Leader: Take danger seriously

August 3, 2007

Few would compare the risks faced by academics with those faced on a daily basis by police officers, firefighters or, sadly nowadays, A&E staff and secondary school teachers.

Yet what is clear from this week's report is that field research carries the risk of real and significant physical and emotional damage.

From Socrates' death for his beliefs to Marie Curie's fatal exposure to radiation to the murders of over 200 Iraqi academics since 2003, academic endeavour has always carried risks.

The willingness to put one's neck on the line in pursuit of knowledge has long been a powerful driver of research. The growing numbers of academics, social scientists in particular, who favour qualitative research based on fieldwork that can be both dangerous and distressing, are following a proud academic tradition. But while other professions offer effective support to those taking the risks, academe has a patchy record at best in terms of risk management and protecting researchers on the frontline.

This is unacceptable. It is time that universities took seriously the risks run by academics in their research. It is, after all, research that ultimately benefits universities in terms of reputation and income. Providing proper care for staff prepared to put themselves out for that research is a small price to pay.

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