I wrote this mission statement following a discussion in the EEB Ecology Group:
Field work is one of the most crucial, irreplaceable, and rewarding aspects of research in ecology and evolutionary biology. It is also risky. Unfortunately, its risks include unacceptably high rates of sexual assault and sexual harassment for field researchers. As a result, these risks create a barrier for success for many members of our department, especially women and students. Thus, our department’s goal is to reduce field-related risks of sexual assault and harassment to the greatest extent possible. In doing so, we will facilitate the academic success of all departmental members who choose to perform field work. Here, we explain the importance of field work, describe the risks associated with it, and suggest actions toward achieving our goal.
Field work is critical to the mission of EEB. Students, postdocs, faculty, and staff in EEB travel throughout the world to study organisms in natural ecosystems. Their international field sites include Costa Rican, Nicaraguan, and Panamanian tropical forests; the mid-Pacific Ocean; Kenyan highlands; and Croatian islands. In addition, they perform domestic field research in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, New England, and throughout Southern California. Field work allows researchers to examine the activities of organisms in complex environments that are otherwise difficult (or impossible) to replicate in the laboratory. For many questions related to ecology and evolutionary biology, there is no substitute. As a result, ecologists who perform field work often have more successful careers—in terms of funded grants and published papers—than their peers who do not (McGuire et al. 2012). Thus, it is in the best interest of our department members to have the opportunity to perform field work.
Field work is risky. Despite its importance, some researchers forego field work to avoid perceived threats of sexual assault and harassment. A recent international survey of 666 field researchers indicates that these threats are real—26% of women and 6% of men report being sexually assaulted while performing field work (Clancy et al. 2014). In addition, 71% of women and 41% of men have been sexually harassed in the field. Moreover, the majority of victims were students or postdocs at the time of the incidents. It is not surprising that a significantly smaller portion of women (57%) than men (68%) in ecology perform field research (McGuire et al. 2012). This is indeed unfortunate, because women and men alike derive strong professional satisfaction from field work (Lockwood et al. 2013). In fact, both genders rank field work first among preferred research methods and professional activities in ecology (Lockwood et al. 2013). Essentially, the threat of sexual assault and harassment is deterring women (especially students) from performing research that would otherwise contribute to their success and happiness.
We can create a safer environment for field work. Although it is not possible to eliminate all risks of sexual assault and harassment in field work, members of EEB have identified ways to reduce these risks. For the most part, these preventative measures are not costly, especially compared to potential damages from a failure to act. These preventative measures can be implemented by the UCI campus, the Ayala School of Biological Sciences, and EEB.
UCI campus: The Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity at UCI has established effective policies for reporting and responding to sexual assault and harassment. Nevertheless, field work often requires travel to remote locations where researchers may not have ready access to the standard reporting mechanisms. In addition, it may be challenging for researchers to quickly determine how UCI’s policies apply to these different circumstances. Moreover, victims of sexual harassment or assault in remote locations may require extra support for medical, legal, or other assistance. They may have questions like: Should they report the incident to administrators of field stations they are visiting? In a foreign country, should they report the incident to the local authorities? How can they best receive treatment? Can UCI help them return home early if needed?
The UCI campus can allay these concerns by establishing a website with checklists and recommendations for responding to sexual assault and harassment during field work. The website can include contact information for US Embassies/Consulates and their emergency services to support those traveling abroad (e.g., Help for U.S. Citizen Victims of Crime Overseas). The website can also provide links to travel warnings from the US State Department (e.g., Alerts and Warnings) and other information about risks of sexual assault and violence by region (Global and regional estimates of violence against women). EEB welcomes the opportunity to work with the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity to develop these materials.
We strongly recommend that UCI provide emergency funding to victims of sexual assault and harassment to cover any costs associated with early return travel. This will help victims receive medical and emotional support in a familiar setting.
Travel funding would also benefit researchers who would otherwise travel alone due to limited funds. If UCI could provide matching funds in these cases, these field researchers could be accompanied by an assistant. This practice would greatly reduce many safety risks associated with work in remote areas, as well as deter some fraction of violent crimes by locals. We further suggest that UCI maintain satellite phones as standard-issue safety equipment that researchers can borrow for remote field work.
In addition, regrettably, advisors and lab mates are common perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment—they represent 80% (for women) to 89% of offenders (for men) in the on-line survey (Clancy et al. 2014). Many research groups share sleeping quarters to save money, which is a particularly risky arrangement. Even if members of EEB would never act inappropriately, the perceived risk might deter individuals from joining these research trips. For these circumstances, supplementary travel funding would allow these individuals to secure private lodgings.
Altogether, funding for early return travel, field assistant travel, and private lodgings need not be prohibitive. We anticipate that an annual budget of $25,000 or less would cover these needs for all field researchers in EEB. This expense is small compared to potential damages that UCI might be held responsible for if a field researcher is sexually assaulted or harassed.
Ayala School of Biological Sciences: We expect that the general safety of field researchers (particularly women and students) will resonate with certain donors. We request that the School keep this issue in mind during fundraising. This would be particularly helpful in securing funds for field assistant travel, which addresses safety concerns that transcend equity issues.
Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology: EEB will work with OEOD to develop a document describing best practices for field safety and equity. For instance, we will recommend the use of field assistants for those who would otherwise travel alone, and encourage PIs to budget for field assistant travel when possible. We will strongly recommend that PIs consider their trainees’ potential concerns about lodging arrangements. Accordingly, we will ask PIs to support separate lodgings as appropriate. We will also encourage managers of UCI-operated field stations to notify users of UCI’s sexual harassment policy, perhaps via signage displayed in the station. If the managers agree, we will ask OEOD to help develop the signage.
UCI will benefit. In sum, these activities will require little time or money, but would greatly facilitate EEB’s global (and local) reach in field research. Risks of sexual assault and harassment during field work are real and on-going. The risks certainly affect our field campaigns, whether or not we acknowledge them. At the very least, they tacitly influence decision-making by researchers who might avoid or curtail field work. By off-setting these risks, we expect increased participation in field research. In turn, grant funding and publication rates should rise (McGuire et al. 2012). Our efforts to improve equity in field work will also send a strong message to all departmental members: EEB is committed to their success and safety. Finally, many of the mechanisms that we develop for EEB can readily be applied to other field-oriented programs at UCI (e.g., Earth System Science, Civil & Environmental Engineering, Public Health), which would benefit at large.
Clancy, K. B. H., R. G. Nelson, J. N. Rutherford, and K. Hinde. 2014. Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees report harassment and assault. PLoS One 9:e102172.
Lockwood, J. A., D. S. Reiners, and W. A. Reiners. 2013. The future of ecology: a collision of expectations and desires? Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 11:188-193.
McGuire, K. L., R. B. Primack, and E. C. Losos. 2012. Dramatic improvements and persistent challenges for women ecologists. Bioscience 62:189-196.
6/12/2015- I sent this to UCI OEOD, and they called me the same day to coordinate on the website, best practices document, and field station signs. We’ll work together on this over the summer.
6/19/2015- Our department chair, Larry Mueller, presented this initiative to the Bio Sci Dean, Departmental Chairs, Vice Chairs, etc at our annual Leadership Summit.
7/1/2015- The Bio Sci Equity Advisor, Georg Striedter, and I met and developed a plan for pursuing funding from UCI.
7/20/2015- I got the suggestion that this information could be conveyed when UCI students & employees register their trips with UC insurance (http://www.uctrips-insurance.org/).
7/27/2015- I wrote a draft of a code of conduct to be posted in our field stations and sent it to UCI OEOD for feedback.
8/28/2015- Steve Allison, Travis Huxman, and I had an appointment on this day to meet with our BioSci Dean (Frank LaFerla) to ask about funding. Dean LaFerla cancelled and rescheduled for 9/28/2015. Then he cancelled again, with a promise to reschedule. Hopefully we’ll be able to meet with him soon.
9/28/2015- I worked with OEOD to construct a guide for responding to sexual harassment or sexual violence, to be posted at the field research stations operated by UCI.
10/9/2015- The guides have been printed and are being posted at the field stations.
10/26/2015- The Ayala School of Biological Sciences and EEB Dept has allocated $25,000 to support the safe travel practices we suggested above. This includes matching travel funds for field assistants, and matching funds for private lodging.