Clear a path: Seeking a more inclusive future for scientific fieldwork

Field-based research is integral to science, but logistical constraints limit who can do the work. A Yale researcher wants to lower the barriers.
Paleoanthropologist Jessica Thompson with an assistant in the field

Paleoanthropologist Jessica Thompson, right, has served as the principal investigator at sites in Malawi, a developing country in southeastern Africa. (Credit: Johannes Setzer)

Yale paleoanthropologist Jessica Thompson regularly organizes and conducts scientific fieldwork in Malawi, a country in southeastern Africa where she and her colleagues discover and analyze evidence of early human activity.

She considers the opportunity to work in the field a privilege, but worries that practical and systemic barriers prevent talented young scientists across disciplines from pursuing it.

Scientific fieldwork demands spending periods of time away from home, often with large teams for extended periods,” she said. “There are talented scholars who want to do it but feel they can’t. Perhaps they have a disability, or family obligations, or lack the financial means to get the required training. They face hurdles that drive them away from the field to the detriment of science.”

Thompson, an assistant professor of anthropology in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and assistant curator of anthropology at the Yale Peabody Museum, has organized a two-day workshop from May 13 to 14 during which scholars from a range of disciplines will discuss how to promote inclusivity in scientific fieldwork. The event, which is open to all, will also be broadcast live on Zoom.

She recently spoke to Yale News about the workshop, her experiences as a principal investigator and mother of three young kids, and the logistical dilemma of arranging a season in the field. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

Archeology field assistants working in Malawi
Scientific fieldwork provides data that fuels research across a spectrum of disciplines, but it is challenging work that can present myriad logistical issues for researchers to negotiate. (Credit: Jessica Thompson)

What are your hopes for the workshop?

Jessica Thompson: In short, we hope to start a conversation on how to lower barriers to field-based science. We need to consider how we can collectively bring together people who have common problems across multiple scientific disciplines and crowdsource some solutions, including figuring out how to help interested students get involved in fieldwork. We’ll be talking across geoscience, bioscience, archaeology, and social science. We want to share the specific burdens we face in planning and conducting fieldwork in our disciplines. We also need to gather data to identify the scope of the problem.

How do barriers to fieldwork shape how science gets done?

Thompson: Science suffers when people feel unable to do work at which they could excel. Whether you’re interested in plate tectonics, evolution, climate change, or ancient civilizations, there are different approaches to scientific research. You can collect data in the field, or you can do computer modeling in a lab. Either approach presents challenges, both intellectual and bureaucratic, but, in my view, fieldwork creates hugely time-consuming logistical challenges that one doesn’t usually encounter in a lab. Labs have standardized procedures, while fieldwork, by its nature, happens in an uncontrolled environment.

I think we end up in a situation where scholars with certain personal identities that make fieldwork more challenging will tend to opt for lab-based research tracks. At the same time, those whose identities present fewer hurdles will have the bandwidth to establish field programs. It's not to say one track should be prioritized over the other, it’s just about making it so that people feel capable to pursue either path.

What sorts of challenges come with planning fieldwork?

Thompson: Planning and doing fieldwork is extremely complicated. Some researchers have more space than others to deal with the seemingly endless logistical challenges. For those of us with young children, the challenges may seem even more intense because, aside from planning fieldwork, we’ve got to care for our families.

As principal investigator in the field, you become absorbed in a host of problems, like the cost of plane tickets, negotiating local regulations where you intend to work, and how to protect the safety of everyone involved. For example, I’ll have students who are on medications that might be prohibited in some countries. It can take a lot of emails back and forth to sort out an issue like that. Logistical problems regularly occur once you’re in the field. I’ll be called anytime someone on the team has a flat tire. It’s my responsibility to help sort that out.

What are some of the specific challenges you face working in Malawi?

Thompson: The lack of infrastructure is a major challenge. I spend a lot of time communicating through WhatsApp with various people who live where I do fieldwork, asking about road accessibility and fuel prices and other logistical issues that you can’t easily find information about online.

Keeping track of the budget is also a big concern. I have to think about how to securely, safely, and transparently move money from one place to another. There are no credit card facilities where I work and very few in the entire country. The international exchange rate fluctuates drastically. It changed by about 15% while I was there in the last field season, so if I had exchanged all my cash at the beginning and put it in a bank account, I would have lost 15% of my budget without spending a dime. There’ve been so many nights that I’ve stayed up late fiddling with spreadsheets and trying to wrap my head around it. Meanwhile, I still need to teach, publish, and meet my other professional obligations. 

What could be done to ease that administrative burden?

Thompson: One potential solution would be to devote more resources to hiring project managers who have experience with managing field projects as well as lab work. Personally, that would probably save me two months of time, no joke. And when I say two months, I don’t mean that every workday is 100% devoted to planning field work. It’s a year-round commitment and much of it occurs outside of normal work hours. They’re not the sorts of tasks that can be outsourced to people who don’t deeply understand the project and what the area is like to work in. You need to know how best to interact with local people, institutions, and infrastructure. But with time, a project manager could learn the ins and outs of working in a given location.

As I see it, project managers could work with, say, three or four faculty members at once on their field projects. That would give researchers more time to devote to scientific questions while feeling confident the logistical problems are being addressed. Anytime one person is asked to take on too many different kinds of tasks, there is a chance something might be missed or become outdated. By focusing on the kinds of problems people in each profession are specially trained to solve, fieldwork will become smoother, safer, and less open to liability. Overall research productivity will be greater, and equity will increase. From an institutional perspective, everyone benefits.

How do these issues relate to ongoing efforts to be more inclusive of local populations in the locations where researchers work?

Thompson: Of course, being more inclusive of the communities on the ground where we work is hugely important. It’s vital to address scientific fieldwork’s colonial and extractive history. I think the two issues are closely linked. Academic funding and university structures are designed to maximize fiscal efficiency and produce quick results. It leaves you with little time and resources to address the broader impacts of doing fieldwork. It makes it difficult to invest meaningfully in the local communities and build trusting, mutually beneficial relationships. The issue is a crucial aspect of the long-term conversation, and we hope this workshop will be just the first of many.

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