How do you know that science done quickly during a crisis is good science?
The issue has new relevance to the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. Researchers developed the vaccine in less than a year – easily beating the previous four-year record. But that pace of development may be part of the reason one in seven unvaccinated adults in the United States says they will never get vaccinated against COVID-19. Although infectious disease experts continue to assure that vaccines are safe.
Whenever there’s a crisis, from the challenger space shuttle explosion to the 2020 California wildfires, scientists are called upon to find answers under pressure. As they move from “routine” to “crisis” research, they must maintain strict standards, despite long hours, mentally demanding assignments, and constant external scrutiny. Thankfully, science produced under emergency conditions is as strong and safe as results produced under normal conditions.
We are two social scientists interested in learning how researchers can best solve pressing problems and provide useful findings.
In a recent study, we focused on “Conflict Archaeologists,” an interdisciplinary team tasked with rapidly assessing archaeological damage in Syria during the war between 2014 and 2017. Observers worry that one particular form of destruction, antiquities looting, is a source of income for terrorist groups, including the Islamic State. Prominent policy makers, security officials and a concerned public want clear answers soon.
Either way, conflict archaeologists have succeeded. The discoveries they produced advanced scientific knowledge. Their research led to landmark bipartisan legislation signed by President Obama. Perhaps most importantly, they have raised public awareness of the problems associated with looting and smuggling of archaeological material.
Our latest research aims to understand how work culture plays a role in these achievements — and what lessons can be applied to the interdisciplinary science of crisis.
What would be useful to a conflict archaeologist
To investigate, we interviewed 35 conflict archaeologists and other scientists who work with them. We also observed satellite LABS and team meetings at work, and talked to people using data and analysis created by conflict archaeologists.
The people we interviewed worked in different physical locations and across multiple disciplines. If they meet, they do it remotely. However, they are generally aware of what others in the field of study are doing. Collaboration is at the heart of doing good emergency science, and we have identified three key factors for successful collaboration during a crisis.
The third is to have a heroic personality or superhuman endurance. It is a thoughtful, thoughtful work environment and part of a professional community that supports its members, even as they hold them to high standards of rigor and ethics.
To be sure, no two crises are exactly the same. At the same time, crisis science best practices can be adapted to the specifics of the project. A global pandemic or looming environmental disaster may require short, intensive full-time work. Some research projects are sensitive to laboratories or equipment and require specific personnel. As our findings show, science, supported by a supportive infrastructure that incorporates rigour and ethics into the process, can produce reliable results under pressure.
Like COVID-19 researchers, conflict archaeologists work under intense scrutiny and to tight deadlines. Both groups also stressed the need for researchers to continue to apply high ethical standards in their research.
Understanding how scientists work ethically and rigorously under difficult conditions is critical to maintaining public trust in science.
This is certain: the crisis will not go away. As long as society relies on scientists to find solutions, it is important to create conditions conducive to effective research.
First, the percentage and distribution of effort is important. We call this “time control.” We found that working full-time on crisis science is not necessarily the only way to produce good work. In fact, part-time researchers expressed higher confidence in the quality of their other collaborators’ work. We think part-timers can keep a more holistic view of the overall partnership.
And engaging in their usual scientific practices seems to help researchers stay sharp. This means that when they turn to pressing scientific tasks, they can do so with fresh eyes and a renewed focus on methodological precision.
Second, shared responsibility for results encourages researchers to quickly draw conclusions about policy and public interest requirements. We call this “responsibility control.” Effective conflict archaeologists divide credit between collaborators. They translate their goals and priorities for decision makers and set boundaries and expectations for understanding and using their findings. As a result, they can work in the knowledge that they stand with the team — and it is not the sole responsibility of any individual to produce accurate findings that can be used to combat antiquities robbery and trafficking.
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Finally, it is important to limit an individual’s personal involvement. This is called “range control,” a work environment that helps scientists draw boundaries between their research and their personal lives. “It’s tiring,” one respondent told us. “I try not to bring work home with me, but I know it’s starting to affect my family life.”
Scientists who can control the scope of their work and talk openly about the challenges they face are more likely to stick with the project and express confidence in the strength of the research. We hypothesize that people who are able to set boundaries around the work they do and the amount of work they do are better able to assess the strength of their own and others’ research and thus have confidence in it.
Create conditions for good crisis science
High quality, safe and reliable science is produced under pressure