Most institutions will require some sort of risk assessment to be completed before the research starts. The timing of this may vary between institutions - some will require risk assessment before the proposal is signed off, and can be submitted to the funder; others will require a risk assessment only after funding has been secured for the research.
It is unusual for student projects to be required to undertake a formal risk assessment, but the potential risks in your project should be discussed with your supervisor in agreeing that the project can go ahead.
Institutions require risk assessments because, when they host or sponsor research (or allow their employees to engage in research), they incur certain responsibilities and liability for the activities that take place. Institutions that receive research council funding have to abide by the Research Councils UK (RCUK) Code of Conduct, which sets out a range of areas in which institutions have a managerial responsibility to ensure that key research standards are met.
The key risks for an institution include:
- Damage to the public perception of the institution (e.g. because it has hosted research that is unethical or meets significant public hostility).
- Damage of reputation in the eyes of funders (e.g. if the work is not finished on time, is poor quality, or cannot be completed within the agreed budget).
- Damage in the eyes of the research community (e.g. if the work is of poor quality, or if there is falsification or fabrication of data).
Legal &/or financial liability
- A breach of the duty of care to either researchers or research participants, such that legal action or insurance claims are brought against the institution.
- Legal and financial liability for breach of contract, if the researcher fails to deliver the work agreed with the funder. Remember that the contract is between the funder and the institution, not the funder and the individual researcher, and so it is the institution that bears the responsibility when things go wrong.
Institutional costs related to disciplinary action or investigations of misconduct
Even if problems do not get to the stage of legal action or wider reputational damage, research misconduct or problems in a project can be costly or disruptive to an institution - at the very least, in terms of senior staff time spent investigating allegations of misconduct or disciplinary offences.
As with ethics committee applications, risk assessment forms aim to make sure that you have anticipated what could go wrong in your project, to the best of your ability, and put arrangements in place to anticipate and prevent or address those possible problems.
If you have not done a risk assessment form before, it is a good idea to ask an experienced colleague (or the relevant professional in your research office) if they have an example that you could look at. The risks that can arise are often common across projects, and so it can be useful to learn from what others have done to address similar risks. See our section on assessing risk and harm for a more detailed discussion of the considerations that you need to address.