Responsibility, Perception and Oversight and an Awesome 4-Wheeling Vacation
I just got back from a wonderful vacation about a week ago. Although vacations are supposed to be about leaving work behind, events during this vacation forced me back into my work role and I spent some time educating people on the blurry lines that fall between responsibility, perception and oversight. No, I was not vacationing with a bunch of researchers, well, not directly. Rather we vacation where there is little access to internet or cell service and few roads. In fact, we spend our vacation driving jeeps off-roads with a bit of camping. Oddly, the vacation revealed some surprising similarities between two very different cultures, the research community and the off-roading community.
Our vacations are largely spent outdoors in the area of Moab, Utah. This is a wonderful outdoor playground where mountains, canyons, natural arch rock formations, rivers and desert landscape all converge and provide entertainment for hikers, mountain bikers, rock climbers, river rafters, campers and all manner of off-road driving. In the area, there are two beautiful parks, Canyonlands and Arches National parks. We have been vacationing there for about 5 years and our preferred entertainment is off-road driving. Specifically rock crawling in jeeps, which generally consists of very slow and technical driving or "crawling" over rocks, boulders, and very rough trails. "Jeeping" is amusingly described as driving very slowly, all day, and getting nowhere.
In the last couple of years, activity in the Moab area parks as well as the surrounding area have been scrutinized regarding whether the various outdoors activities are doing damage to these natural environments. And because of outsider perception, the group that is under the most scrutiny are off-road vehicles, especially jeeps. As such, while we were in Moab vacationing, there were a few environmental research teams in town that were conducting research studies and coincidentally, one research team was staying at the motel where we sleep when we are not sleeping on a trail. Unsurprisingly, we had a few interactions with this team of graduate student researchers during our vacation and I found myself playing the role of mediator when the research team crossed paths with my "jeeping" pals. As a result, my vacation mapped right onto the most difficult role of my work in compliance, 1) understanding that reputation is not reality but sadly can be defined by a few bad actors, 2) educating people on the importance of managing and correcting inaccurate or biased negative perceptions and 3) educating people that a bit of oversight is not a bad thing and can serve to protect that which you treasure.
Just like in research, bad citizens can damage the reputation of any institution that takes their responsibility very seriously. When I speak to student groups about responsible research, I often begin my seminars by presenting a costly and damaging case of research misconduct. It is a great way of gaining their attention and participation. However, these case studies are just that, a single case in an international community of researchers that numbers in the hundreds of thousands. However, when cases of misconduct reach popular press, they markedly damage the reputation of the research community, even though research culture is very serious about responsibility and integrity. Similarly, responsible off-road drivers crawl on rocks and/or stick to established off-road trails. We drive out into nature responsibly and do not want to damage the natural environment, because we treasure nature. Unfortunately, the reputation of off-road driving is one that has been dictated by a small number of badly behaved drivers. Thus, the off-roading reputation is one of alcohol intoxication, trail blazing, tire-spinning recklessness with little regard for nature. However, our reality is that during our week of trail riding, we did not encounter a single vehicle driving off the trails, we did not encounter anyone drinking alcohol on the trails and everyone that we encountered were vocal in their desire to preserve the natural beauty of the region. Sadly, the reputation of off-roads activities has been defined by people that do not engage in our responsible cultural practices. Without question, the bad behavior of a few can do marked and potentially irreversible damage to reputation and dominate public perception of a community.
I'm going to take a moment to clarify why Moab is so popular with the off-roading community. Moab has a well-established network of off-roading trails on slickrock or rather sandstone, as well as rough roads that were developed when the area was widely mined for uranium and potash. Intermixed with sandstone is desert landscape that is dependent on the cryptobiotic soil, which is a biological soil that contains cyanobacteria, moss, lichens, fungi and other bacteria. This soil is critical for desert plant life, preventing erosion, absorbing moisture and preventing floods. It is basically living dirt that supports desert life. I did not learn about cryptobiotic soil in my biology coursework, I learned about it through the off-roads community. And these predominantly responsible community members will yell at you if you step off a trail onto cryptobiotic soil, because simple footsteps damage the ecosystem that they love and want maintained. The off-roading community is very protective of their culture and environment, just like responsible researchers are protective of their research culture and academic freedom.
Unfortunately, the young researchers in Moab were more privy to the flawed reputation of off-road drivers than they were to the reality of responsible off-road culture. During a couple of research interviews, the student questions were largely insulting to my "jeeping" pals, and thus a bit of conflict arose and I stepped in to diffuse the discussion and answer the research questions of the students. As a result, I quickly found myself back in my work role and educating everyone about the importance of managing perception and oversight while respecting responsible behavior.
So, where did the conflict arise? Well first, no one likes to be scrutinized and everyone, especially responsible individuals, resents oversight. Working in research compliance, I work with moments of resentment most days. However, I also understand that resentment because when I was conducting research, I similarly resented oversight. At that time, I understood, as did most of my colleagues, that there was a need for oversight due to the bad behavior of some of my academic ancestors and even some current colleagues. That being said, no one likes lab inspections, scrutiny or mandatory training. Furthermore, responsible communities, whether they are in research or on an off-road trail, hate inaccurate reputations and biased perceptions driving oversight and/or limitations to their freedom.
The student researchers in Moab were surveying visitors and outdoorsmen but had not questioned their own perceptions of off-road culture and thus were exhibiting their bias and an agenda for oversight. From my perspective, the students had not even considered that the culture could in fact be largely responsible. Basically, their perceptions were biased and members of the off-road community detected their bias. Thus, when they surveyed visitors, their inquiries were being met with animosity and unfortunately, that animosity was reinforcing their own biased perceptions.
This brings us to the importance of reeducation people with false perceptions. Once I intervened to diffuse the conflict between the student researchers and my off-road friends, I respectfully answered the students' questions. Once we completed the interview, I then asked them a few questions of my own. I started by asking them about their perceptions of off-road culture. They admitted that they had no personal knowledge of the culture nor had any of them ever been off-roading in any type of vehicle. Their perceptions were based off of their biased "knowledge" of off-roading reputation. I then pointed out their uninformed bias and asked them whether they felt that their biases may be triggering some of the animosity that they were receiving. The student researchers did not have a good answer to that question which surprised me. Finally, I asked them if they were interested in joining an off-roads group to witness the culture first hand. They immediately and emphatically gave me a negative response. Based on their biased perceptions, I was not surprised by the students' response and admittedly my off-roads pals were relieved because they were not particularly interested in hosting student researchers on their vacation. However, their emphatic response gave me the opportunity to again point out their biases and how it could impact their survey data. Although they walked away without responding, I hope that they considered my thoughts. Due to their potential bias, I'm guessing that the students did not expect to encounter a researcher, two engineers and two successful businessmen when they engaged our group with their survey questions and I hope it altered their perception of the culture.
The final step in my intervention was to utilize opportunities to discuss the value of a bit of oversight with my "jeeping" pals. Luckily, they are used to my nerd ways and thus they were more receptive to my insights than were the student researchers. But more so, like members of the research community, off-roaders are fully aware that bad behavior damages the reputation of the culture and could likely minimize future opportunities. They don't reject regulations that are designed to control bad behavior and eliminate misconduct from their environment even if they are a bit annoyed by the implication that they could be irresponsible. However, off-roaders do worry about regulations that would seek to prevent them from freely and responsibly enjoying their outdoor activities. Similarly, researchers worry about regulations that would impair academic freedom and their ability to engage in research and scholarship, even though they are aware that scandals associated with research misconduct can negatively impact research opportunities. Responsible researchers, like responsible off-road drivers, accept that rudimentary oversight is necessary but do not want it interfering with responsible community activities. So, what is my point with all of this other than to reveal that it was difficult to leave my outdoors vacation behind and return to my desk, computer and the four walls of my office? Well, my vacation reminded me why I choose to work in responsible research and compliance. Although there will always be a bit of conflict between academic freedom and compliance regulations, we have the same goals. We all want to preserve the integrity of research culture.
Marianne Evola is senior administrator in the Responsible Research area of the Office of the Vice President for Research. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger.