New guidelines to tackle ‘complacency’ about overseas research

PhD students seen as being particularly at risk, in wake of murder of Giulio Regeni and detention of Matthew Hedges

February 27, 2020
Giulio Regeni, a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, was abducted and murdered in Egypt in 2016
Source: Getty
Giulio Regeni, a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, was abducted and murdered in Egypt in 2016

Two new sets of guidelines to protect PhD students and researchers working overseas are being drawn up amid concern that universities have become “complacent” about the risks of fieldwork.

The first, being drawn up by the UK Collaborative on Development Research (UKCDR), a government-funded advisory body, is due to be published next month. It follows a year-long review of whether funders and universities are doing enough to safeguard UK research staff based overseas in potentially dangerous places.

At the same time, the UK Council for Graduate Education is preparing sector-wide guidelines to improve the safeguarding of postgraduate research students.

This comes after several high-profile cases raised questions about the risks faced by postgraduate researchers, including the murder of Giulio Regeni, an Italian PhD student at the University of Cambridge, who was abducted and murdered in Egypt in 2016 while researching the country’s independent trade unions. In 2018, Durham University PhD student Matthew Hedges was sentenced to life in prison in the United Arab Emirates after he was accused of working for MI5, and spent seven months in jail before being pardoned.

Alex Balch, professor of politics at the University of Liverpool, who has led the work to develop the UKCDR best practice guide, said that it drew on the recent experiences of researchers based in post-conflict African countries.

“These projects included research on former child soldiers, forced marriage and modern slavery in Africa, in countries to where the Foreign Office would advise people not to travel, but researchers said the universities involved did not give any guidance when they started working there,” said Professor Balch.

The creation in 2015 of the £1.5 billion five-year Global Challenges Research Fund, which encourages scholars to cooperate with colleagues in the developing world, meant more academics were undertaking overseas research but safeguarding procedures had not kept pace, added Professor Balch.

“There is a risk of complacency,” said Professor Balch, who added that safeguarding had been considered “in terms of student welfare” too often and that “universities are playing catch-up”.

The UK guidelines are likely to be watched closely by other sectors, amid mounting concern about arrests of researchers from around the world in repressive states such as Iran.

The issues being considered for the UKCDR guidelines include improving training for researchers and making provision for safeguarding in research budgets.

A key focus is likely to be postgraduate researchers, who face particular risks when travelling alone to some countries to undertake research, said Professor Balch.

“In some cases, you might have an older academic with links to a museum, saying he’s been travelling there for years so it’s safe, but the situation may have changed a lot since his last visit,” said Professor Balch, who said supervisors could be “a bit blasé” about the risks faced by younger researchers.

David Orr, senior lecturer in social work at the University of Sussex, who led the first stage of UKCDR’s research, agreed. His team’s review “identified documented instances of harassment, sexual and physical assault, imprisonment and death of researchers”, he said.

“A clear message…was that postgraduate researchers felt that risks and safeguarding were not always sufficiently addressed in preparing for fieldwork,” Dr Orr said.

UKCGE is hosting a workshop on its planned guidelines at the University of Glasgow next month, covering issues such as pre-departure training, communication with researchers in the field, and mental health support.

Elizabeth Adams, a research development manager at Glasgow who is working on UKCGE’s project, said that many more academics were now asking for advice about conducting research abroad. “If you’re involved in archaeology or tropical medicine, then fieldwork is part of the job, but we are now seeing academics from many other subjects seeking help regarding research trips,” she said.

“We are developing online courses to prepare people to think about these issues, such as how they should keep in touch while away or deal with loneliness, but have also been using our security team at Glasgow, many of whom have knowledge of serving overseas.”

However, speaking to Times Higher Education, Mr Hedges questioned the pace of progress in the aftermath of his experience.

“I’m not sure there have been any lessons learned either within my own university or at others,” said Mr Hedges, who warned that institutions were too reliant on travel advice provided by the Foreign Office, which was “very careful about the language [it] used”.

“There should be a more thorough engagement with different types of risks that researchers may face and universities must take steps to prepare their academics for these challenges,” said Mr Hedges.

“Universities must be more overt about what the risks are and [if incidents do occur] people must be genuinely assisted, with their universities coming out to defend their own students and staff.”


Print headline: Sector sets guidelines for safety of researchers

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