk. This is because the awareness of risk and the implementation of fieldwork risk-assessment and mitigation practices vary across research domains and research institutions and among researchers.

This Advisory Note provides basic awareness of the critical issues that need to be considered, and complements legal obligations, other existing guidance and accepted best practice. It provides guidance to institutions (e.g., academies, funding agencies, universities, research institutions), research supervisors and researchers, on their responsibilities and actions.

Institutions have a responsibility to raise issues of risk with their research community, to develop risk-avoidance strategies, to implement safety protocols, to train research teams and researchers in these protocols prior to undertaking fieldwork, to take a directive role in oversight of the settings in which their researchers work, and to ensure a duty of care to student researchers.

Description of Types of Risk1 and Harm

This Advisory Note uses the following non-exhaustive taxonomies as a partial illustration of the kinds of factors important for risk assessment and mitigation strategies.

Taxonomy of risk

Taxonomy of harm

Guidance for Mitigation Resources and Procedures

The mitigation of physical risk includes training in prevention strategies and development of specific plans for protective or exit actions; regular “touch base” contacts; and Embassy support. An awareness of the “time critical” nature of planned responses is essential.

The mitigation of psychological risk includes training in strategies to address and cope with psychologically distressing situations. These might include training in conflict management and the development of resources to be used in response to traumatic encounters.

Risk mitigation requires good knowledge of available resources at the institutional, department and individual researcher level, and skills in implementing risk avoidance and mitigation strategies.

Risk mitigation procedures can be developed at the level of the institution, research team, and individual researcher.

On an Institutional Level:

Institutions must play a leading role in promoting a climate of attention to risk and ensuring that safe practices prevail for their researchers and affiliates, such as interns and visitors. This might include:

On the Research Supervisor/ Departmental Level

Research supervisors and disciplinary faculties need to ensure that research teams follow institutional standards of best practice. In addition, supervisors need to encourage a research ethos that values appropriate risk assessment and prevention. This includes:

On the individual Researcher Level

Every researcher should increase their sensitivity and awareness for risk and understand that it is often context and situation specific. In planning research projects in potentially risky settings or contexts, researchers need to address the following:

1 In writing this note, CFRS recognizes that research also involves potential risk to research participants (in the case of behavioral or social science or medical research), to communities, to the biosphere, or to ecological stability. This note, however, is focused on harm to the researcher, not the objects of research.

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