Is research a risky business?

Topics around project management come up fairly regularly on this blog, because I think that getting to grips with these kinds of techniques is really helpful in terms of managing your time.  But good time management isn’t the only thing that’s going to keep your research on track.  There’s another strand of project management which is equally useful – risk management.  This is about acting now to increase the chances of things going well.

Graphic showing risk management cycle: identify, evaluate, mitigate, monitorWe all engage in risk management on a daily basis: when we look both ways before crossing the road, for example.  We assess the risks and make changes accordingly: if we judge a road to be particularly fast/busy, we might walk a bit further to the pedestrian crossing.  But risk management in research goes a lot further than health and safety. 

Risk management is a process of identifying, evaluating, minimising and monitoring risks to the success of a research activity.  These risks might relate to anything across the whole research cycle, and will be specific to your exact research activity.  Effective risk management helps us to answer questions like “what will I do if I can’t recruit enough participants?”; “what happens if my results don’t come out the way I expect?”; “how will I cope when my funding ends?” before they arise.


This can be tricky if you’re new to research or new to your research area, so it’s a good idea to talk to your supervisors and researchers with more experience to collect ideas about things that might threaten the success of your research activity.  Some of the areas you might want to think about include:  your research data, research methods, professional relationships, family situation, your physical and mental health, and your financial situation.


It’s useful at this point to get an idea of how likely a risk is to occur and how bad the impact would be if it did occur.  This helps to indicate how hard we should work to mitigate the risk.  If something’s not very likely and wouldn’t be very bad anyway, we probably wouldn’t choose to invest a lot of time in mitigating it.   You can do this numerically:  score each of likelihood and impact out of 5 (where 5 is extremely likely or huge negative impact) and then multiply the scores together to rank your risks.  A score of 25 (very likely, very bad) would be a clear indicator that we need to invest in mitigation.


For each risk, and particularly those who scored highly during your evaluation, think about actions that you can take to reduce (a) the likelihood of it occurring and/or (b) how bad it would be if it did occur.  For example, if you identified loss of your research data as a risk, you could learn about BEAR Services and Research Data Management to inform an effective Data Management Plan.


Once you have identified risks, evaluated them and decided on mitigation, you shouldn’t just forget about this.  You may need to re-evaluate your risks on a regular basis as your research and your environment changes, and new risks will emerge.  Looking forward at your research plan and acting to stop things impacting negatively on your research before they happen is an ongoing process.

What are you doing to prevent your research being interrupted by challenging circumstances?  Has anything happened to your research that you wish you had foreseen?

2 thoughts on “Is research a risky business?”

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Helen Kara

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