Duty of Care: Protecting Researchers Abroad

Science  26 Oct 2012:
Vol. 338, Issue 6106, pp. 468-469
DOI: 10.1126/science.338.6106.468

The tragic death of a University of California–Los Angeles research assistant in 2008, and the civil and criminal legal proceedings that followed (1), appropriately focused attention on the dangerous working conditions faced by junior lab researchers. However, there may be a greater danger facing international researchers: preventable accidents or illnesses when traveling outside their home country, especially to developing regions (for example, sustaining injuries while traveling on rugged roads or contracting malaria while conducting field work in Africa). This will likely be the next area where academic institutions and senior researchers find themselves held liable for injuries or death.

Historically, persevering over adversity was seen as a “rite of passage” for young researchers, and although most safety risks can now be easily mitigated or avoided, junior researchers rightly sense that voicing concerns about safety could harm their career prospects, and senior researchers often consider addressing safety issues as “inconvenient” or ignore them altogether. A recent policy paper details the concept of “duty of care,” which establishes an academic organization's legal responsibility for staff and student safety (2). Under this doctrine, failure to provide necessary safety resources for staff working abroad may constitute actionable misconduct, exposing the university or research supervisor to legal or criminal liability in the event of injury or illness. Data on adverse events during research are rare, and determining the true scale of the problem would be an important initial step in improving safety. It is imperative that academic leadership at every level address the problem, providing adequate pre-deployment training, proper safety equipment, and a safe working environment abroad. A project's primary measure of success should not be publication or grant renewal, but that everyone returned safely. We must not wait for another bright, ambitious student to lose his or her life due to inattention to safety and security before making the necessary changes.


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