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2014 Aspen Conference on Engaged Scholarship: Studying communication among inspectors at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Joshua Barbour

For the plenary case at the 2014 Aspen Conference on engaged scholarship, I gave a talk on doing research in security sensitive settings. Here's an outline and the references.

Through the session, I shared stories from my research and concrete practices for doing research in sensitive settings.

Along with the practices I highlighted in my talk, we prompted conference participants to tell their research stories and identify in them concrete practices for doing research in sensitive settings. The discussion generated many more insights and ideas than will fit here. Nneka Logan and Lacy McNamee took the lead in making sense of the notes we took. We have highlighted just a few of the insights that emerged. Be on the look out for the summer dates for Aspen 2015. 

1. Confronted with negotiating access, researchers should look for the right first contact. Conference participants discussed the merits and pitfalls of finding a sponsor high in the hierarchy of the organization, and decided to be sure to recognize where you start informs the research and the conversations you get to have. That choice should be informed by the culture of the organization and the needs of the project. Researchers were encouraged to look in their own networks for contacts commensurate with the level of access needed. Most agreed that finding a sponsor was key, but also discussed the need to get support for your project at as many levels as possible and particularly at the level above the “problem” level. This point resonated with an idea in my talk: Taking a collaborative approach to the research and creating a scope of work document with the sponsors as a way to co-create the project, generate buy-in, and navigate rules and culture. That scope of work can also define the deliverables from the start and set expectations about what the project will do. These expectations are especially important in funded research where the researcher needs to prioritize the deliverable. If one fails to deliver, future funded research may not be forthcoming. 

2. Confronted with collaboratively designing projects to provide organizational value and promote scholarly knowledge/insight, researchers should have future-oriented conversations about what might happen in the research process such as unanticipated consequences, surprises, and emergent dilemmas to help co-researchers or collaborators become sensitive to potential consequences of participating in the research. When working with organizations that have resource or time limitations, talk with people that are giving you access about how they would find value in the research that you do and how the research might be designed to provide value. When giving feedback to organizations during the research process, keep the conversation open-ended by facilitating a workshop or meeting in which all involves data- and discussion-driven recommendations. 

3. Confronted with the compliance and legal implications of engaged scholarship, take them seriously. Talk to attorneys (but they will focus on worst case). Talk to the institutional review board (IRB). Ask, what are my reporting requirements, what legal responsibilities need to be made clear to participants? Find out what protections the IRB or teachers’ union offers should research notes or the researcher be sued or subpoenaed. To deal with reporting responsibilities regarding ethical/legal issues (i.e., workplace violence, mental health issues, malpractice), establish a confidential contact with whom you can share concerns as they arise in the project (i.e., university attorney, human resources, a point of contact in the organization under study).

We hope to see you in 2015 in Aspen!