In May 2020, as the massive impacts that the Covid-19 pandemic would have on social science research came into focus, three colleagues and I wrote a short article for Items, drawing attention to the kinds of in-person field research with human subjects we thought would be most affected and outlining some initial principles for its resumption. We asked, “Who decides whether, when, and how field research in a particular setting and with a specific method can be ethically and logistically initiated or resumed?” Given the diversity of this research and multiple trajectories of the pandemic around the world—already abundantly clear at that time—we argued that universities should not keep in place blanket administrative bans on travel or research but, rather, establish processes by which faculty experts reviewed research plans in their fields and, if appropriate, approved them for reactivation. In accordance with the ancient axiom of “Those who open their mouths get the committee assignment,” I was soon invited—along with nearly three dozen other faculty, postdocs, graduate students, and administrators from around the university—to help design a Covid-era research reactivation program for Yale that would cover all human subjects research and all off-campus research.“As of April 15, 2021, our subcommittee had approved over 80 proposals for reactivation or initiation of in-person off-campus research in the United States and internationally.”
The following is a brief account of some highlights of a whirlwind of nine months chairing what became the Social Sciences and Humanities Subcommittee of Yale’s Off-Campus Research and Fieldwork Reactivation Committee. As of April 15, 2021, our subcommittee had approved over 80 proposals for reactivation or initiation of in-person off-campus research in the United States and internationally. On the one hand, this is a distressingly small number compared to the social science research that remains on hold. On the other hand, those 80 projects—from single-researcher dissertations through elaborate international collaborations headed by distinguished senior faculty—did not suffer from a blanket administrative ban.
This account is, inevitably, more coherent in retrospect than it was as we all navigated—and continue to navigate—the unprecedented murk. I offer it because it does seem that what we have cobbled together is not at all common and may yet be instructive for other institutions. From the starting point of an across-the-board emergency halt of in-person human subjects research in Spring 2020, we built a researcher-facing, education-focused, peer-reviewed process that is informed by public health guidance and in regular communication with—and, indeed, enjoys the ongoing support of—the Office of the Vice Provost for Research, the Office of International Affairs, and other relevant administrative units at Yale.
Early summer: Inventing a process and discussing principles
Yale’s Off-Campus Research and Fieldwork Reactivation Committee has 18 members—natural scientists, social scientists, and humanists, of several different flavors each.1The committee includes graduate students and a postdoctoral fellow, a leading public health and infectious disease expert, a representative from the Provost’s Office research team, the deputy director of the Office of Environmental Health and Safety, and the head of Yale’s Office of International Affairs. The committee is chaired by Steven Wilkinson, who also serves as director of Yale’s MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, and thus has a unique view into the scope and range of international research undertaken across the university.
By the end of our committee’s very first meeting in June 2020, it was clear that we had simultaneous and entangled tasks: to establish the principles that would guide our consideration of specific cases and to invent an institutional process for review and decision-making. The committee soon spawned subcommittees dedicated to “Natural Sciences,” “Archives, Museums, and Collections,” and “Social Sciences and Humanities,” each of which tailored their processes to their relevant research communities and have issued their own approvals and/or exemption procedures. Here, I focus only on the last of these three subcommittees, which I continue to chair.“Research that can be conducted with plans for appropriate safety should be allowed to resume following expert consultation and review.”
Our top-line principle was clear enough: the conduct of research should not be a vector for the spread of Covid-19. This principle applied equally to everyone, from senior faculty through graduate students, and it also applied to local research assistants, contracted employees, and others in the same way as it applied to Yale affiliates. Also clear was that all researchers must comply with local, state, federal, international, and other public health and travel guidelines—in no circumstances would we override local guidance. Indeed, we wondered how much stricter we should be. In the early summer of 2020, those principles ruled out most in-person off-campus social science research. But we also reasoned from the opposite end of the spectrum: What about a hypothetical researcher already located in New Zealand or Taiwan who wanted to complete some interviews? Or an observational study conducted at considerable social distance? Didn’t we know enough about viral spread to permit that research to proceed with appropriate precautions or minor modifications, including a plan to stop if conditions worsened? We thought our committee had appropriate expertise to work with researchers to permit targeted and appropriate resumption of research. This was another principle: Research that can be conducted with plans for appropriate safety should be allowed to resume following expert consultation and review.
Over the course of June and into early July, we also hammered out a process that would enable us to apply these principles on a case-by-case basis. We divided what we thought would be the information we needed to make informed decisions into a 14-question form that asked about everything from precise travel and lodging details to social distancing measures and ramp down procedures if local conditions worsened. If the proposed project involves non-Yale affiliates, such as local assistants or contractors, we ask for a comprehensive safety plan for those researchers, which usually includes training protocols, details on how appropriate PPE will be provided and used, and procedures for verifying compliance. Researchers fill out applicable parts of the form, with advisers signing off on graduate student or postdoctoral plans. As subcommittee chair, I screen applications as they come in, asking up front for revisions on any obviously inadequate or missing information. I then assign each application to one or two additional subcommittee members with relevant methodological, disciplinary, and/or regional expertise. Subcommittee members review and either approve or ask for their own further clarifications, and I work with the applicant until both they and the committee members are satisfied that the plan can proceed—or must wait for conditions to improve. After our subcommittee reviewers concur on an approval, the overall committee chair and Provost’s Office review and sign off. All in all, after a solid application is submitted, our review process generally takes about a week.
By midsummer, our subcommittee joined the other Off-Campus Research and Fieldwork subcommittees, along with an entirely separate, parallel committee reviewing biomedical human subjects research, to put together a University-wide flow chart and set of websites. The “Pathways to Research Reactivation” pages instruct a researcher engaged in any kind of human subjects and/or off-campus research on how to put their reactivation proposal in front of three faculty/postdoc/graduate student peers who know their research area well enough to evaluate and advise on it.
Mid-summer into winter: Community education and approvals“‘No blanket policies’ (either prohibiting or permitting) in-person field research in a global public health crisis means a researcher-facing, informed review process.”
Once we had designed this Rube Goldberg machine, we began the process of educating Yale’s research community on how to apply for permission to resume or initiate their research projects, including by holding Zoom-based “town hall” meetings for departments, schools, or other groups. It is worth noting, however, that for all nine months of this process, and regardless of how many administrative emails we helped write or town hall meetings we addressed, most of the applications we have reviewed included some level of one-on-one consulting—on process, substance, or both—with the researcher. “No blanket policies” (either prohibiting or permitting) in-person field research in a global public health crisis means a researcher-facing, informed review process. We learned that it also means a lot of individualized attention.
Although our initial questionnaire and principles were broad enough that they have held up well, it was in the practice of reviewing the early applications that we collectively developed a finer-grained sense of what research could be approved. Given the dozens of variables and situations around the world that we have seen, it is hard to generalize. But below is the guidance I usually give to researchers who inquire.
• The first threshold is feasibility: Any travel and research must be logistically feasible in light of state or national policies, citizenship/visa status, flight availability, etc. Researchers should show awareness of these issues and their implications for the ability to conduct (or halt) research.
• We approve concrete plans, not vague plans to be determined on-site. We have generally not approved open-ended travel or underspecified “snowball” interview research, preferring targeted plans, places, and interviewees or social/cultural contexts that can be known in advance to a reasonably high degree of certainty. In many cases where these things cannot be known far in advance, we have granted approval for a limited time and just for the most concrete aspects, asking researchers to come back to us when the next set of planned activities can be more closely reviewed. Indeed, a number of researchers have been submitting new plans every 2–3 months as their research develops. We have generally asked researchers to wait to engage in those aspects of their work that may rely—as so much in cultural anthropology, for instance—on intense serendipitous connections.
• We look for PPE, social distancing, and travel plans that conform to CDC best practices. For instance, we have generally approved interviews only when they are planned to take place outside, at distance, and with appropriate PPE. Most researchers were adept at framing protocols that protected subjects; more often, we have had to ask for revisions that ensure the researchers or teams of researchers were following the best up-to-date guidance themselves—in, for instance, daily travel to a research location, quarantine, isolation, and testing regimes.
• We expect research teams, local contractors, and everyone working on a Yale affiliate’s research to follow the same procedures as Yale affiliates, and employee/contractor/collaborator safety procedures must be substantiated through training manuals, correspondence, or other materials that satisfy our committee of faculty experts. At the most detailed end, we reviewed and approved a plan for multisite, multiresearcher in-person interview study in South Asia on the basis of a comprehensive 15-page safety protocol.
• We place a considerable premium on the demonstrated strength of local knowledge and expertise, both domestically and internationally: Researchers who are well connected to the places in which they want to work, who can plug into existing safety plans already in place at that site, and who show ongoing consultation with relevant local experts or collaborators are more likely to receive approval.“In the early days, approvals went mostly to scholars who were already on-site (in the United States or internationally) in research situations that were highly predictable and controllable—usually within a daytrip.”
Our view has been that this combination of guidelines, review by knowledgeable experts, and improvement through iteration with researchers reduces the risk of research contributing to viral spread sufficiently to permit it to proceed. We trust educated and thoughtful researchers to follow the protocols they have developed—including the use of an updated Yale IRB handout that informs subjects of researcher and subject rights and responsibilities. In the early days, approvals went mostly to scholars who were already on-site (in the United States or internationally) in research situations that were highly predictable and controllable—usually within a daytrip. As both we and the research community adapted, however, more complicated plans have become approvable, including international travel that follows best-practice (and local policy) quarantine guidance, research “pods” or “quaranteams” of several researchers that isolate and work together, and more intricate arrangements. Our subcommittee members have increasingly become able to share strategies that have worked for other researchers as part of our review.
An example of one of our most complex approvals may serve to illustrate what this process enables. A social science researcher approached me before submitting a formal application with a concern: The research that she wanted to resume involved surveys conducted by local enumerators in a conflict-ridden part of the world, where Covid-19 lockdowns intersected with local politics in rapidly shifting ways. If research could be resumed, it would need to be on very short notice, with no guarantee that the window would be open very long. The safety plan for local researchers was comprehensive, with brief, physically distant interviews taking place outdoors, with appropriate PPE, and no travel plans that extended beyond their everyday lives. The researcher was in constant contact with local collaborators and other international experts, and highly experienced in the region. In order to address the issue of timely review, we ended up approving the concrete research plan in advance and agreed with the researcher that a set of four “benchmark” conditions related to public health and local policy would need to be met for research to actually resume on the ground. The researcher proposed and worked with a group of local collaborators and other experts to evaluate circumstances on an ongoing basis and decide if and when the benchmarks had been met.
This approval fulfilled our principles that research should not be a vector for the spread of Covid-19, that safe research should resume if possible, and that well-informed researchers working in consultation with local collaborators, and with expert peer review, are best positioned to make decisions on what research to resume, when, and how. It also illustrates the time-consuming and tailored approach that our work has involved—at least in the most complex cases.
Winter, spring, and the summer to come“Our process will remain largely the same and seems flexible and experienced enough to handle the various situations that might present themselves.”
I emphasize again that much of this appears clear only in retrospect. As anyone on a college or university campus this year will recognize, every time we felt we had something figured out, the circumstances changed. As one example, the Covid-19 “winter wave” in the United States prompted us to take a look back at everything that we had approved and send an updated set of recommendations and links to new university policies. Now, our biggest concern is pent-up demand for off-campus research and fieldwork in the summer of 2021. Although many or most US-based researchers are likely to be vaccinated by the time of the summer research season, the fact that many will wish to travel to less-vaccinated locales in the United States or abroad, coupled with—so far—a lack of data on whether vaccination inhibits viral spread, including of “variant” strains, mean that we still expect to be reviewing social science applications for summer research and travel that involves in-person interaction with human subjects. Our process will remain largely the same and seems flexible and experienced enough to handle the various situations that might present themselves. But the question is now whether a process that relied on individualized consultation and iteration with perhaps 100–120 researchers over nine months (generating those 80 approvals) can withstand what may well become scores of applications in a very short timeframe.
The fact that it is hard to know what is coming next remains a constant, as does our commitment to the principles of “no blanket policies” and consultative, researcher-facing, education-focused peer review.
The author thanks Elisabeth Wood and Steven Wilkinson for comments on an earlier draft.
Banner photo: Stefan Müller/Flickr.