What is safe? Preparing for research fieldwork

For many staff and PGRs, research fieldwork feels very distant, with cancelled trips and uncertainty over future plans. For others, fieldwork continued throughout the pandemic, either by moving online or via local partners.

Learning from this range of experiences and work that was already ongoing within the University in relation to research safeguarding, we have introduced guidance which we hope will help you to restart (or continue) fieldwork in a way which places researcher wellbeing front and centre. This has come at the same time as increased sector scrutiny and policy in this area (see UK Research and Innovation's Preventing harm in research) and we encourage anyone undertaking research fieldwork to take time to reflect on these changes and the increased support available.

How can we support personal safety?

Two years ago, we piloted fragile environment training for PGRs going to ‘dangerous’ locations for research. This prompted some useful reflections on how what might feel ‘safe’ for one particular individual isn’t necessarily safe for others. It raised questions around how many researchers require such training and what that should look like for different circumstances or individuals. What guidance were we giving to LGBT+ researchers, for example, on overseas fieldwork? What assumptions do we make about the safety of students returning to their home countries for research? Do supervisors feel equipped to have conversations about personal safety?

This prompted a collaboration with UofG Security who were, at that point, working on rolling out , which can be used to support fieldwork safety in a number of ways.

A PGR survey and ongoing discussions with PGRs, supervisors and staff/student services over the next year helped establish needs, including first aid training, improved peer support and inter-cultural awareness/anti-racist approaches to fieldwork. We are building these into our core researcher training programme, starting with an online course (Preparing for Research Fieldwork) which signposts to resources, support and training relating to the mental health impacts of research fieldwork as well as physical safety.

Being clear on roles and responsibilities

In all these discussions, it became clear that there was a need to be more explicit on roles and responsibilities in relation to fieldwork. Who makes those tricky decisions which weigh up the cost of any mitigating steps to make something safer? For example, private transport might be safer, but is also more costly. We developed a matrix of responsibilities at different points in the project. We hope this will help you in planning future projects, and also in multi-partner collaborations, to have an honest conversation around roles and responsibilities.

Read our research safeguarding guidance and find out how to access training.


First published: 15 March 2021