How we got Funding for our Research and Getting Approval by the Human Subjects Research Committee

By liz

I. Funding
Courtney and I got the idea to do this project and then realized that we were going to need some money to finance it. At the time, we were both going to school at the University of Colorado at Denver and found out that there is money set aside for student research if you know where to look for it. We applied for and were awarded an Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) grant for $2100. This isn’t a lot of money to produce a feature-length documentary film, but we knew that it was a lot better than $0, which is how much we would have had otherwise.

We used the most basic equipment, including Courtney’s Sony Handy Cam that she gotten in high school. We bought an external microphone and a better lens with some of the grant money. We also had a tripod. This was the extent of our equipment while on the road. We took advantage of natural lighting and made do with unpredictable situations of sound interference, awkward interview locations, and a surprisingly heavy bag. When we returned to Denver, we had a long process of transferring our tapes to mini dv tapes before we even began capturing the footage into an editing program. We used Final Cut Pro to edit the movie, after purchasing an Apple powerbook laptop.

The most expensive aspect of our film was travel expenses. We used our grant money to buy train tickets everywhere. This form of travel was time-intensive, and not very convenient for various reasons, but it was cheaper and allowed us to be more cognizant of distance, motion, and place. We never paid for a place to stay during our trip. We stayed with friends or people we met through interviews in every city.
We were elated when we won the grant. We had had to create a proposal and fill out forms, and go through some paperwork hurdles and a little bit of bureaucracy… If only we knew what was in store for us. In general, the people doing the UROP funding program were supportive of our project.

Because of the fact that we were doing a research project funded by the University of Colorado, we soon discovered that there were other hurdles to pass through before we could get our money and actually begin working on our project.

II. Our Experiences Passing through the Hurdles set by the Human Subject Research Committee

Because we were going to be interviewing people, we were required to write a proposal detailing the purpose and plan of our research, and to go before a Human Subject Research Committee Board (HSRC). This was supposedly so that they could make sure we had taken proper precautions to minimize risk to our “subjects” (i.e. people who we would be interviewing) and to make sure that we were not putting the University at risk of being sued. In reality, the HSRC completely out stepped the bounds of what they were supposed to be doing and put themselves in a role to judge the merits of our research topic, our qualifications as researchers, and whether or not what we were doing should even be considered “real” research.

Even after we had won the grant on paper, we had to struggle through a four-month long semantics battle with the HSRC board, which was composed of people not very favorable toward our topic of research. We had no idea what to expect when we showed up at the first meeting with them. It was the fourteenth floor of a skyscraper downtown, in a fancy schmancy boardroom, complete with a shiny polished oak table. When we were given permission to enter the room, approximately eight formidable, grim-looking people greeted us.

There was no “Hello, how are yous.” Instead, they immediately launched into a barrage of accusatory “questions,” including such gems, as “This doesn’t seem like REAL research,” “This seems more like advocacy than unbiased research” and “What are you going to do if you come across eco-terrorists, like the people who burned down Vail?” Really, most of the people on the board just didn’t understand the concept of social science research, because the majority of them were conservatives in the “natural sciences” or “humanities.”

We witnessed and experienced the way in which certain kinds of knowledge and research methods are constructed as legitimate and others as illegitimate. If you have a research method that is not seen as scientific, objective and therefore “credible,” then the knowledge that results from your research is not considered valuable or even legitimate in some cases. There is a continuing worship of “scientific” data that fails to recognize science as a form of knowledge or as a discipline that is also socially constructed and has the potential to be manipulated.

They made a variety of statements indicating that they didn’t think that we should have been awarded the grant, and then proceeded to waste our time for the next four months in a process whereby we revised our proposal about five times. Each time we revised the proposal they would find something different to problematize. At one point one of the people on the committee called our faculty advisor and asked if he “knew anything about the students researching domestic terrorism.” !!! What? We never said anything about domestic terrorists or even about anyone breaking the law. We were researching public, legal community spaces for social justice activist communities. That isn’t the way the majority of them viewed our project I guess.

One especially interesting thing about the entire HSRC process was the way that the committee was able to manipulate and control space in a way that was meant to discipline us (in the Foucualdian sense of the word). For example, the monumental architecture and elite style of the boardroom were meant to intimidate us and to legitimize their power and authority. It was meant to impress us, and therefore intimidate people- to establish the boundaries of who has power (them) and who will be the subject of that power (us). In addition, the language that they used to characterize us as “undergrad. students” and not “researchers.” established a dynamic in the room that allowed their opinions and their knowledge to have more authority and worth than ours. They also established a relationship in which we were accountable to them but they were not at all accountable to us.

They could say one thing, and then say another contradictory thing without explaining themselves. On the other hand, we were consistently monitored in the way that we discussed situations, framed situations, and asked questions. In our discussions, they established hierarchy by interrupting us when we attempted to speak, while we were expected to listen at length to their diatribes without interruption.

They thought our project was too politicized (because we were studying spaces that facilitate political discussion and action) and closer to advocacy than research (because we didn’t automatically side with capitalism and the status quo.) This is one thing I realized through this process: “Objectivity” is really just a codeword for “acceptance of the status quo” and dominant ways of thinking about things.

By the time of the final review session, Courtney was on a trip to Italy with her sister, so it was just me and our faculty advisor, Jim. We got there at the time they told us to, but were made to sit outside the deliberation room for over an hour before they let us in to begin the questioning. At this final review session, we were lucky enough to have had another professor from the anthropology department, who was friends with our faculty advisor, go in to argue our case for us beforehand. This person had some distinction with the board because he had served on it the year before.

Because two people with distinction finally legitimized us, they approved our proposal. However, they approved it only because they realized they had out stepped their bounds. Going through this process taught us both a valuable lesson about the submissive behaviors that one is expected to exhibit if one hopes to do research under a university’s name. We also learned how socially privileged it is to get funding through these kinds of channels.

 

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