Scientists Report Stress, Bullying, and Harassment in New Survey
Scientists Report Stress, Bullying, and Harassment in New Survey

Scientists Report Stress, Bullying, and Harassment in New Survey

The results shed light on a research culture that encourages “unkind and aggressive conditions.”

Jan 15, 2020
Amy Schleunes

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Asurvey of more than 4,000 researchers revealed a widespread culture of hostility in the workplace. Forty-three percent of participants said they had experienced bullying or harassment, and 61 percent claimed they had witnessed such behavior in their work environments. Only 37 percent of respondents said they would feel comfortable speaking out about discrimination in the workplace without fear of negative personal consequences.

“Some of these results are frankly shocking,” Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, says in remarks to The Guardian. “There have been enormous scientific advances in the past 40 years and I think we’ve been seduced by that. We’ve been willing to sacrifice everything to achieve them, without asking at what cost.”

The questionnaire was commissioned by the Wellcome Trust, which itself faced accusations of bullying and discrimination at the Wellcome’s Sanger Institute in Cambridge, The Guardian notes. The goal of the survey was to collect data about a culture that has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years amid reports of gender bias and sexual harassment.

Roughly one-third of those surveyed had sought professional help for depression or anxiety, and an additional 19 percent expressed interest in receiving such support.

The survey cited job security as another stressor in scientific work, with only 19 percent of early-stage scientists and 34 percent of entry-level scientists saying they felt secure in pursuing a research career. 

Concerns about a lack of management training and misperceptions of management skills also emerged from the report. Just 32 percent of participants said that their supervisors supported their wellbeing.

According to those surveyed, the competition in scientific research affects not only health and wellbeing but the success of their projects. Three-fourths of researchers said they believed their creativity is being stifled in a system that values quantity over quality. 

Karen Stroobants, the cofounder of MetisTalk, an organization dedicated to challenging research culture, tells The Guardian that the sector needs an overhaul. “To achieve the full potential of research, we will need well-rested researchers from diverse backgrounds, a focus on collaboration over competition, and incentive structures that promote integrity and open research practices.” 

The Wellcome Trust plans to hold a series of town hall meetings at universities in the UK to discuss problems in research culture and possible solutions, The Guardian reports. 

Amy Schleunes is an intern at The Scientist. Email her at aschleunes@the-scientist.com.