Dead scientists don’t write papers

This is an important article on fieldwork safety written by Elizabeth Orr. It opens with a vignette from her PhD fieldwork in the Himalaya, describing trouble on slippery ice and then a river crossing gone wrong. I’m always very leery of river crossings: from another lifetime I recall a statistic that UK Special Forces have lost more people in water than in anything else they do – so not a trifling risk, but often part of the commute to the office for researchers working in remote environments.

The author notes a disconnect between geoscience fieldwork in principle and in practice. This troubles me.

So is it acceptable for graduate students to be sent into the cold as academic cannon fodder?

Thoughts? I’ve had a few.

JAFA syndrome

Rightly, much of the responsibility to train safe researchers falls to the shoulders of PIs to lead by example and make effective arrangements, but again, in my experience, the skills, qualifications and experience of PIs can vary. Can we expect (busy) academics without any formal training themselves and varying levels of skill and experience to set out an adequate scheme of training and operation? In my field I’ve encountered several principal investigators with respectable publication records which would indicate experience in the field but (as an example) are unable to use crampons to access a dry glacier. When working in a glacierized environment is such a person competent to evaluate the risks, own and mitigate them for their trainees? No.  Equally, palming the responsibility for their students off to other researchers or field stations presents complications. All fun while the Nature Geoscience papers are writing themselves, but makes for a messy inquest when it all goes wrong in the worst way.

Hardly a season in a remote field station is complete without some entirely predictable disaster befalling one research team or other: bad weather, bad logistics, bad company. Under the pressure of watching a costly field season circle the drain, bad decisions are made, pushing the window on weather, sleep/food or logistics. This is when Dr Murphy pays a visit. Better to have Plans B-Z and stick to them – factoring in weather from the start. This advice comes from someone who cut short his honeymoon to deliver a field project, only to spend three weeks waiting for conditions that never improved. It’s part of the package of fieldwork: best learn early.

So, to the pushy PI – I’d argue unsafe data is unethical data and thus unusable data. For the hard-headed, here’s a very pragmatic point of view: if you’re sending students who are borderline hypothermic and nurturing frostnip to collect the next n=2000 sample set, is the execution of the protocol you drafted in an air-conditioned office going to be of the same rigour and attention to detail as you would demand? I doubt it. PIs need to factor in safety at the heart of a fieldwork programme for their students.

Learn and live beats live and learn

Almost any institution will offer courses to grad students on everything from R to referencing (useful, no doubt) but the topic of stayin’ alive and working efficiently in the field is rarely on the environmental research curriculum of any institution I’ve heard of*.  Certainly in my own graduate education there were no opportunities for such training. It fell to my own initiative to upskill. In the UK, NERC has sponsored an advanced training short course for polar science students, but its availability is limited and the content highly condensed.

It’s a good start: but it only targets early career researchers, perhaps on the imperfect assumption their seniors have evaded Darwinism long enough to learn.

When my opinion has been sought, I have made the case that specific training for Arctic scientists should be mandatory in the way it is for Antarctic researchers upon deployment. Considering the many pathways and venues for Arctic science make it a relative free-for-all, this is more sustainable than insisting upon field guide “minders”.  Submitting a grant with >xx% polar north fieldwork? Enter your training certificate number in the box on Je-S (other grant submission interfaces are available) and prove your competence against a set standard.

Funders should care about this issue at this level: well trained people reduce the risk of fieldwork failure. In accepting a Royal Geographical Society Arctic & Mountain Research Fellowship recently I was pleased to note their insistence on detailed vetting of fieldwork plans and risk assessments.

It’s the day job

Predictably, people who build careers on fieldwork often love the outdoors and may be very accomplished in the realm of outdoors sports. This can be extremely positive, bringing a lifetime skills and experience to the table. But for new fieldworkers who live for the outdoors, it can also present problems adapting from playing hard to working hard.

Acceptable risks and concessions to safety in your own time may take on a very different legal and practical complexion in the workplace. Now, the goal is not adventure, but to deliver on (often publicly funded) science safely and effectively. If having an adventure is your primary goal in seeking a career in field science, get out and then get out there. You will not be satisfied by using science as a vehicle to quench your thirst for adventure, nor will you necessarily approach decisions in the field from a professional perspective.

Human factors

Notable by its omission is any discussion of fieldwork harassment. Sure, this is a crucial topic to address in its own right, but a working environment where harassment occurs is not a safe environment by definition. I do not seek to diminish the importance of preventing and confronting sexual harassment by stating that unacceptable behaviour in field settings is a problem which occurs between many demographics. Even from my level of privilege as a white European male, a harmful experience as a student still deeply affects how  I interact with anyone I meet in the field a decade later. I can only imagine the impact of behaviour as extreme as recent allegations of misconduct in Antarctica on an early career researcher.

Perhaps we could learn from history. The history of Antarctic exploration is not a shining example of promoting equality and diversity (e.g. the ice ceiling) but I recall a “Golden Era” Swedish expedition forced to overwinter as its ship sank. The standing order from the expedition’s commander was that everyone’s first duty was to be kind to each other. Simple, but powerful in achieving harmony within a cramped, dangerous environment.

Be the change

While the article’s fifteen point set of recommendation contains very good advice, I think we need a smarter approach at all levels.

We all had a good laugh at #fieldworkfail (well I did, right up until my employer’s PR officer got in touch to ask why my stumbling into a cryoconite hole on Greenland was trending in Germany) but for every minor embarrassment and tale of derring do there is a deeply unfunny tale. Light hearted books have been written about #fieldworkfail, but Elizabeth Orr’s article is one of the few contemporary attempts to address the topic to reach my radar.

A few years ago in pre-deployment training for an Antarctic project, an instructor asked what the participants considered to be an acceptable fatality rate for such work. Estimates from the class reached as high as 3%. The same organisation was achieving nearly those rates annually until the mid 1980s. Since then they have avoided all but one fatal accident. A remarkable change. How? By making everyone responsible for their actions, and in particular the leadership. Simply, leaders lead. Everyone else follows.

We may never achieve 0%, but the onus is on all to put safe work at the heart of their field agenda.



(*Correction: Archana Dayal kindly reminded me UNIS puts staff and students through fieldwork safety training. As a general point “Stayin’ Alive 101” isn’t on the graduate curriculum of many larger institutions as far as I am aware)

2 Replies to “Dead scientists don’t write papers”

  1. I got exited a few years ago when the Uni offered a “fieldwork” first aid course. I imagined practicing improvised splints with gaffer tape and walking poles etc, but we actually did the usual CPR, recovery position and elastoplasts. It would be great to have more skills training on offer.


    1. A great point Gary. This blog post has stimulated some offline discussion about skills training – watch this space…

      Suburban first aid is a very different animal to remote environment first aid to the extent a typical course is probably unhelpful.

      Speaking from experience, unless the casualty owed me a Nature paper, I wouldn’t bother starting CPR on a casualty unless it was a witnessed arrest with an AED nearby and a viable chance of transfer to definitive care within tens of minutes or it was needed for group morale/keeping warm. Without those things your best case scenario with high quality CPR is the <10% likelihood of a spontaneous recovery which means you then have a serious casualty to evacuate on foot, requiring at least sixteen fit and able helpers to carry the casualty. You may save more people by seeing to other casualties and getting a brew on and some shelter sorted.

      The recovery (3/4 prone – they don't always get better) position is not to be knocked. Simple airway management either through head tilt/chin lift or 3/4 prone can radically improve a casualty's odds. Approximately a third of trauma deaths could be prevented by basic airway management. I've seen experienced field scientists mistake compromised airways for snoring. For all things there's a Mellageret story…

      As a private initiative I can thoroughly recommend for practical based, remote environment orientated training. COI: I used to work with them on courses and event medical covers, and as their demonstration immersion hypothermia victim, which is why I can recommend them.


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