When people discuss where they do their research, there can be a certain amount of field site envy (much as there can be system envy, as I’ve discussed before). Who, when hearing about field sites in Fiji, or Lake Baikal, or Costa Rica, doesn’t get a little jealous of people who work there? My favored study system – small inland lakes in the Midwestern US – does not generally elicit field site envy, on the other hand. But I love working on these little local lakes, and think there is much to praise about field sites that initially seem boring – and, particularly, about field sites that seem boring because they are close to home.
Why do I love working on local field sites? Well, for starters, they’re local. That means that I can spend a day out collecting samples, yet still be home for dinner with my family. My grad students, postdocs, and technicians can do the same. This is not trivial. As this recent post covers, leaving one’s baby to go off to do fieldwork is really, really hard. Terry McGlynn has touched on the difficulties of doing remote fieldwork with a family, too. Local fieldwork also means that, even if a grad student is supported on a TA, they can still do field work during that semester.
Another reason is that, when it comes down to it, those field sites that initially seem so glamorous in theory are often not always so glamorous in practice. When we hear about field work in Fiji, we may envision this:
(Photo credit: Joshua Drew)
(Photo credit: Joshua Drew)
What we don’t generally also consider is that doing field work in Fiji can mean sleeping on the floor of a rat-infested room. One grad student I know reported waking up with a rat’s foot in his mouth. I don’t know about you, but when I first heard about people doing fieldwork in Fiji, having rats crawl over me while sleeping was not the mental image I had in mind. More importantly, in some cases, travel to far-off field sites can involve very serious risks, both in terms of personal safety and infectious diseases. (Sadly, it is entirely possible for bad things to happen while doing local fieldwork, too, but, anecdotally, these things seem more likely while working abroad.) Concerns about personal safety at remote field sites can be particularly strong for some groups of ecologists, including women and LGBT ecologists.
On a less serious note: that picture of a Fijian reef above? Undoubtedly beautiful. But, in my opinion, so is this:
Those are all little lakes in Southwest Michigan that I worked on for my dissertation research.
Finally, it’s (often) easier logistically to do field work close to home. There is no need to worry about visas, political unrest, export permits, and the like. If you wrote a blog about your field research, you probably wouldn’t need to have a “red tape” label. Your field site is less likely to blow up. You are less likely to be unable to finish your research because of a coup. . . or to need to thank the Royal Navy for retrieving your samples from a war-torn region. (ht on that last example goes to Alex Bond) When permits are necessary, it’s generally easier to navigate the system to obtain them. And there isn’t a need to pack up the lab and move it somewhere else. If something breaks while we’re out sampling, it’s usually pretty easily replaced. And, if someone gets hurt while sampling, a trip to a local doctor or hospital is also much more straightforward when working close to home. (Fortunately, this hasn’t happened to anyone in my lab yet, though I did once drive a student to urgent care after she sliced her foot open while walking barefoot in a lake. Not fun, but not a major crisis.)
Am I saying that people shouldn’t continue to work in Madagascar, Tanzania, and the Arctic? No, of course not. There is very important work to be done there, and I’m very glad that there are people who do that work. But there is also important work to be done near home, and I think it’s worth singing the praises of boring, local field sites, too.