Planning for safe and inclusive field research


Fieldwork can be the best part of being a scientist. But when unprepared or abusive leaders take trainees into the field, they can cultivate an unsafe and harmful environment. So It’s nice to see that National Science Foundation is taking steps to improve the safety and inclusivity of field research. NSF is now proposing that projects with fieldwork component have a plan for field safety, which includes creating an environment promoting dignity and respect, and prevents conduct that is “unwelcome, offensive, indecent, obscene, or disorderly.”

The big guidebook for submitting proposals to NSF is the PAPPG (which I usually hear being pronounced as “pappage,” rhyming with “cabbage”). This proposed change to NSF proposals with a field component will involve the inclusion of a new 2-page statement known as the “PSI-FVAR,” the Plan for Safe and Inclusive Field/Vessel/Aircraft Research. (In my head, I pronounce it ‘sigh-varr’.) It sounds very similar to other 2-pagers currently in NSF proposals such as the Data Management Plan and the Postdoctoral Mentoring Plan.

The PSI-VAR will need to address communication limitations as a result of isolation in the field, differences in culture that can present safety challenges, and address preparations before heading to the field including trainings (e.g., bystander intervention, cultural competency, etc.), how trainees will be supported in the field, and a communications and support approaches to incidents in the field.

This is stuff that people should be doing before going into the field anyway, so it’s great that NSF is concerned about PIs clearly articulating what they are doing to protect their people. This makes accountability a little more straightforward, when labs fail to follow through on what they proposed.

This is not yet policy for NSF. It’s a proposed change to the PAPPG. The proposed new version is here. And the directions for providing feedback on these proposed changes are here. You just send an email. The deadline for your feedback is June 13, 2022.

I do think that creating more paperwork and bureaucracy adds a slightly higher barrier to access. But on the other hand, I think it’s important that federally funded projects doing fieldwork are designed to protect the safety of participants, especially considering the long history of unsafe field environments. This requirement is only applicable for projects involving fieldwork, and for labs that are already taking field safety seriously, then explaining their safety plan should be very easy and straightforward. I suspect that anybody who might complain about this would be upset because they’re not doing the work they need to do to keep their people safe, and they don’t want the bar raised on them. I don’t mind the slightly additional paperwork if it means that these people are finally compelled to meet basic safety standards.

If you’re wondering what you need to do to create a safer field environment, here is a very specific list of things to do. After all, we know exactly what needs to be done, it’s just a matter of doing it, and I’m glad that NSF is building an explicit expectation for PIs to explain how they’re doing it.

A bit more context can be found in these tweets, thanks to Matt Carling for bringing this to our attention.

One thought on “Planning for safe and inclusive field research

  1. Interestingly, about a year and a half ago, my department chair prohibited me from going into the field one-one-one with students who were conducting research with me or taking labs with me that involved field work. There had been no complaints made against me that would have warranted this restriction and there is not a college or departmental policy but she made the prohibition based on an experience that a transfer student (enrolled in my herpetology course at the time) had at another institution. This has virtually ended my ability to do undergraduate research or run labs in the field as there will always be some point, even on a class field experience, where I might be alone with a student. In addition, she seemed to think this was something that needed to be addressed because I had a class that was almost entirely composed of female students but she seemed unconcerned with the safety and well-being of the single male student. It is strange that we need to do this for field work while sexual harassment can also occur in laboratory settings as well. No such restrictions were placed on lab-based faculty making sure that they are never alone with students in lab. It does seem like something of a double standard.

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