At our recent AGM the EASA exec committee and its guests addressed issues that present challenges to anthropology, humanities and social sciences, and academia as a whole. We used the opportunity to speak to representatives of the ERC and lobby groups dealing with higher education in general, and humanities and social sciences specifically, to lobby for a broadening of their focus from resourcing these disciplines to addressing other pressing concerns.
One issue that was debated during the day was a critique that the academic sector in Europe relies so strongly on competitive research funding for short-term research (it is different in other parts of the world). Some participants noted that the level of reliance on such funding is being carried out at the same time as block grants to universities are being radically reduced. Block grants allow the development of long-term research strategies, whereas competitive short-term research project funding makes strategic planning almost impossible.
This issue points to important potential intellectual, as well as structural and strategic, outcomes of different funding models, and it also points to a key element in the particular forms of academic precarity that are currently affecting academia in the European region. For that reason, there is a clear need for EASA to encourage debate on possible alternatives to the currently over-heavy reliance on short-term funded big projects within anthropology in the EU region. One participant commented, “if you inject huge amounts of cash into a system without resolving structural flaws you will just reproduce those flaws on larger scale”.
Having identified this problem and the potential and actual harm that this funding structure does to anthropological research, the workshop also devoted time to discussing how to mitigate a range of difficulties that occur in practice with short-term funded large projects. In particular, Alice Tilche presented results of long-term discussions carried out by herself and Rita Astuti on ethics within large research projects (see next point). We are outlining some of the recommendations that came from this discussion below. The first section is a summary of Astuti and Tilche’s findings, and the following, longer, section outlines guidelines that Astuti and Tilche developed as a result of their work.
Mariya Ivancheva, a member of the EASA Executive, one of the founders of the Precarious Anthropologists Collective (PrecAnthro Collective), and currently taking the lead in liaison with PrecAnthro in the EASA executive, has summarised the main points raised during the workshop in Brussels in October 2019. These also include key points made by some participants presenting findings and conclusions emerging from previously held workshops on related topics: the findings presented by Alice Tilche and Rita Astuti on ethics and authorship in anthropology from a workshop the two colleagues organised at LSE, findings on the marginalisation of programs for the most vulnerable presented by Prem Kumar Rajaram were informed also by discussions at the Open Learning Initiative (OLive) conference on refugee education in Budapest and findings on ethics, legality and GDPR in anthropology from a workshop at SOAS, presented by Cassandra Yuill. The key points from the AGM, presented below, combine political positions, recommendations and observations about the situation. They constitute the beginnings of a debate within EASA that could in the future lead to policy recommendations. All comments are welcome - send to ethics(at)easaonline.org.
Ethics of research
- Research Ethics clearance procedures currently follow patterns that are made according to natural and life sciences which don’t take into account the legal, economic and political vulnerabilities with which the humanities and social sciences work in an increasingly volatile world
- Definitions of ‘vulnerability’ need to be made more context-dependent, and in particular, more aware of the power dynamics in operation in any given situation in which vulnerability may be generated. Vulnerability is not only a physical, age-related or mental condition. Sometimes research participants are made vulnerable by the actions of states and businesses; at other times, research participants are themselves powerful entities who might use their power to carry out harm against others, yet current ethical research principles protect them under the same premise as those violated.
- GDPR and data protection requirements, which have been designed mostly to address the monetisation and marketing aspects of data collection and processing, are not appropriate for addressing anthropological data collection methods: “sufficient customer consent to process data” may make the allegedly protected more vulnerable.
- Increases in corporate funding for universities is likely to mean a decrease in funding for ‘blue sky’ research (i.e. research not intended to serve any particular interest, group or institution, but is driven simply by curiosity), and might even decrease protection of the principle of academic freedom as a fundamental premise of research. It may also affect free access to data as private companies may insist on control over the content and/or analysis of the content.
- Current competitive research funding strongly privileges academic institutions which already have high levels of funding, support and visibility, which means that the current funding models reproduce and reinforce current hierarchies within academia in the European region. It is possible to develop funding policies and strategies which would distribute funding rather differently, allowing less visible and well-resourced institutions to participate. This would inevitably be a positive development for the intellectual work of research, as it would diversify perspectives and thus extend both knowledge and opportunities.
Ethics of authorship
- While issues relating to the ethics of researching human participants has developed strongly, ethics for dealing with co-production of research results is currently poorly developed in the social sciences in general, and is particularly poorly developed within anthropology, which is a famously relatively solitary research activity.
- This has led to an absence of good practices, ethical principles or rules about authorship in large research projects. This lack of clear rules has meant that fixed-term contracted researchers could, and in practice actually have been, treated as ‘data-gatherers’. The result is that researchers employed in large research projects could be denied any autonomy over their data after the projects are completed, even when projects build on researchers’ long-term work. This particularly affects anthropology, which is a ‘slow’ discipline: fieldwork takes a long time, analysis takes a long time, and writing monographs takes a long time. The question of principles of intellectual property rights over data and publications is an urgent issue that requires immediate attention.
- Following on from the previous point, some understandings of what counts as ‘data’ run counter to basic anthropological principles on the matter: in a positivist interpretation, data can be treated as ‘neutral’ or simply as if it is material gathered. With that kind of interpretation, it is possible for PIs in research projects to insist that all data ‘belongs’ to them. In practice, most anthropologists know that the process of both gathering and coding data (usually done by employed researchers) involves a deep process of analysis and drawing upon expertise. For this reason, it cannot be the case that a PI can automatically ‘own’ the material gathered by employed researchers following the end of a project. Intellectual property rights will be operative here as well, and require close consideration.
- Despite insistence on interdisciplinarity in research project calls, there has been little work done to understand the cost in terms of long-term career prospects for researchers employed within interdisciplinary environments. To date, it still appears to be the case that full interdisciplinarity is a disadvantage over discipline-specific specialism in researchers’ employability.
Ethics of employment and recruitment
- It is clear that within the European region, there has been a growing casualization of employment within the academic sector. To date, no serious policy work has been undertaken at the EU level to develop structures that could provide more stable employment across the sector. This is occurring at a time when there has been a significant increase of PhD graduates, student numbers overall and, in many countries, an increase in student fees. This needs addressing, not only because of the inequities it generates, but also because it is highly likely that stable employment will generate much better research from researchers.
- Many postdoctoral researchers have been offered contracts that increasingly de-professionalise their work and skills, requiring them to simply gather data rather than actually carry out research. This is of particular concern in anthropology, in which the difference between data gathering, analysis and research is virtually impossible to define.
- Short-term contracts in research projects often require geographic mobility across Europe at a particularly vulnerable time of postdoctoral researchers’ lives, shortly after completion of their PhD, during a period when many people of their age and career stage wish to settle down in one place with partners and/or children. Given the increasing effectiveness of online communication, more work could be done to make working conditions more flexible for researchers, so that they are able to manage the multiple demands on where they should be located more effectively.
- Mobility issues particularly affect non-EU citizens, who are at a disadvantage across the EU; currently, many countries, and most notably the UK in terms of the high numbers of non-UK citizen academics who work there, have generated a hostile environment policy. Brexit will of course make this issue worse; but the general principle is the same: demand for geographical mobility creates a hierarchy amongst those who can, and those who cannot, participate in such mobility, either for personal or citizenship regulation reasons. The current trend in many countries to raise, rather than lower, barriers to entry to their territories makes this an urgent issue to address.
- The short-term research projects also generate a small army of marginalized staff who cover the teaching and other duties of bought-out staff. Many of these staff are offered short-year (typically 9-month) contracts, or part-time positions, or even zero hours teaching-only contracts, with little if any time for career development, research or mentoring. It seems clear that there is a clear gender-divide here, in that women appear to take these highly precarious positions disproportionately more than do men.
- The pressure on permanent staff to secure high value research funding and to buy themselves out of teaching in order to publish in high profile journals - pressures that come from the auditing systems and bibliometric databases introduced over the last 20 years across Europe - has resulted in academics with excellent research and teaching experience increasingly taking on the role of research project managers, usually without training or institutional support. This has a double disadvantage: first, it takes up a lot of time of senior academics that they could otherwise use to carry out research of their own; and it means that they may make a range of errors in managing their research staff without it being detected by anyone except the employees, who are in a vulnerable position and therefore unlikely to be able to act. This needs serious attention, as it negatively affects both the intellectual work and the working conditions of everyone involved.
- With the EU experiencing what is described as a ‘migrant crisis’ (but should be more properly cast as people escaping conflicts for which EU must take its share of responsibility), programs like Scholars at Risk or initiatives to assist migrants to enter into higher education should be prominent, but are often kept marginal within universities who see these as ‘civic engagement’ projects. These programs can reproduce conditions of precarity because of limited funding and their marginal position in universities. More work needs to be done to consider how to provide a more sustainable academic support structure for vulnerable scholars. It is possible that someone given temporary assistance and then abandoned will end up in a worse position than they were before being given that assistance.
On the basis of this analysis, the EASA executive committee in 2019-2019 is committed to look for avenues to address these serious concerns, raised during the AGM, on a European, national and institutional level. Our aim is to provide positive potential solutions to these difficulties and work towards recommending changes. We welcome all comments and suggestions from members by emailing ethics(at)easaonline.org.. The text in the next section provides one step in that direction: proposals for a set of guidelines on carrying out collaborative research, authored by Alice Tilche and Rita Astuti.