By Kayleigh Garthwaite, Ruth Patrick, Maddy Power, and Geoff Page
At the beginning of March, as universities started to close their campuses and it emerged we wouldn’t be returning to our offices for some time, it became clear that our usual practices and ways of carrying out research were about to change massively. Some of us will have been thinking about how to shift our existing research online, or wondering how to best document the effects of the pandemic. Others were considering if they should even be doing research at all.
Rapid response calls for research funding were everywhere. We started working together on a bid for the Nuffield Foundation’s call, which focused on social scientists conducting COVID-19 research in real-time to capture people’s experiences of the social, cultural, and economic impacts of the pandemic. When bringing the bid together, we were conscious of the many ethical issues connected with carrying out a research project on poverty with a participatory focus during a pandemic. While we were nervous – and at times uncertain – about the value of what we were planning, we were also acutely aware of the significant pressures families on a low income were facing due to the pandemic. We wanted to use what skills we had to try and ensure that their needs, experiences, and the appropriateness or otherwise of the policy response was placed firmly on the political agenda. We knew other researchers would also be cautious of how to navigate this in their own work on poverty and social security, too.
We started working on the Covid Realities project in April 2020. The project is exploring how families in poverty with dependent children are experiencing the pandemic, while also tracking how the social security system responds. We have sought to create a safe, online space for parents and carers to document their own experiences, and are also working with Child Poverty Action Group to draw on evidence emerging from their contact with front line welfare rights advisers, through their Early Warning System.
A significant strand of the project is working collectively with other researchers on the ‘COVID-19 and low-income families: researching together’ element of the project. This focuses on working closely with a range of research teams already undertaking fieldwork across the UK with families in poverty to support the generation of data specifically on COVID-19, and the synthesising and dissemination of relevant findings to policy makers and other key audiences. This is no easy task; working across 15 different research projects, and various research teams both inside and outside of academia requires a serious amount of planning, consideration, and above all, time. There is a huge value of working together and emphasising key findings across our diverse set of projects. However, important concerns can arise over data ownership, outputs, and key messaging, which need to be carefully thought through on an ongoing basis. But this process is already proving to be a really important way of collaborating, at a time when we are adhering to social distancing measures and working remotely.
We’ve already worked together to submit evidence submissions to parliamentary inquiries on the impact of COVID-19, drawing on emerging findings across our diverse studies. Conducting ethical research into poverty at this time means we need to try to create clear and effective chains of policy making engagement and dissemination. We know this isn’t easy; but we’re all doing our best to make sure that evidence generated can help inform current and future policymaking. Making sure we also include the voices and experiences of families in this process is central to fulfilling the aims of our project in communicating research evidence effectively and ethically.
Creating a space for researchers to think through some of these issues was something we wanted our project to be able to provide. Through this project, we want to offer researchers the support, tools, and resources to collectively think through how, and indeed whether, to carry out research on poverty during the pandemic. The idea is to create a place for honest discussions about what has or hasn’t worked well; a forum in which we can consider ethical debates and dilemmas together.
As part of this, we’re hosting bi-monthly webinars exploring topics that are central to researching poverty during COVID-19, and we’re hosting an ongoing blog series to unpack key issues that researchers are grappling with. So far, we’ve hosted blogs on whether we should be doing research during the pandemic at all, alongside others that have reflected on how we can be sensitive to participant fatigue around COVID-19 – should we really be asking people more questions about it when many people will associate the virus with fear, trauma and grief, or might just be fed up of thinking about it at all?
Already, it’s obvious there is a genuine interest and real value in trying to think through these ethical, practical, and methodological challenges together. There is a very real danger that requests to take part in research could be experienced as insensitive and inappropriate given the scale of the demands and pressures people are facing on a daily basis. We’ve written elsewhere about our concerns over placing additional pressures or strains on low-income families at a time of uncertainty, when they may be experiencing both physical and mental ill health, worsened hardship, and could possibly be grieving for lives lost in the pandemic.
We also need to fully consider the emotional impact on researchers themselves. Maintaining the role of researcher requires more emotional effort than before. What do we do when the interview is over? Our support mechanisms of colleagues and friends in the office next door are no longer there. Since beginning the project, we’ve had emails from people saying they’ve appreciated the chance to connect through our webinars, and to think through some of the issues they’re facing by writing a blog. Working at home can be isolating, stressful, and uncertain. Hopefully this part of our project will continue to be a collective space that helps the research community to think through, together, how we can best carry out ethically responsible research during COVID-19 – and indeed if we need to or should be doing this at all.
We would really like to hear from researchers on any of the ethical, practical, methodological – and emotional – challenges of researching poverty in the pandemic, so please do get in touch with us if you’d be interested in writing a blog or being part of our ongoing conversation.
COVID Realities is also working with parents and carers living on a low income to document and share their experiences. Find out more at www.covidrealities.org
The project has been funded by the Nuffield Foundation, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation.