Context and Variation

Context and Variation

Human behavior, evolutionary medicine… and ladybusiness.

Research Realities I: Issues With School-based Research


Last fall was a waste. At least, that’s how it felt on the late November day I received an email from the school principal essentially kicking me out of her school. The Day of the Email was, of course, the day after I received Human Subjects Board approval to begin to conduct my integrated research and education program with her students.

I thought I had done everything right, and I had gone above and beyond the kind of relationship building I had done in past sites. Still, my research project was over.

Making the Right Moves

That summer, I had met with a superintendent of the school district and the school’s principal. The superintendent was interested, the principal not. She was very uncomfortable with the idea that on top of an afterschool science program, I’d want to occasionally measure the kids’ growth, learn about their social support networks, and collect saliva or urine. I discussed running focus groups with parents and teachers to find out from them what they’d want in a program before starting, so it was motivated by their interests and desires for their children. She was unmoved. She gave me permission to attend Back to School night to recruit parents and teachers, but nothing more. I was convinced that I could win this principal over, so I agreed to this tight restriction. I was sure it would just be a matter of time and we would come to like each other.

I understood why this principal’s ire was directed at me. I respected it. Anywhere there is a research university, there is often a strained relationship between the school systems and the researchers. Some researchers (or instructors – this happens with teaching and service courses too) swoop into a school, run a project for a semester, and then leave. Others make a giant mess of things. This occurs less and less often these days as there are tighter restrictions and higher standards for school-based research, and the majority of researchers have always been ethical, thoughtful, and kind. But the past history – and often the racism and classism embedded in those memories – still stings. Young kids are always a sensitive population, so I knew going in there would be more resistance, and perhaps more hoops through which to jump.

Yet somehow I thought my winning personality and all my efforts to reach parents and teachers would be enough to turn over many years of disappointing relations.

So, I met with parents in a conference room at a local library. I got a babysitter to watch the kids and bought a sandwich platter and candy. We sat around a small, poorly-lit table, and these parents told me their number one goal was to get their kids to college, and no, their kids didn’t have a choice about it. They cared about their children’s enrichment deeply, and wanted their kids to be exposed to all kinds of science, but their strongest feelings were that they wanted to give their kids whatever they needed to prepare their children for college and a good-paying job.

I met with the teachers in their classroom. The teachers expressed frustration with a mandated state curriculum that didn’t leave time for science. They were limited in what they were able to teach, not out of a lack of ability or interest but a lack of time and resources. Even the fact that the classroom was made of individual desks rather than tables limited what they were able to do. The only science-related material specifically mandated by the state curriculum was that they teach laboratory safety, which amounted to teaching the kids that they should wear goggles. They had no time to help kids explore their interests, and it devastated them that they had so little time to cover science because of the huge emphasis on reading and math testing.

At the PTA meeting I attended that fall, I met a widow whose husband had been an anthropologist. She wanted her daughter to know what her daddy had done, because he died when she was only a few years old. She teared up at the thought of my coming in and teaching some anthropology. I did too.

I met the principal. I tried, probably too hard, to get her to like me. I tried to show her my interests in her kids were good and that the contribution I wanted to make to her school was an important one. She held me at arm’s length the whole meeting, allowing people to interrupt us, smiling a long-suffering smile when I tried to crack jokes. I still managed to leave the meeting thinking I had made headway, that things were better at the end of the meeting than when they started.

I met kids who talked endlessly of static electricity, kids who wanted to know why Pluto wasn’t a planet any more, kids who wanted to blow things up and kids who wanted to study leaves. And I became emotionally invested in some delightful children and families, and imagined getting to know them over a multi-year project that would begin at the school but last into their teen years.

Agency And Willpower Are Only Part Of The Recipe

And then that email. I wrote back, sure I had misunderstood the principal. She didn’t respond. I wrote again. Nothing. Finally I called her, and called her, until she answered.

“Did you mean in your email that you no longer want my program at your school?”

“Well, we just won’t have room.” The email had said something to that effect, though I had toured the school multiple times and knew that there was plenty of space. It was a school.

“So you are saying this relationship is over. That my program will not happen at your school.”

“Yes, that is what I’m saying.”

I paused. The grant proposals I had written (one had even been successful), the Human Subjects proposals (the phone calls, the emails, the pre-review, the review), the recruiting of undergraduate assistants, the focus groups and relationship building, these things took an entire semester. An entire semester, pre-tenure, that I had had off from teaching and needed to use as efficiently as possible. All for nothing.

“Okay then,” I said. “Have a good day.” What more could I say? I couldn’t fight it. I knew all along that this principal didn’t trust me and wasn’t going to trust me. But I put all my faith in being able to turn her, and pushed forward anyway. I believed my own agency and effort would be able to overcome a hostile institutional gatekeeper.

That was my first lesson. Agency only gets you partway towards your goal, and like the rest of academia, research does not operate in a fair, meritocratic environment. Further, historical context matters – and it should. Yes, the gatekeeper was hostile, and maybe not the most pleasant person. We're never going to be friends. But the hostile behavior came from a place of wanting to protect her students, in an environment that was itself oppressive and potentially exploitative to her and her students.

You can “Lean In” all you want, but the other side has to want it like you do. They have to “Lean In” too.

That said, there was a lot more to do before I was going to let this project die. I’ll share the story of site attempt #2 in my next post.

Discussion Questions

  1. What would have been other ways to build relationships with a hostile gatekeeper? When does it make sense to cut your losses instead?
  2. What kinds of ethical issues do you face when dealing with sensitive populations? How can you become educated about these issues, and demonstrate that expertise to gatekeepers?
  3. What is the historical context of your potential site? What are the town-gown relations, if any? What are the cultural differences that you need to be aware of? Who are good local contacts to help you navigate all this?


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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