Tide of paranoia swells safety fears needlessly

August 24, 2007

The perils of research are usually no greater than those faced when getting out of bed each day, says John Adams

"We are in danger of having a wholly disproportionate attitude to the risks we should expect to run as a normal part of life." So said Tony Blair to the Institute for Public Policy Research in May 2005. The chair of the Health and Safety Commission is "sick and tired of hearing that 'health and safety' is stopping people doing worthwhile and enjoyable things", and the head of the Better Regulation Commission proclaims that "it is time to turn the tide". But on August 3, the front page of The Times Higher read "Fieldwork perils mount", showing that the tide of risk aversion still runs strongly in higher education.

Between 1992 and 1998, when last I visited this subject, six people a year died while working for, or under the supervision of, educational institutions from nursery schools through universities. I obtained the fatal accident reports for each. They were all freak "one-offs". None could serve as the basis for further systematic precaution. The risk of death for those "in education" was about one in two million per year, well under the one-in-a million threshold below which the Health and Safety Executive considers risks "insignificant and adequately controlled".

Yet since then the tide of risk assessments has reached flood level. Have the perils mounted? Unfortunately the results of the Inquiry into the Risk to Wellbeing of Researchers in Qualitative Research , which prompted the article in The Times Higher, do not tell us. Here is an example of qualitative research into the risks of qualitative research. It contains no numbers that might help one answer the question.

The inquiry called for evidence: "Submissions/evidence are invited as part of an inquiry into risks to the wellbeing of researchers in qualitative research." The call included clues to the sort of evidence the inquiry was seeking: "It is not difficult to think of situations in which researchers may be at risk of violence or other physical danger. Equally, researchers may become emotionally threatened where, for example, the data being collected are distressing or the settings emotionally taxing."

Of the 63 respondents, the emotionally taxed were the main witnesses: "By far the 'busiest' section of the website was dedicated to emotional risk... this is an area that many researchers feel has been seriously overlooked." Many researchers? From 63 out of how many? The website offered a shoulder to cry on for those unhappy in their research. The evidence collected was from an entirely self- selecting sample prompted by the challenge to think of situations that were dangerous or emotionally distressing.

The inquiry's report concluded with seven expensive and labour-intensive recommendations. In brief, all qualitative researchers, and their teachers and supervisors, should be given safety training, and the Economic and Social Research Council, funders and ethics committees should ensure that its safety guidelines are put into practice.

It provides examples of research in dangerous places and into dangerous cultures where the risks should obviously be considered. It also found instances of psychologically fragile researchers doing research for which they were not emotionally suited. If the distress were inherent in the data rather than the researchers, then the counsellors proposed for treating emotional problems would also need counsellors to cope with the compound distress.

The report asserts that emotional harm is a particular problem - "one researcher never finished her PhD, having felt 'very lonely' and 'very alienated' after returning to academic and private life and leaving behind an immersive fieldwork experience". It concedes that "such harm is not commonplace", but presents no measure of the magnitude of the problem, no quantitative evidence of mounting danger to justify the research-inhibiting measures that it proposes. It presents no statistical evidence that the risks of qualitative research are greater than "the risks we should expect to run as a normal part of life", as Mr Blair put it. The report offers no reasons to suppose that most qualitative researchers need to undertake risk assessments in addition to those they make getting out of bed every morning.

Mr Blair concluded that the result of excessive risk aversion "is a plethora of rules, guidelines, responses to 'scandals'... that ends up having utterly perverse consequences".

Most academics can provide numerous examples but feel powerless to turn the tide of paranoia that is producing them.

Prominent stories such as that which appeared on the front page of The Times Higher can only exacerbate this sense of powerlessness.

John Adams is emeritus professor of geography, University College London.

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